Thursday, April 15, 2010

Characters Have to Make a Living, Too!

You know what your main characters look like. You know what makes 'em laugh. You know what ticks them off. You know what makes them swoon.

But do you know what they do for a living? Before you start writing, of course.

Whether you are a pantser or a plotter (I think you're born to be either one, btw), your decision about your characters' career paths can reveal a lot about them.

People don't usually stay in a profession that doesn't suit their personality. It's like that in real life, and it's like that in book-life, too. In fact, readers are sometimes demand that a character's personality and his job match more tightly than it does in real life.

For instance, a shy retiring hero wouldn't make it as a cold-calling traveling salesman. And a boisterous talkative heroine would go stir crazy stuck in a research library.

Now, if part of the conflict of the plot is between the hero and his job, then I go for the disconnect.

If the job is just icing on the cake, I need to match job to personality better than a Garanimals outfit.

Jobs, of course, depend on the setting, and the characters' education levels. I wouldn't ordinarily put a neurosurgeon with a busy practice living in a rural small town.

But a job can ram home a character trait of a person. Is your heroine a helper type person? A people person? Does she empathize with other people? Is she a crusader? She'd pick a career based on the things she's good at.

So as I'm planning a story (oh, yeah, I'm a plotter all the way, baby!), I usually turn to an online career quiz, like the one at Career Path

It's not always foolproof, but quizzes like this help me get to know my characters better. It also helps to know how tied down my characters are during the day - my heroine can't be having picnics on a weekday afternoon with my hero if she's a school teacher.

Unless it's a field day, and the hero is a principal or a parent or the new-to-town single superintendent ...

Blast. I have to go write down another story idea! While I'm gone, why not share how you put your characters to work?


Toby Speed said...

For most of the characters in Death Over Easy (WIP), the jobs came automatically with the character, i.e. police detective, waitress in restaurant. For my MC, I went with something that would give her a lot of free time and was a field I already knew well (editing), since I was doing so much research in other areas. But some characters, like my MC's dad, I STILL haven't figured out. I keep picking careers, and they all feel wrong.

Piedmont Writer said...

Unfortunately because I was a restauranteur and private chef before I changed careers, my current heroine is a chef. Her main squeeze was also a chef, but now that you mention it, I think I really need him to be doing something else, it will make the tension stronger between them when she drops her bombshell. Thanks Cynthia for making me think this morning.

I've got another installment on my post today if you wanted to stop by.

Al said...

My work is mainly set in a time of war so a number of the characters are simply in military roles.
A couple of characters are the idle rich. I also have a nanny, a professional interpreter, a doctor, a couple of students, a clerk who is actually as spy. Now it sounds like I am all over the place.

Mia said...

LOL, speaking of teachers and such, one of my main characters in my WIP is a principal ;) He's caring and likes to help people, especially kids. He made some bad decisions as a teen, so he tries to make sure the kids around him don't do the same.

I never really thought about WHY he was a principal, just kind of randomly chose the career for him. But I guess it fits him better than I thought :)

Margo Berendsen said...

I swear I learn something everyday by checking other writer's blogs - using Career Path for a career for character - I never would have dreamed of that! Great idea.

Cynthia Reese said...

Toby, I know what you mean ... if something's not quite right about a character, it nags at me. Fingers crossed that you find the one that eases that "naggy" feeling!

Anne, I am HONORED to have helped even the tiniest bit! Hope, though, that I haven't created another unending round of revisions for you! (Oh, and The Husband says come over and cook for us sometime ... he is eating mainly out of self-defense!)

OK, Al, a clerk who is also a spy ... you have me hooked! I'm a sucker for war-time spy novels.

Mia, I was just telling The Kiddo how intuition works -- your brain is putting things together when you don't even realize it. I think that must have been what happened to you! So glad that your hero's job fits!

Margo, I LOVE talking to and reading the blogs of other writers (including yours!). I never fail to learn some tip or trick. I'm glad to be of service!

Christ is Write. said...

I love the idea of taking the Career Path quiz for your characters. This post is perfect for me right now since I'm trying to find the perfect jobs for two of my characters. I love also what you mentioned about finding a career that fits their personality. Great blog:)


Cynthia Reese said...

Thanks, Tessa! Glad to be of help!

Anonymous said...

I write YA, but when it was time for my teen MC to get her first job I had to carefully think about it. I also put a lot of thought into what her parents do. Career Path is a great idea.

Jeannie Campbell, LMFT said...

very cool site. thanks for the link. i tend to stick to professions i know...either ones that i've done myself of know someone who has done. makes research a heck of a lot easier. :)

The Character Therapist

Julie Musil said...

My husband is a firefighter. I think one of the main characters in my next novel must be a hunky firefighter too!