Did you know that before Becca became an author and writing coach, she was a teacher?
It’s true. And if you know her, you’re probably thinking, I can see that. It makes sense.
Why? Because when you think of a teacher, certain associations come to mind.
A teacher is someone who…
…is patient and compassionate
…is an advocate for kids
Sound like Becca? It sure does, especially the last one (she grammars the heck out of everything I write, let me tell you!).
*pauses as Becca screams that grammar isn’t a verb*
(Hey, I didn’t say I always LISTEN.)
Most individuals are drawn to a certain career because it is a match to their personality and interests. You don’t see many unfriendly, pessimistic, greedy, miserly people become teachers (and if you do, I’ll bet you a fat, sugary donut that’s trauma talking, not personality).
Personality traits, skills, interests, passions, abilities, personal history…all of these things influence the type of job we tend to seek out. Paying the bills is a necessity, sure, but if it is within our control, we want to find work we actually enjoy. And like so much else in fiction, what holds true for us in life holds true for our characters.
A character’s occupation isn’t window dressing. It’s a valuable opportunity to show, not tell important information in an economical way.
One of the big issues we run into when it comes to “showing” is that it can chew up a lot of word count. Showing takes more effort than telling, but when the details matter, it’s worth it. Still, we do have to be careful and not get carried away as too much description will slow down the story.
This is why using an occupation to do some heavy lifting when it comes to characterization is a boon: people make associations between people and careers. You can use this to help readers get a feel for who your character is more quickly, which is a necessary step toward encouraging bonds of empathy to form.
Now don’t mishear me – I’m not saying that using an occupation to characterize is all you need to do. But if you choose a job that aligns with their personality, passions, and other factors, your character will feel more authentic because the work they do reaffirms who they are.
So what can an occupation say about your character?
Well, a job can…
Reveal Personality Traits
Showcase Morals & Beliefs
Provide a window to their Interests and Passions
Demonstrate any notable Skills, Talents & Abilities
Indicate their Priorities
Hint at Emotional Wounds (ones they may be running from OR trying to face)
Uncover their Unmet Needs
Reveal Personal Struggles & Relationship Friction
Give you a source of possible Points of Conflict to use in the story
Demonstrate their Education Level
What about a character who hates their job?
It’s true. Choice isn’t always a factor and sometimes characters (like us), must do work they don’t enjoy: they need the money. It’s close to where they live. It fits their life circumstances. It’s all that’s available. In this case, there may not be a perfect alignment between work and who they are deep down. But valuable information can still be delivered through discrepancies. Consider…
A character who is skilled at killing yet is morally opposed to having to do it. This tells the readers the character feels forced into this work. The “why” is something you can use as a hook to prime readers for the reveal.
A character who is a chemist for a pharmaceutical company even though painting is his true passion. Again, the “why” becomes a question readers will feel compelled to unravel: was it parental pressure to choose a career in science (causing an emotional wound & resentment)? Did a mission to find a cure trump the desire to follow a dream (something personal is at stake)? Was it job security (because health benefits were critical…maybe someone in their family is sick)? The possibilities are endless.
A character who is a server even though she has a Master’s degree in finance. This begs a new question: why choose a job they are over-qualified for? Are they in a witness protection program after discovering the investment firm they worked for was laundering money for the mob? Was the stress of their previous career too much? Is this the only job they could find where hours flow around school times, an important factor to them as a single parent of a special needs child?
The source of a discrepancy reveals something deeper about your character. A reader’s “need to know” draws them in.
As you can see, a character’s job is a treasure trove of characterization. It can also supply your story with CONFLICT. Much time is swallowed up by work, and this can be a hotbed of trouble for characters, creating friction in their relationships, a disconnect between work responsibilities and family, duty vs. desire, and more.
This is why Becca and I built an Occupation Thesaurus – to help you wring every drop of potential from this valuable facet of your character’s life.
The Occupation Thesaurus is now at One Stop for Writers!
If you are interested in seeing all the ways an occupation can breathe life into your characters and the story, visit the Occupation Thesaurus at One Stop for Writers. We’ll be doubling this thesaurus in size in the coming months (and turning it into a book as well…watch for a NEWSLETTER update about that).
Plus, for those of you addicted to One Stop for Writers’ Character Builder, we’ve hardwired this thesaurus into the DAILY LIFE tab. You’ll also find it attached to the WOUND section in case your character chose a career to avoid situations that could lead to more painful trauma which they experienced in their past, or if they are trying to make up for a past mistake through their work.
We encourage you to think outside the box at all the ways your character’s job might impact the story, and have packed this thesaurus with ideas to help!
(Psst. If you haven’t yet used our Free Trial, now might be a great time to activate it.)
What does your character’s job say about who they are at their core? Does it shed light on backstory that will factor into the story? Let us know in the comments!
Lastly, if you’d prefer your resources in book form, The Occupation Thesaurus is now available for purchase! You can find more information on the book’s contents, view a free preview (including a sample entry), and find purchasing options here.
Angela is a writing coach, international speaker, and bestselling author who loves to travel, teach, empower writers, and pay-it-forward. She also is a founder of One Stop For Writers, a portal to powerful, innovative tools to help writers elevate their storytelling.
Great list! Thank you. I write sci-fi, and probably won’t use many of these on your current list. So what about a soldier (grunt and special ops), a scientist, an explorer, a merchant, a mobster, a professor, an ambassador, a politician, a leader (like a CEO), an entrepreneur, and so on. I know you said you’re doubling the list soon, so I will keep an eye out.