Monday, September 02, 2019

5 Things to Consider When Choosing a Character’s Career

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

A character’s job is a useful tool when developing a novel.

I’ve been working hard on a new book this week, and since it’s a bit outside my normal genre (this one’s a science fiction detective novel), I’ve had to do a few things differently. There are elements to this genre I haven’t had to worry about in previous books.

Most notably, has been how my protagonist’s job affects the rest of the plot. As a private investigator, his job is the plot, and that career choice affects pretty much everything else in the novel.

In one way, this makes developing this novel easier. I have very clear parameters to work in, and a specific character type to flesh out.

In another way, it adds a layer of difficulty. The most obvious and easiest path is also the most overused or even cliched. I don’t want that, even if I might want to play with the tropes and cliches a little (I can never resist this—it’s too much fun).

For some novels, you won’t have much choice in the protagonist’s career. My PI novel needs a PI, and he can’t very well be a veterinarian (well, I suppose he could, but that’s a whole other story). But for stories where the hero can be anything, it’s worth taking the time to figure out the right career to serve both the character, and the tale.

1. How does the job affect the plot?

Is the job the reason for the plot, such as a detective or lawyer, or chosen one? If so, there will be specific needs and requirements to fill this role. Much of the novel’s plot will come from the protagonist doing this job and many scenes will show them actively “doing their job.”

If not, then the type of job should give the protagonist useful skills for the tasks needed in the story. For example, in my urban fantasy series, Blood Ties, I needed my protagonist to have a job that kept her on the move, but also be one that would allow her to settle down in one spot when she needed to. I also wanted something that would show her in a positive light. A little research and I found the perfect career: traveling physical therapy assistant. Things to consider:
  • What plot needs will the job fill?
  • What skills would it allow the protagonist to plausibly have?
  • What might put them in the right place at the right time?
  • What type of access would it give them (such as, to a hospital, a bank, a space station)?
The more job-dependent the story, the more that job will influence the plot.

(Here’s more on two questions to ask for stronger plots)

2. How does the job affect the character?

People typically choose careers that suit their interests and temperament. What they do gives insight into who they are, and this helps you build their personalities. This doesn’t necessarily mean every job is a dream job, and the whole point of the job might be to show them in a career that makes them miserable and crave a change. But to know what will make them happy, you have to first understand why their current job is making them unhappy. Things to consider:
  • Who are they because of this job?
  • Why did they choose it?
  • Does it share hints of backstory or the character arc flaw?
  • Does it show why they’re doing what they do in the story?
  • Is it a source of happiness, unhappiness, or a little of both?
A character’s job is a great resource for internal and external conflict, so choose wisely.

(Here’s more on seven ways your characters can screw up their decisions)

3. How does the job affect the setting?

This is especially useful in fantasy or science fiction, where a job provides opportunities to world build, but it’s also useful for any setting that readers won’t know much about. Things to consider:
  • Does it show aspects of the world and how the rules work?
  • Does it allow the protagonist to interact with key elements of the setting or world?
  • Does it offer opportunities to smoothly reveal world history or backstory?
Showing a character existing and interacting with the world they live in helps you show, and not tell, that world.

(Here’s more on the difference between setting and world building)

4. How does the job affect the conflict?

Quite often, the protagonist’s career is what gets them into trouble in the first place, but the job isn’t always the source of the conflict. Sometimes it puts pressure on the protagonist our creates an ethical dilemma that adds to the overall conflict of the novel. Things to consider:
  • Does it create the trouble in the story or make that conflict harder?
  • Does it create any moral or ethical problems, such as a cop who’s asked to break the law?
  • Does it keep the protagonist from doing what needs to be done?
  • Does it put the protagonist at risk, physically or emotionally?
A job that also makes the protagonist’s life harder is a useful tool to keep conflict and tension high in a story.

(Here’s more on creating conflict in your novel)

5. How does the job affect the theme?

Some career choices might reflect the novel’s theme, such as a stockbroker in a tale about greed, or a wedding planner in a love story. The job itself evokes the traits (good and bad) of the theme and adds another layer to the story. Things to consider:
  • Does it provide examples of how the theme works in the story?
  • Does it represent the thing that needs to change in the protagonist?
  • Is it an iconic image that embodies the theme, such as soldiers and sacrifice?
Theme can be a tough element to develop in a story, so take advantage of the opportunity a character’s job offers.

(Here’s more on developing your theme)

A character is more than what they do, but what they do is important to a story. It’s another opportunity to deepen the plot, enhance the theme, or strengthen the conflicts, as well as give you plenty to draw from to show who a character is and what their problems are.

Don’t just give your characters any old jobs—choose roles that suit them and your story.

What does your protagonist do? How does it impact the story?

Find out more about characters, internalization, and point of view in my book, Fixing Your Character & Point-of-View Problems.

Go step-by-step through revising character and character-related issues, such as two-dimensional characters, inconsistent points of view, too-much backstory, stale dialogue, didactic internalization, and lack of voice. Learn how to analyze your draft, spot any problems or weak areas, and fix those problems.

With clear and easy-to-understand examples, Fixing Your Character & Point-of-View Problems offers five self-guided workshops that target the common issues that make readers stop reading. It will help you:
  • Flesh out weak characters and build strong character arcs
  • Find the right amount of backstory to enhance, not bog down, your story
  • Determine the best point(s) of view and how to use them to your advantage
  • Eliminate empty dialogue and rambling internalization
  • Develop character voices and craft unique, individual characters 
Fixing Your Character & Point-of-View Problems starts every workshop with an analysis to pinpoint problem areas and offers multiple revision options in each area. You choose the options that best fit your writing process. It's an easy-to-follow guide to crafting compelling characters, solid points of view, and strong character voices readers will love.

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
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  1. Number 3. I wanted my protagonist to lose her internship at SETI's HQ before she meets the aliens. That forced the whole novel to take place in San Fransisco.

  2. Good post. My current WIP the MC's job is directly tied to the plot, but I'm toying with another idea in which the protagonist's job requires international travel, keeping him out of the loop on what's going on with his family.