Confession time: when I was a newer writer, I didn’t think much about my character’s occupation. In fact, if they needed one, I’d pretty much assign the first thing that came to mind.
I didn’t think hard about their career because I didn’t think it mattered.
And I was WRONG.
Far from being an afterthought, a job or career is an opportunity to show readers who your character really is.
If you think about it, in the real world, work is a big focus for all of us. Consider your own job. How many hours a day do you spend working? Do you bring it home with you, obsess over it, spend hours thinking about it? Is your work rewarding and fulfilling? Or does the stress of the day impact your mood, interfere with your ability to enjoy activities, and cause problems in your relationships?
The work we do impacts our mental state, powers goals, and shapes each of our lives in multiple ways. To feel realistic and authentic, characters are mirrors of us, so work will be a big part of their reality.
This is also why “assigning” them any old job just doesn’t cut it. Logically they would do what we do: choose a job they’re interested in, are good at, and it will pay the bills. So when it comes to this detail, writers should think deeply and choose their job with care, especially as it will become a goldmine of characterization and plot opportunities.
Show-don’t-tell is king: making each detail work harder for your story.
Here are some things a job can reveal about your character:
Jobs almost always shed light on what your character cares about and will sacrifice for. If they work two jobs, forgoing sleep, time off, hobbies, and socialization, there’s a reason for it. Maybe they are supporting their family as a single parent, are trying to put themselves through school, have younger siblings to support because their parents are deadbeats, or something else. So, ask yourself: is my character all about money? Do they crave power and influence? Whatever it is, make sure their job choice reflects this.
THEIR PERSONALITY TRAITS:
Certain traits make it easier for someone to succeed at their job, so when a reader sees a character working in a specific field, they’re going to naturally draw conclusions about their personality. A character who is a server in a restaurant likely relies on tips to supplement their income, so a reader would expect they would be friendly, respectful, and hard-working. Likewise, if you introduce your character as a pickpocket, right away a reader will start imagining someone who is observant, calculating, opportunistic.
Obviously natural abilities and skills can make someone good at what they do. A surgeon will have steady hands. A psychologist will be a reader of body language. A police officer will notice details and be able to recall them immediately, on duty or off. Skills not only make someone unique; they can also help a character achieve their goal. For example, if your special needs teacher is taken hostage, maybe her experience with deescalating volatile situations and ability to persuade might help her convince her captor to let her go.
Characters, like people, are driven by unmet needs. An occupation can represent a steppingstone to what they want (a personal trainer who is working to become a professional weight lifter), or even be a sign of an emotional wound (a bounty hunter who brings criminals to justice because his parents were killed and the murderer was never caught).
THEIR HOBBIES AND PASSIONS:
Careers may grow from a favorite activity. Does your character love stand-up comedy and so makes a career of it? Do they have a passion for dollhouses and so they build a business that sells dollhouse-making supplies?
THEIR PHYSICAL DETAILS:
A construction worker is going to be rugged and strong. A mechanic will have stained, calloused hands. Whether it’s the uniform or expectations that go with the job, an occupation can provide many unspoken clues about how a character looks and behaves at work.
THEIR LIKES AND DISLIKES:
What does your character’s job say about their preferences? A professional athlete will enjoy exercise, being part of a team, and setting stretch goals….and they probably wouldn’t like to be around people who are lazy, unmotivated, and whine about how tough life is.
THEIR ETHICS, VALUES, AND BELIEFS:
Did your character choose a job that aligns with his deepest beliefs? A military career communicates patriotism and respect for one’s country. A doctor or judge will have strong ethics. Careers can be a great way to shed light on the character’s beliefs system and moral code.
THEIR EDUCATION LEVEL:
Some occupations will give readers a good idea of your character’s education. For example, a scientist, educator, doctor, geologist, or nurse clearly has a great deal of education. Likewise, a cab driver, bartender, or retail worker may not. (Note the may; plenty of situations exist where someone with a higher education chooses a job that requires less: a career pivot to something less stressful or that aligns more with their interests, a character who has trouble finding work, etc.
As you can see, you can get a lot of show-don’t-tell mileage from your character’s job choice!
So, don’t make the mistake I did long ago. Take your time when choosing their career. (This list will get you started.)
If you would like to explore more ways to utilize a character’s career, check out The Occupation Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Jobs, Vocations, and Careers.