Readers read to put on a character’s skin and have a new experience through that character. When creating characters with personality, one final piece of developing your character is to give them an interesting job and/or unique lifestyle. It’s more than just an “interest” technique (although there’s nothing wrong with building interest) but a character’s job/career or lifestyle can and should be a story driver and can even expand into theme, bringing the story more depth and power.
Creating Characters with Personality Examples
Temperance Brennan in the popular Kathy Reich’s series is a forensic anthropologist—a job that brings her face-to-face with murder investigations. Being a character with guts and the “it” factor (see Give Your Protagonist the “It” Factor) and with a job that puts her right into the action, how can she do anything but jump in and drive the story forward?
Denny Swift from The Art of Racing in the Rain is a racecar driver. As you may tell from the title, racing factors big throughout the book, from plot to subtext to theme. His job adds depth and richness to the narrative. Once you discover your protagonist’s “interesting job” don’t leave it there, give the job meaning through the story as you write.
Jake Effing in 11/22/63 is an English teacher who travels through time, and the story is begun when one of his GED students makes him cry with an essay he writes. The character’s teaching and mentoring of students throughout the book brings meaning and depth to the story as well as Jake’s character. “English teacher” isn’t just tagged on as a career, but becomes an important element, and Stephen King uses Effing’s job to drive the story forward.
In The Help, Aibileen and Minny (two of the three book protagonists) are maids in a racially charged Mississippi in the 1960’s during the civil rights movement. Definitely unique lifestyle (to most readers) in a fascinating time, and being a maid who raises white women’s children is integral to the story—plots, subplots and all!
Creating Characters with Personality? Mix and Match to make a unique job and lifestyle for your character
Contrasting facets of a character’s job and lifestyle add for an interesting, entertaining, and often times angst-ridden character. Stephanie Plum is a lingerie-saleswoman-turned-bounty-hunter, Harry Dresden from the Dresden File series is a Wizard/Private Investigator. Karou in Laini Taylor’s Daughter of Smoke and Bone is an art student who collects teeth for her foster father: a chimera, Brimstone. She doesn’t know how he uses the teeth other than “It’s some sort of magic”—so there is mystery involved with her “interesting” job.
Nothing new about an art student. Or lingerie saleswoman, English teacher, or private investigator. But mix them with something unexpected and you get that fresh twist agents, editors, and readers crave.
Creating Characters with Personality? Keep a List and Brainstorm
I keep a list of careers that I pull out when thinking through characters, and I suggest you do the same. You can find lists of interesting careers on the internet to help you begin. Keep adding to it and make the list your own. So far I have around 350 careers on my list. I also keep a list of stock characters/lifestyles.
Now, I’m not saying write anything stereotypical, but this list can be amusing and terrific for brainstorming. I see what ideas get sparked when I try some in my story or in my characters.
Or, I brainstorm, using the two lists together. Following in the spirit of authors before me (Stephanie Plum—the lingerie saleswoman/bounty hunter, or Ingrid Magnussen—the manipulative murderous sociopath/poet from White Oleander) I close my eyes and point out a couple of entries at random, then write a quick story or profile/background. Control freak sex therapist? Naive newcomer occult practitioner? Well-intentioned extremist embalmer? Do some cross-thinking and see what it does for your creative juices.
Once you discover your protagonist’s job, be sure to use Creative Writing Prompts: Find Your Character Through Their Profession to go beneath the surface and discover all the aspects that your lead character’s job will bring to your story.
Giving your character an interesting job or unique lifestyle goes beyond throwing something in for the excitement of the book. When done right these elements bring new depth and meaning to your story and another facet of interest for your reader.
Award-winning novelist Kathy Steffen teaches fiction writing and speaks at writing programs across the country. Additionally, Kathy is also published in short fiction and pens a monthly writing column, Between the Lines. Her books, FIRST THERE IS A RIVER, JASPER MOUNTAIN and THEATER OF ILLUSION are available online and at bookstores everywhere. Check out more at www.kathysteffen.com.