In fiction and film, often who a protagonist is at the start of the story and who they are at the end are different. Why? Because stories—the best stories—are about change. After all, in real life, we’re all in flux, learning and growing through experiences, gaining new insight, and adapting our worldviews. It makes sense that as readers, we want stories that show characters on a similar trajectory into the unknown.
The irony is that despite wanting to read about it, we know change isn’t easy, for us or the characters. In fact, change can be painful, making us feel vulnerable and afraid. We often fight it when it challenges our ideas, beliefs, and comfort zone too abruptly because we are not in control. And so, like us, characters understandably will also fight change to some degree when they are feeling the psychological squeeze.
Change is an opportunity to learn, become someone stronger, and live our truth, which gets us closer to fulfillment and happiness. So as difficult and uncomfortable as it might be, it’s part of the human experience, and therefore it should be part of a character’s, too.
Change Arc Journeys
With change arcs specifically, the protagonist (and possibly others) will undergo an inner transformation during which he learns to harness his inner strengths, regain lost self-belief, and let go of the fears and wounds of the past (which is holding him back from living his best life in some way). To get to this point, though, the character must awaken to the fact that “something is off” about his life, causing him to feel unhappy, hollow, and unfulfilled.
This is the feeling of a need going unmet, and it can be a bit nebulous. The character may know he’s yearning for something without knowing what it is, and he’ll have to dig for the cause. An unmet need can create problems in many areas of their life, making it even harder for them to pinpoint what the source is. This creates a problem for us writers because for the sake of word count, we have to fast track this epiphany for readers. The character might be slow to catch on what’s wrong, but readers? They need to see what’s really going on as it’s key to them becoming invested in the character’s struggle.
Your Character’s Career: A Perfect Window into What’s Wrong
A great way to reveal what’s wrong in the character’s life is to use their job to show it. After all, work is a big part of anyone’s life, including your protagonist’s. Readers are hardwired to look for friction, and the day job comes with lots of built-in opportunities for clashes and problems, making a great showcase for conflict and unmet needs.
For example, take Adam, who works on the family’s ranch, training to take it over from his aging father. The world of cattle is all he knows—the routine of caring for animals and mending fences and the quiet hours of reflection as he leads the herd to grazing pastures and home again. Adam loves the sunsets and sunrises and roaming the wide-open spaces on horseback, but he also knows that something isn’t quite right. Let’s consider how his job might help him (and readers) pinpoint what is causing this dissatisfaction.
What if ranching is a duty, not a dream? Maybe he herds cattle yet imagines a different life, one with streets and shops, with high-rises and yellow cabs, a world busy with lights and sounds. He might think about university and the different possibilities available to him. Perhaps Adam is fascinated with buildings—their shape and flow, the beauty of glass and steel. To him, buildings are art, and he’s realizing he has a passion for how they are made.
As time goes on, ranching becomes drudgery; he becomes fixated on the less enjoyable tasks rather than the ones he likes. Most of his school friends have left to pursue education and build their own lives. Feeling trapped and lonely, he wants to experience new things too.
In this case, two things are awakening Adam to a need for change: a growing dissatisfaction with the work he does and the feeling that a window is closing. As his friends move forward, Adam believes he must do the same, and soon. This sense of urgency might help Adam evaluate his priorities about what’s important—studying to be an architect and having a different future—which will push him to have a difficult conversation with his dad.
Now let’s consider a different scenario in which Adam doesn’t dream of the city and being an architect. In fact, he loves everything about ranching. But he’s constantly butting heads with his father, who likes things to function a certain way. Always micromanaging, he points out what Adam misses rather than mention what he’s doing right. It doesn’t seem to matter how proactive his son is or how hard he works; his dad always complains about something Adam could have done better.
Adam is becoming increasingly unhappy, so when friends from college return home with enthusiastic stories about life at school, he can’t help but question whether ranching is for him. He longs for independence and a break from the constant criticism. As he and his friends meet in a pub, they talk about their lives. Some are excited about what they’re learning, but others seem overwhelmed and perhaps envious of Adam. On the drive home, he is uncertain what to feel. Life on the other side of the fence maybe isn’t as great as he first thought.
Giving your character conflicting information will create mixed feelings, which in turn sends their gaze inward to reflect on their situation and what’s bothering them.
In this case, Adam begins to realize that it’s not the ranching life he’s struggling with but his dad. An honest discussion about the problems might help Adam see his father’s criticism as well-meaning—a way to prepare him for the challenges of managing a ranch. Understanding that viewpoint can help him grow. Or maybe the conversation doesn’t go well and reinforces his dad’s need for control. If this can’t be worked through, another difficult conversation will have to happen, this time about Adam starting a ranch of his own.
A decision like this could be hard on both characters. Adam’s dad will be disappointed and possibly angry, and it will take time for him to understand his son’s decision to leave. Adam will also be taking a risk, walking away from a profitable ranch where all the kinks have been worked out. But if he is ready to fight for his independence, it means he’s realized something important: chasing what you want isn’t easy and involves risk. And while this situation with his dad will be difficult to navigate, doing so will lead to greater self-confidence and empowerment—the self-growth he needs to steer his own future.
A character’s job is one of the most important (and versatile!) details about your character and can be used not only to create a natural avenue for character arc growth, but also to characterize and showcase their deeper layers, provide hints to a past emotional wound, generate relationship conflict and more.
To investigate more ways you can use a character’s career to power up your novel, check out book 7 in the Writers Helping Writers Descriptive Thesaurus series: The Occupation Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Jobs, Vocations, and Careers.
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.