If you write fiction, you will, at some point, have to decide what your characters do for a living. It doesn’t matter if you write for film or television, or if you compose novels, plays, or short stories—the people you create still need to put food on the table.
The female leads on two of my favorite shows streaming these days both happen to be music publicists. Rachel on “Master of None” works for an indie record label;
and in “You’re the Worst,” Gretchen is a PR exec who is always running off to fix some disaster wrought by her client; a finicky, but decidedly percipient, rap star.
Neither of the shows is about music; so as made-up characters, the women could literally have had any occupation. Why wasn’t Rachel a law student or graphic designer? Given her tenaciousness, why not make Gretchen a lobbyist, or, hell, a skydiving instructor?
I might be spitting into the wind here, but I am guessing that the writers decided to pick jobs that would allow the women to be available during the typical workday so that their scenes with other characters wouldn’t always have to take place before or after work. Because there are only so many times you can move a story along while eating breakfast or during Happy Hour, Rachel and Gretchen had to be untethered to a fixed schedule so that they could partake in a little afternoon nookie with their male counterparts (Dev and Jimmie, respectively), or even fly off on a spontaneous trip to New Orleans. (Conveniently, both Dev—a part-time actor; and Jimmy—a writer—also have occupations that offer total flexibility.) Besides having no time constraints, the field of music publicity allows for unconventional supporting casts (furniture-loving rap stars, for example), as well as some pretty groovy settings (concert halls and recording studios, to name a few). Ultimately, though, the jobs these characters have don’t define who they are, per se, but rather exist to supply convenience to the larger story.
But say you’re writing a book where, without a particular job, the plot won’t work? When I needed Hannah, Mona, and Peter, the three protagonists in my second book, “Hat Trick,” to meet on the island of Zanzibar after not laying eyes on each other for twenty years, I knew that it would have to be their jobs that would get them there.
But which jobs? For sure, the easiest choice would have been simply to “write what I know;” give the characters a job I have experience with. Richard Ford, for example, the author of “The Sportswriter,” was a sports journalist. Herman Melville spent time as a cabin boy on a merchant ship; and Franz Kafka toiled away at an insurance firm before he started writing.
But given that I’ve mostly written content for various internet companies and environmental agencies—okay, so I was also a sales rep in Russia—my first-hand knowledge was pretty limited. Still, I had to find jobs for all three characters that would drive them and the story toward their (pre-determined) destiny.
Besides the obvious lists of careers detailed on the internet, I checked out blogs and Facebook pages, trying to find out-of-the box jobs beyond real estate broker, teacher, or nuclear engineer. The more obscure the job, the more time I knew I would need to spend researching.
In the end, I made Hannah an owner of an import store. Mona became a film producer overseeing a historical movie being shot on location. And Peter, the third foil in the triptych, was a journalist who covered Hollywood. Sure, it was a bit of a coincidence to find all three of these people—who had at one time been lovers in various iterations—in such an exotic part of the world, but because of their particular professions, it wasn’t all that far-fetched.
Once I locked in their resumes, I had to be certain that my characters would come off as authentic: they would have to walk the walk and talk the talk. I had enough experience in the writing realm to be able to render a pretty convincing Peter, but I had no idea what an import store owner did, let alone how a movie producer lived her life. Which meant I had a lot of homework to do.
Of course you can find a stockpile of websites devoted to job description, but we’re talking live dialog here: I needed to know not just the argot of the insider; but the quotidian minutia that accompanies any profession as well. For that I needed to interview real people.
At the time I was writing “Hat Trick,” I lived in a small groovy town in California that had three import shops that sold hand-crafted art and jewelry and clothing and musical instruments and baskets (and so much more) from around the world.
After introducing myself to the owners and explaining my project, it took only a couple of lunch dates and a few hours of loitering to learn what I needed to about the travel, costs, products, etc., involved in running such a business.
After I fleshed out Hannah’s world, I moved onto Mona’s. I’d been an extra in “Peggy Sue Got Married,” and “Northern Exposure,” so I at least knew what being “on set” felt like. I exchanged a few emails with an associate producer I was acquainted with. I chatted up an on-set caterer. (It’s impossible to grow up in southern California and not know at least one person in the movie business.) And even though I never talked with an actual movie producer, I had faith that I could successfully depict on page what one did.
I wrote the book and Hyperion published it. It was a good story well-told, with characters well-drawn. To my eyes, anyway. A year after the book came out I re-connected with an old high school friend who had since become a powerful Hollywood film producer. Naturally, I sent her a copy of the book, hoping she’d find the drama worthy of a screen adaptation. Not only did she not option the book; she sent me an email detailing the ways in which I got the character of Mona totally wrong. “No way would a producer on set ever have enough time to get a massage,” she wrote. She had much more to say, but what it came down to was that I’d not done justice to the occupation of movie producer. Only, it was too late. Mona and her falsely-drawn character were inked in stone for eternity and there was little I could do to change that. I just had to hope that none of my future readers made their living in the movie business, or else their potentially accusatory reviews would one-star me all over Amazon.
Fortunately, that never happened. No one who read or reviewed the book ever found fault in my portrayal of my characters. But it spooked me enough to know that the next time I storyboarded a new character, I’d certainly go above and beyond in defining his or her skill set if their job played an important role.
In my next book, oh boy did it ever. Kate Burke, the female protagonist in “Annie’s Dead,” writes erotica based on her husband, Guy’s, affairs. Therefore, it was essential that Guy have a job where he’d have a darn good chance of meeting women with whom he could have sex. Not only would my male protagonist’s job characterize and color the story—it would be the key to the plot: the primary basis for the arc of the story.
At first I made him a caterer—I figured there would be plenty of lusty housewives ready and willing to taste, so to speak, what he cooked up. But, given that the story takes place in a small town in Vermont, anonymity would be a struggle to maintain. I thought about having him perform on cruise ships, but I knew he wouldn’t want to be away from his ten-year-old daughter for such long stretches of time. Finally, after talking to my friend Anne (no relation to the character), who worked in market research, I settled on Focus Group Moderator.
Anne told me that in her experience, most moderators have huge egos; were highly dynamic; and—most significantly—there were often plenty of post-group hook-ups. Guy’s personality fit the bill perfectly.
Along with interviewing Anne over the course of some fifteen hours, with a ream of paper’s worth of notes, I also called two other Focus Group Moderators, toured a facility where focus groups are held, and even participated in a focus group for the banking industry.
Before I sent the book off to my agent I sent it to Anne to read. Did Guy act like an actual Focus Group Moderator? Were the reports he talked about realistic? Were the marketing plans he drops into conversation here and there up to snuff?
Anne emailed me back and said that I’d totally nailed Guy. In fact, he reminded her of one of the men she’d worked with in San Francisco.
She closed her letter with the words I desperately needed to see: Job Well Done.