Do characters work personalities shape a story?

Robert Zwilling

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How important is a character's work situation when it comes to shaping an overall impression of a character.

Looking at four basic work situations where the job is an ordinary job in that it can be recognized as a normal occupation. Piloting a space ship would be considered a normal job, as it's just another kind of vehicle that can be driven. Growing a garden in burnt out soil after a war, everything is knocked back to basics, where getting mixed results would be considered normal.

1) The job is performed in an ordinary way under normal circumstances yielding normal results.
This probably wouldn't create an impression about the character.
2) The job is a situation dealing with ordinary or unusual situations yielding hapless results.
Might make the character appear less than desirable.
3) The job is dealing with unusual situations yielding as best as can be expected results for the circumstances, including failure.
Generates some respect for the character even if things don't work out.
4) The job is dealing with ordinary or unusual situations constantly yielding spectacular results.
Creates a competent gets the job done type of character, one that people would appreciate reading about.

If the majority of character's jobs in a story were sticking to one of the four types listed, how much of a driver would that be for a story. I could see option #4 setting up an action packed adventure story. Option #1 would be just a passive background, more informational about a life style rather than a working part of the plot. Option #2 might drive a comedy or a tragedy. Option #3, being less predictable creates a background for the overall story, perhaps contributes more to the style of writing.
 
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Ihe

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It depends on what that character's profile is like. There are people who let themselves be defined by the one thing (their job, family, romantic partner, hobby, etc) either because they have nothing else going for them, they're too scared of losing it, or are a bit obssessive, etc.
If the character's job is direct part of the plot, I reckon it will be important to the character dev. If the job is unrelated to plot, I would give it much less influence.
 

Brian G Turner

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I think workers doing ordinary jobs are an understated story feature, because what may seem routine and ordinary to the worker might seem unusual and extraordinary to the reader.

Something I think is easy to miss is also the perception of the character to their work - the little insights they may have, which together can build a great sense of both setting and character.

Additionally, writers tend to have a narrow focus on the highest social classes. So stories tend to be about high ranking officers, royalty, government, great knights and leaders, presuming that these are the only important stories worth telling. Even a common farm boy must have hidden royal blood. This bias IMO is a huge mistake, but too few genre writers seem to question it.
 

SamThomas

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I think the ordinary can play a few different roles in a story. Most obviously, the character's ordinary is going to be vastly different than the reader's ordinary. Few readers would want to read about a day in the life of a modern office drone, but place that drone in the future and things get a bit more interesting. I quite love the little details that signal how the book society is different than my own. They are much more interesting than "Spaceships!"

Ordinary work also provides a "before" moment prior to the start of the story proper. Ordinary guy, ordinary work, suddenly scooped up by aliens/arrested by Mr. Smith/what have you. I'm not saying this is a better or worse entry into a story, but it does provide more contrast than a cop who finds herself in danger.
 

Joshua Jones

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I would like to expand a bit on what @Brian G Turner touched on. A character's perception of their job is a great opportunity for characterization and complexity. Consider the first option mentioned in the OP. It could be just background if they are forced into an extraordinary situation for which they are I'll prepared (say, a plumber abducted and forced into a space war), but if the writer focuses in on how the character feels in that job, there are myriad possibilities for complexity. Perhaps the mundane job requires the character to be on call, and being constantly called out at inopportune moments causes conflict with his or her family. Perhaps the character likes the routine nature of the job, because it provides stability in the midst of a crazy personal life. Perhaps the character is bored with the routine, and craves something different. Perhaps the stress of the job causes ongoing anxiety, or he gets passed over for promotion repeatedly, or she always wanted to do something else... good stories are about people, and people feel differently about different things.

And that only addresses the character's self perception. Consider social perceptions of jobs... If we lived in a literal plutarchy (I designed one where the money one has invested in the national bank controls one's share of the the national vote), jobs which pay less but are more rewarding in other ways may be looked down upon. How does the character interact with these social expectations? Is employment typically hereditary or individually chosen, and how does this influence the character and his/her relationships with other characters? Regarding men and women, is society more egalitarian, complimentarian (different roles, but equal value), or repressive (different roles and different value)? What happens when someone transgresses these social norms? A fair bit of literature has been focused on a woman breaking out of one of the latter two, but little on a man assuming a woman's role in such a society. I know of none which have a woman in an egalitarian society choosing to be a domestic, and the challenges she may face in subverting that cultural value.

My point is, even in the mundane jobs, focusing on how a character feels about their job and how it relates to society has nearly limitless possibility for storylines and characterization. And, as Brian also notes, with the typical focus being on extraordinary individuals, the mundane has opportunities for truly original stories.
 

Jo Zebedee

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blah - flags. So many flags.
I think everything about a character affects how they are as a person. When I wrote Abendau's Heir, my main characters were in a resistance army. That need to communicate with each other formally (whilst some of them had other, different relationships with each other) very much affected the characters. later, when the two main characters had a more formal, political role to fulfill, my editor, @Teresa Edgerton, came back to tell me my dialogue needed a lot of work.
I was surprised at htis, as my dialogue had been something she liked in book one of the trilogy. But she explained that, after a decade in a high-level political role, my characters' language would have changed. They would have learned about the power of words and the importance of how things were conched, and gained a formality - and she was right. That formality, which is very at odds with my writing, remained in place and shaped the characters.
Had they been a different sort of worker, they'd have had different nuances of language.
So, yeah, not least in terms of how we communicate to others, the means we use, the words and the emphasis we put on things, our work profiles affect how we do that.
 

Robert Zwilling

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Thanks for the picture, it has a mysterious quality to it, automatically makes me wonder what's happening.
This is all very helpful, I hadn't looked at job insights as being an active part of a character's development. I was thinking it was more of a one way mirror.
 

Onyx

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How important is a character's work situation when it comes to shaping an overall impression of a character.
I would caution anyone thinking along these lines to consider that "impression of a character" comes from what is actually on the page, and not from the world building process that includes the character's biography and CV. I see a lot of people getting caught up in how their background notes for characters reflect on the character, but readers don't know anything more than what actually gets written in the story.

In this case, the writer can create any impression of the character they wish to, and that may be in line with what the character does for a living, or completely at odds with it. And which way that goes comes entirely from what you write about that relationship with the character's job, not the job itself.

The question; "What is their job, and why?" is mainly about the why, not the what. If the reader gets the impression that the character is a slacker because they work as a janitor when that is not what the writer intended the reader to think, then the writer hasn't picked the wrong job; they've just written about the character poorly.
 

Joshua Jones

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I would caution anyone thinking along these lines to consider that "impression of a character" comes from what is actually on the page, and not from the world building process that includes the character's biography and CV. I see a lot of people getting caught up in how their background notes for characters reflect on the character, but readers don't know anything more than what actually gets written in the story.

In this case, the writer can create any impression of the character they wish to, and that may be in line with what the character does for a living, or completely at odds with it. And which way that goes comes entirely from what you write about that relationship with the character's job, not the job itself.

The question; "What is their job, and why?" is mainly about the why, not the what. If the reader gets the impression that the character is a slacker because they work as a janitor when that is not what the writer intended the reader to think, then the writer hasn't picked the wrong job; they've just written about the character poorly.
Well, yeah... the best laid plans and all that. But, I don't think anyone was suggesting that planning equals a good story; I think the point we were trying to make is that there are great opportunities to develop a character through their interaction with work. Clearly those opportunities must be skillfully executed, but that doesn't make it any less true does it?
 

Onyx

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Well, yeah... the best laid plans and all that. But, I don't think anyone was suggesting that planning equals a good story; I think the point we were trying to make is that there are great opportunities to develop a character through their interaction with work. Clearly those opportunities must be skillfully executed, but that doesn't make it any less true does it?
Not at all. I just think this is one of those topics that benefits from a gentle reminder that fictional characters aren't real people, and the reader's full impression of the character can come down to the smallest and least biographical description or quotation. The writer controls reader impression at the micro level, and this is something that "planners" can sometimes miss as they plan.

So I wasn't disagreeing with the OP - just trying to remind everyone that the character isn't the sum of his parts, but what you tell the reader they are.
 

Joshua Jones

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Not at all. I just think this is one of those topics that benefits from a gentle reminder that fictional characters aren't real people, and the reader's full impression of the character can come down to the smallest and least biographical description or quotation. The writer controls reader impression at the micro level, and this is something that "planners" can sometimes miss as they plan.

So I wasn't disagreeing with the OP - just trying to remind everyone that the character isn't the sum of his parts, but what you tell the reader they are.
Which is always a good reminder. All the planning in the world doesn't mean a hill of beans if it doesn't make it on the page.
 

Robert Zwilling

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I won't be going the bio/background route to set up characters so using the job to focus on characters attributes looks like a very useful method.
 

Joshua Jones

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I don't use it either. It tempts me to include irrelevant information for no other reason than that I have created it, while ultimately not benefiting the characterization much. For me, I would rather create a mental image of the character, and then fill in details as they are asked in the narrative.
 

tinkerdan

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Personally, I'm not sure about the job molding the character; although as mentioned there is a perception that might mold the character in the mind of the reader because of the focus on upper class or more prestigious positions.

What I think is more relevant is the work ethic of the character. A character that hates his job and does a poor job because of it, will likely leave the reader wanting something. This character won't be happy until he finds the job that he's been pining for; and even then he might not do well because he's built a bad habit.

The character that hates his job but has a good job ethic will have a certain struggle, however I think that that gives the reader something similar to the character that saves the cat. Even though I hate my job I hate even more those who don't do the job properly. This person will have the reader hoping that they get the job the deserve at each turn because no matter where they land they'll try their best.
 

Onyx

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Only one small part. It’s possible to know a lot about a character without ever writing up a bio.
I don't understand what writing down vs knowing the character's biography has to do with this, but mentioning the character's profession (rather than showing them at work), is biographical, which is what the OP said he wasn't going to use.

Job, religion, birthplace, number of siblings, housing, education, military service are all biographical details. We may have certain expectations of a divorced Protestant Irish woman who lives in the suburbs and was an only child, but all those details don't actually tell us about the character's character, which are things like whether they are optimistic, kind, frightened easily, clever, satisfied, argumentative, knowledgeable, self sufficient, faithful, funny, lonely, strong, a leader, afraid of snakes or has a bad back. Stories take place in the character details, and sometimes refer to the biographical background to explain why the character might have some unusual skill, temperament or knowledge. A job, like a hometown or religion, might explain why the character knows about kidney pie, or it might have nothing to do with it.

You could write a great novel with a major character that has no stated background, including their unknown profession. If you do go into biographical things like profession, it ought to be for more than just a shortcut to showing character, which is kind of what is being implied by the OP. A combat veteran could just as easily be a pacifist as a hawk, so it isn't a thoughtful way to demonstrate character by the writer.
 

Joshua Jones

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I don't understand what writing down vs knowing the character's biography has to do with this, but mentioning the character's profession (rather than showing them at work), is biographical, which is what the OP said he wasn't going to use.

Job, religion, birthplace, number of siblings, housing, education, military service are all biographical details. We may have certain expectations of a divorced Protestant Irish woman who lives in the suburbs and was an only child, but all those details don't actually tell us about the character's character, which are things like whether they are optimistic, kind, frightened easily, clever, satisfied, argumentative, knowledgeable, self sufficient, faithful, funny, lonely, strong, a leader, afraid of snakes or has a bad back. Stories take place in the character details, and sometimes refer to the biographical background to explain why the character might have some unusual skill, temperament or knowledge. A job, like a hometown or religion, might explain why the character knows about kidney pie, or it might have nothing to do with it.

You could write a great novel with a major character that has no stated background, including their unknown profession. If you do go into biographical things like profession, it ought to be for more than just a shortcut to showing character, which is kind of what is being implied by the OP. A combat veteran could just as easily be a pacifist as a hawk, so it isn't a thoughtful way to demonstrate character by the writer.
Again, what you are focusing on is simply a matter of writing well. It is pretty standard advice that anything which doesn't drive the story forward or develop the character is to be cut. I don't see the OP speaking about saying "so and so is a plumber" as a means of shortcutting character development, given the comments on the four examples provided.

I see a huge range of possibilities for creating complex characters if one wants to focus on their work. It needn't just be a data point on a character sheet; it can be an integral part of who they are and how their story unfolds, if developed correctly. The same goes for nearly any other aspect of a character; in a futuristic setting, blonde or red hair may be extremely rare, so it is seen as a status symbol. Hence, having a character with one of these could experience a large degree of conflict over this. Same for eye color or skin tone... basically anything can become a story if it is handled correctly. They needn't be relegated to merely biographical information unless the writer does not wish to focus on them.
 

Onyx

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Again, what you are focusing on is simply a matter of writing well. It is pretty standard advice that anything which doesn't drive the story forward or develop the character is to be cut. I don't see the OP speaking about saying "so and so is a plumber" as a means of shortcutting character development, given the comments on the four examples provided.

I see a huge range of possibilities for creating complex characters if one wants to focus on their work. It needn't just be a data point on a character sheet; it can be an integral part of who they are and how their story unfolds, if developed correctly. The same goes for nearly any other aspect of a character; in a futuristic setting, blonde or red hair may be extremely rare, so it is seen as a status symbol. Hence, having a character with one of these could experience a large degree of conflict over this. Same for eye color or skin tone... basically anything can become a story if it is handled correctly. They needn't be relegated to merely biographical information unless the writer does not wish to focus on them.
I don't see how your point is in any way the opposite of my point. The OP appears to be implying in several posts that stating what job the character has and how they perform is a way of showing who they are. And I was trying to dispel that notion.

In the case of the OP's 4 examples, any of them could easily be dispelled with a short passage, so they have no power unless used without any balancing character actions.
 
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