Successful stories are often ones whose elements are employed subtly. You may not be able to say exactly why they work, and as a reader, you probably don’t care; you just like the feeling of rightness that settles in as you read.
Theme is one of those important elements that are quietly working in the background of a strong story. This central idea, pulled deliberately or subconsciously from the author’s individual worldview, acts as an anchoring thread that connects the other elements and creates a sense of cohesion. But writing theme into a story can be tricky. If you’re too obvious, you risk whacking people over the head with it, and your story becomes preachy. If you’re too subtle, readers may not pick up on the message at all.
So how do we incorporate theme into our story with just the right amount of touch? One surprisingly effective way is to use the character’s job.
The movie Up in the Air expertly explores the theme of isolation, and it’s done largely through protagonist Ryan’s occupation as a Career Transition Counselor: corporations hire him to fire their employees for them. He travels 270 days a year, which leaves him very little time to connect with others, and he loves it. He loves it so much that when a young upstart introduces new video technology that would allow Ryan to fire people virtually from the comfort of his own home office, he sets about to dismantle her idea before it dismantles his entire way of life.
Ryan’s job highlights the theme of isolation on a number of levels.
First, the job itself: he fires people for a living. He is essentially the agent of isolation, forcibly removing people from the jobs that have provided them with satisfaction, purpose, and their work community. These people quickly unravel and lose their moorings, as we see in so many of the exit interviews he conducts.
Secondly, his career underscores Ryan’s own isolation. Because he’s never home, his apartment is sterile and completely without personality; the hotel rooms he stays in while working are more welcoming. And the get-in-get-out nature of the job ensures that he doesn’t have time to make meaningful connections on the road, either.
Ryan states in the opening monologue that he likes his carefree lifestyle and thinks it’s working for him. But the additional touchpoints via his job keep quietly reminding viewers of his isolated existence. And in the end, when he realizes that he’s no longer satisfied with his choices, those same touchpoints beautifully contrast his former viewpoint—once again highlighting the theme.
How can we use a character’s job to explore the important ideas in our own stories?
Identify Your Theme
Authors can arrive at their theme a number of ways. Sometimes, they know from the very beginning which idea is going to play a part in their story. Others begin blindly, with no theme in mind, only to see it emerging subconsciously as they draft. Either method works; once you’ve identified your theme, you either build it in when planning or backtrack once the first draft is finished to incorporate it more firmly into the story.
Choose a Job for Your Character That Relates to That Theme
Then it becomes a simple matter of choosing a career that allows you to shine a light on your central idea. For instance, if obstacles is a theme in your story, your protagonist could be a truck driver or outdoor guide who encounters physical roadblocks in their day-to-day life. Or they might be a therapist whose patients are constantly dealing with emotional or mental barricades. Careers like these will offer many opportunities for that theme to be revisited in ways that make sense for the story itself.
It should also be noted that it doesn’t have to be the main character’s career that highlights the story’s theme. The Boy in the Striped Pajamas deals largely with the idea of innocence, but Bruno, the nine-year-old protagonist, is too young to hold a job. His father, however, is not. His occupation as the commandant of Auschwitz provides many chances to highlight the concept of innocence—as it relates to the boy himself but also to the inhabitants of the concentration camp in Bruno’s backyard.
Experiment with Contrast
Because theme should be subtle, some careers may be too obvious. A nun highlighting the theme of purity or a slave in a story about enslavement may be too “on the nose.” These very well may work, but if you’d rather go with something more covert, consider a purposeful contrast. The CEO of a Fortune 500 company can be free in the most literal sense while being enslaved to obligations, public perception, or the fear of losing his money. Purity could just as poignantly be explored through its lack in the life of a prostitute, assassin, or con artist. Contrast can be very effective, and there are so many jobs that could work; to brainstorm possibilities for your story, check out our book, The Occupation Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Jobs, Vocations, and Careers.
This method of tying the theme to an occupation can work most of the time—but not if your project calls for a specific career. If you’ve written a story about a treasure hunter, for example, then you already know your character’s occupation and you’ll need to find other ways to flesh out the theme. But most of the time, as in real life, your character has career options. Finding one that ties in to your theme is a great way to pull multiple elements together and give readers the sense of Aaahhhh that comes from a cohesive and satisfying story.
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.