By Becca Puglisi
As human beings, our work is very important. Choosing a career is one of the biggest decisions we make in life, and we often put a ton of time and energy into it.
But what about our characters’ jobs? How much thought do we put into that?
We authors recognize the importance of strong characterization, agonizing over the smallest details and collating pages and pages of information about our cast members. But unless the story calls for a certain career, their occupation is often an afterthought. We pick something that’s interesting—a career we admire or think is cool and unique. And we end up with a character who has a job that does absolutely nothing for the story.
This is shortsighted. The details are what make a story shine. When we hand-select the ones that tie into numerous elements, they anchor everything together, building a sturdy foundation for a story with depth. One detail that can accomplish this is the character’s job.
But just like in the real world, there are gazillions of jobs your character can choose from. I know, because Angela and I wrote The Occupation Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Jobs, Vocations, and Careers and, honestly, it almost became The Occupation Encyclopedia, because there were so many dang jobs to choose from. It was agony figuring out which ones to include and which ones had to be cut. So I know how hard it can be to settle on the right job for a character. Today I’d like to share some factors to keep in mind to help you find the perfect job for your character and your story.
What’s My Story About?
This one is obvious, so let’s get it out of the way. Sometimes your story requires a certain job, making the decision about your character’s career easier. James Bond had to be a spy. Raiders of the Lost Ark needed an archaeologist. The Wedding Planner…you get the picture.
So if your story is about a person in a certain career field (It’s about a homicide detective who goes undercover as a kindergarten teacher), or you’re writing a specific genre such as courtroom drama, espionage, or military thrillers, the occupation choice very often has been made for you.
For most stories, though, it won’t be this simple. There are literally dozens of careers that your character could have. Rather than picking one randomly, choose one that will serve your story by tying into an element of characterization.
Consider the following details about your character, and make a list of careers that make sense for each. We’ll discuss what to do with those lists in a bit.
People choose jobs because they fit their personality, so it’s smart to take this into account. Do you know your character’s dominant attributes? If not, figure that out. Then make a list of jobs that would be a good match for someone with those traits. TIP: try this Speed Dating tool that can help you find the right fit!
Talents and Skills
Unless there’s an underlying reason for doing so, characters will often choose a job that they’re good at, one that plays to their strengths. Athletes are skilled at their respective sports, mechanics are good with their hands, and a chef should be able to make tasty food. Consider your character’s aptitudes and abilities, and see which careers might make sense for them. If that talent or skill will specifically be used to help them achieve their story goal, make note of that; any detail that does double duty in this way should have more weight in the decision-making process.
Many people will choose a job in a field that piques their interest: science, antiques, shopping, working with children, etc. What passions or hobbies does your character have that they might naturally turn into a career?
Values and Beliefs
Does your character hold strong ideals that may motivate them to pursue a certain career path? If they want to make a difference in the world, serve a segment of the population, pursue justice, or right a wrong, those desires can drive them toward a particular job. Explore the character’s important values and beliefs to see if this will play into their decision.
Missing Human Needs
This one, I think, may be the most influential (though subconscious) factor when we choose a job. When any of our basic human needs are missing, we start trying to fill the void. Our actions and decisions are driven by missing needs—and this includes choices about work and careers. A missing human need will often push the character toward (or away) from a certain job. Based on what you know about your character’s past and who they are at the start of your story, which of those needs is missing? Love and connection? Safety and security? Self-fulfillment? What job might the character pursue, believing it will fill that void?
On a related note, emotional wounds from the past can also influence a person’s choice of job. Someone who was a victim of violent crime may choose a career that will enable them to bring criminals to justice or protect the innocent from similar victimization. A character who was raised by a harsh and cruel parent may select a radically different career path as a way of separating him or herself from that caregiver.
Unresolved wounds—ones the character may not have dealt with or even recognize—can also play a subconscious part in this decision. Someone who experienced a humiliating failure may avoid their preferred career and choose something that will allow them to underachieve so they won’t have to risk failing again. A character desperate to please a parent may follow in their footsteps out of a desire to gain their approval, even if it means embarking on a career that will make them miserable. Unresolved wounds are often at the root of a missing human need, so if this kind of past experience is influencing your character, take both factors into consideration.
Putting It All Together
By this point, you hopefully have a list of job possibilities that relate to various aspects of characterization. Take a look at your options and circle any careers that appear on more than one list. Those are good prospects because they tie into multiple characterization details, making them realistic options that will provide depth. You now have a short list of jobs that make sense for your character and your story.
If pulling multiple characterization details together to find the perfect job seems daunting, we’ve created a tool that simplifies the process. You can download a blank copy of this Career Assessment, and if you’ve picked up a copy of The Occupation Thesaurus, you can see a completed sample there.
Real people don’t typically choose jobs randomly, and characters shouldn’t either. Don’t make careers a background detail. Bring them to the forefront and put them to work for your story.
Need more help? Checkout this list of jobs and careers.
Becca Puglisi is an international speaker, writing coach, and bestselling author of The Emotion Thesaurus and its sequels. Her books are available in five languages, are sourced by US universities, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, editors, and psychologists around the world. She is passionate about learning and sharing her knowledge with others through her Writers Helping Writers blog and via One Stop For Writers—a powerhouse online library created to help writers elevate their storytelling.
Christine R. says
Would love to see a future thesaurus that looks at Historical/Fantasy -based occupations.
BECCA PUGLISI says
Hi, Christine! My gut tells me that this topic might be too niche. We try to choose book content that will appeal to the widest range of writers possible, which means material for writers of all genres. So I’m not sure this would be the best content for us to tackle. But it’s possible that a few of these occupations could show up at the Occupation Thesaurus one day, since we’ve got a little more leeway there. Thanks for letting us know what resources would help you as a writer.
Ingmar Albizu says
This is great advice. We usually look at our characters’ jobs as an afterthought.
However, the right occupation can open plot possibilities and backstory.
Indeed, even in genre fiction, like science fiction, sometimes the character’s job is a given (for example, astronaut, space pirate, xenobiologist, etc.).
Still, what about a space pirate that used to be a mechanic or a former government officer? Or what about an astronaut that wanted to be a footballer but became an astronaut because of family legacy or pressure?
And how would those skills from their previous profession inform or help their new occupations?
Wow, so much to think about.
Great post, Becca.
BECCA PUGLISI says
There’s so much more to a character’s occupation than I honestly ever thought there could be. Thanks for reading, Ingmar!
Mindy Alyse Weiss says
Thanks for sharing so many amazing tools to help choose jobs for our characters.