Thursday, July 16, 2020

Crafting Deep Fiction: How Emotional Wounds Can Steer a Character’s Job Choice

By Angela Ackerman, @AngelaAckerman

Part of The How They Do It Series 

JH: What a character does for a living is an opportunity to deepen that character and your story.  Angela Ackerman shares tips on how to use emotional wounds to steer a character's job choice.

Angela Ackerman is a writing coach, international speaker, and co-author of the bestselling book, The Emotion Thesaurus and its many sequels. Her books are available in eight languages, are sourced by US universities, recommended by agents and editors, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, and psychologists around the world. To date, this book collection has sold over half a million copies.

Angela is also the co-founder of the popular site Writers Helping Writers, as well as One Stop for Writers, a portal to game-changing tools and resources that enable writers to craft powerful fiction.

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Take it away Angela...

Wish there was a question you could ask that would unlock a vault of information about your character, something that gave you insight into their past, needs and goals, and helped you plot your story? Good news: there is.

*pauses for effect*

Here’s the question: Why did my character chose their job?

Wait, that seems a bit…boring?

Oh, but it isn’t, not at all.

In the real world, the WHY behind a job choice holds vast information. Did you choose your job because it allows you to follow a passion? Does it align to a skill or talent you have? Do you find it satisfying because it’s mentally stimulating, helps you live your personal beliefs, serve humanity, or heck, it pays for that fancy mid-life crisis ride in your garage?

You didn’t just choose any old job, and so a character wouldn’t either. So being able to answer this question can tell you a lot about them…maybe more than you think.

A job can reveals their priorities, desires, and what is missing from their lives (unmet needs), which takes us into character arc territory. In fact, a job choice can reveal the centerpiece of character arc: their emotional wound. 

(Here's more on Brainstorming Your Character's Emotional Wound)

An unresolved emotional wound is a painful past experience that left the character feeling vulnerable and exposed, and in the aftermath, they are terrified they might suffer the same terrible event again. Fear holds them hostage it leads to dysfunctional behaviors and attitudes that act as emotional shielding that will keep potentially hurtful people and situations at bay.

A wound can also change how the character sees the world and themselves, damaging their self-worth. To avoid risk, failure, and more pain, they may underachieve, turn away from passions, resist change, or refuse to take chances—all of which will sow unhappiness and cause unmet needs.

A good example of this is the protagonist from the movie Good Will Hunting. Will is a genius, able to memorize everything he sees and solve math problems that stump most of the world. As a result, we’d expect him to be working as a code-breaker for the government or teaching advanced mathematics at a prestigious university. But the first scene of the movie shows him pushing a mop down a hallway. Why is one of the most brilliant young men in the country working as a janitor? The answer lies in his traumatic past.

Abandoned by his parents and abused in the foster care system, he has serious trust issues. This means that when he finds someone he can count on, he’s incredibly loyal. This results in him choosing a job that enables him to stay close to his friends. And, despite his brilliance, he’s plagued by self-doubt, which causes him to avoid any career that would require him to live up to expectations or be responsible for others.

This fictional situation is realistic because it shows how things work in real life. Wounds influence behavior and choices, so tying your character’s past trauma to his career adds layers and authenticity that will resonate with readers.

Wounds run the gamut from mild to deeply traumatizing, and each character will respond uniquely to them. When it comes to choosing an occupation, this can go one of two ways: wounds can push characters toward certain jobs or repel them from the ones they really want.

Choosing a Job because of a Wounding Event

Imagine a protagonist named Casey, who was raised by a career criminal. Her father’s knack for keeping his nose clean and thwarting the authorities kept him mostly out of prison, which meant he was constantly around to belittle and humiliate her. He was proud of his professional accomplishments, which were abhorrent to Casey, birthing shame despite her having done nothing wrong. His professional network involved a lot of family members and close friends, so she could easily have followed in his footsteps. But she decides to go a different route and becomes a cop.

And she’s good at her job. No wrongdoer can give her the slip. Tough as nails, she does what needs to be done in the most unforgiving environments. But she has no compassion to soften her sharp edges. This keeps her from being a great cop. And it causes problems at home, because when her kids break the rules, she sees them headed down the same path as her father, and she absolutely can’t have that…

It’s easy to see why Casey chose the field of law enforcement: she can’t stand her father and wants to be nothing like him. He flouted the law, so she becomes the law, ensuring that the people she pursues face justice. This is her duty and her penance, her way of dealing with the shame inflicted upon her by her outlaw father. Her behavior also shows how unresolved wounds are impacting her in the present. The resulting attitudes and habits will need to be dealt with for her to successfully traverse her character arc.

Avoiding a Job because of a Wounding Event

Just as wounds can lead characters toward specific careers, they can also cause them to avoid the ones they most desire. Imagine a character who has suffered his whole life from a debilitating speech impediment. Mike is highly intelligent and gifted in science, but the social aspect made school a nightmare—the bullying, the behind-the-back snickers, the well-meant pity from his teachers. As a result, he spent his free time alone, studying his passion: forensics. He dreamed of becoming a coroner, but that would’ve required additional schooling, and after graduation he swore he’d never set foot in a classroom—real or virtual—again.

So as a young twenty-something, he works as a crime scene cleaner. It’s a quiet background job where he only has to talk to a few co-workers. It also allows proximity to the kind of cases he might have worked had he pursued his dream. Each day, as he cleans up crime scenes and natural death environments, his brain can’t help but notice the clues and try to piece them together to see the whole picture. But the picture is always incomplete. His work scratches the itch but never quite alleviates it. And it gets worse as time goes on.

In this situation, Mike wounding event (a speech impediment) is keeping him from his dream job. He’s chosen the next best thing, but it’s unsatisfying because he’s living below his full potential. Throughout the course of Mike’s story, this lack of fulfillment is going to grow until it becomes something that he must address. He’ll eventually have to recognize that his un-dealt-with wound is festering, causing a malignancy that is slowly infecting his whole being. And he’ll be forced with a decision: continue in a safe but miserable existence or face his fears and risk being hurt again so he can ultimately live his best life.

(Here's more on 5 Things to Consider When Choosing a Character’s Career) 

Remove the backstory from either of these scenarios, and we have no idea why the characters chose their careers. But once we learn their history, we understand. The characters become real and vulnerable and so much more interesting. We know not only what happened in their past, we can also see their path forward—the realizations and changes they’ll have to make to be fulfilled both professionally and personally.

So, the next time you need to choose an occupation for a character, ask yourself if a wounding event is a contributing factor. Whether a character is avoiding risk, trying to make up for a past mistake, or is holding back from what they are truly capable of, their profession can be the perfect foundation for character arc growth.

If you need it, here’s a list of jobs that might be a fit for your character.

And if you would like to explore more about occupations and how they can power up your storytelling, check out The Occupation Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Jobs, Vocations, and Careers.

About The Occupation Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Jobs, Vocations, and Careers

What if there was a shortcut for helping readers get to know your characters? Would you take it?

Characters are as complex as people and revealing their inner layers without chunky blocks of pace-stopping description is a challenge. The Occupation Thesaurus can help you unlock one of the best tools in your show-don’t-tell writing kit: a character’s job.

Occupations are part of our everyday world, meaning they can be used to encourage readers to make associations between a type of work and the person doing it, shortening the “get to know the character” curve. Whether a person loves or hates what they do, a job can reveal many things, including their priorities, beliefs, desires, and needs. The Occupation Thesaurus will show you how a career choice can characterize, drive the plot, infuse scenes with conflict, and get readers on the character’s side through the relatable pressures, responsibilities, and stakes inherent with work.


Select a job that packs a powerful punch. Inside The Occupation Thesaurus, you’ll find: 

Informative profiles on popular and unusual jobs to help you write them with authority
Believable conflict scenarios for each occupation, giving you unlimited possibilities for adding tension at the story and scene level
  • Advice for twisting the stereotypes often associated with these professions
  • Instruction on how to use jobs to characterize, support story structure, reinforce theme, and more
  • An in-depth study on how emotional wounds and basic human needs may influence a character’s choice of occupation
  • A brainstorming tool to organize the various aspects of your character’s personality so you can come up with the best careers for them
Do more with your description and choose a profession for your character that showcases who they are, what they want, and what they believe in. With over 120 entries in a user-friendly format, The Occupation Thesaurus is an entire job fair for writers.

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