Does Your Main Character Need a Job?

One of the major decisions a writer faces when creating an initial character sketch is what job to give to the main character. This is a crucial decision and must not be taken lightly.

Why does a main character need a specific job? What difference does it make whether she is an accountant or a lawyer? The occupation a writer chooses for her main character speaks to the character’s values and identity. It should also tie into the story. So how does the writer choose a job for her main character?

In some cases, the choice is genre-driven. In a mystery, the main character will be a detective or a private investigator or involved in law enforcement in some way. In a spy thriller, the main character will be, um, a spy. Duh! In a legal thriller, the choice of a lawyer is a no-brainer. In other genres, the choices can be far more complicated.

In Richard Ford’s classic Frank Bascombe trilogy, the main character went through a major career change. In the first book, The Sportswriter, Bascombe is, well, a sportswriter. However, in the second book, Independence Day, Bascombe transitioned to real estate. Sportswriting to real estate? What a strange and unlikely transition, one might think. Ford makes it work. Bascombe’s writing career is on a downward arc, as his marriage falls apart and he becomes unglued. Real estate works for Frank. He gains satisfaction from helping people achieve the American Dream of home ownership and this career gives Ford the opportunity to make a number of insightful observations on the way a person’s identity and worth are bound up in the homes they choose to buy.

Similarly, in John Updike’s “Rabbit” series, Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom sells a kitchen gadget and then works for a printing company. A former high school basketball star, Rabbit finds his work and his marriage unfulfilling. By the third book, he has moved on to work for his father-in-law’s car dealership. This career choice allows for rich scenes as Updike chronicles the ups and downs of the auto industry tied to fluctuations in the price and availability of oil in the 1970s.

Anne Tyler has come up with some of the most interesting occupations for her characters. In “A Patchwork Planet,” the main character, Barnaby, works for a company called Rent-A-Back, and his job is to move heavy furniture for elderly clients. This job speaks volumes about the burdens poor Barnaby carries. In “The Accidental Tourist,” writer Macon Leary writes travel guides, even though he hates to travel. By traveling, Macon is running away from his problems and he accidentally finds love in the person of the woman he hires to train his dog.

How does a writer choose an occupation for her main character. Here are some questions to ponder:

  • How does the choice of occupation support the theme?
  • Is the character’s job consistent with his character?
  • Is the job of the main character important to the story? In genres like mystery, this is clearly the case.
  • Does the character need a job at all? A character who is enduring a period of prolonged unemployment or bouncing from job to job can provide a number of story possibilities?

How do you choose a job for your main character?

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5 Comments

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5 responses to “Does Your Main Character Need a Job?

  1. Hi, something that needs to be considered when gaining employment for imaginary people is the writer’s ability to provide said employment. I really wanted one of my babies to be a mechanic – self-employment, ability to be available at short notice (setting their own hours) not to mention the handy personality traits that fit so nicely with that – logical, attention to detail, practicality etc. However, I didn’t have the technical know-how to drop in those essential details that bring it all to life – I was just tweeking the gear ratio on a Mondeo when I heard… It was the same car from this morning, I knew it because it had the same pink in second gear.
    I’m working really hard at that but I have no idea if someone’s going to call me on it and shout ‘you don’t tweak a ratio you tweak the gismo’ or nothing pinks in second you fool…
    Same went for any of the law careers – I just don’t have the day to day knowledge to make it easy.

  2. Jaki,
    Thanks for your comment. You raise a good point that I should have addressed. When a writer chooses an occupation for a character, the writer must do the research to make sure he knows enough about that job to describe it in an authentic way. Thanks again.

  3. Very interesting post! I haven’t run into this problem yet, as my main character is a teenager, and thus is a full-time student. But this post has gotten me to thinking about what job she’ll get when she grows up. It’s tough, because she’s currently flying around the galaxy, hunted by the galactic government for consorting with space pirates. Maybe she’ll become a space pirate herself? Hmm … so many options!

  4. Michelle,
    Thanks for your comment. A main character hunted by the galactic government for consorting with space pirates…that sounds interesting. Depending on whether your MC is good or evil, maybe she can join the galaxy’s organized crime syndicate. I think the important thing is that the MC’s job should tie in with the story arc and theme. Thanks for stopping by.

  5. Diane W

    Great post, CG. My MC is a meeting planner (like myself) so she is organized, detail-oriented and somewhat of a control freak. While her work is not detailed in the story, I don’t think I brought much of her work personality into it. It would make sense to do so since I turn her life upside down. Thanks for giving me an a-ha moment!

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