Is Your Character’s Career a Cliché?

03 Sep

Happy Labor Day! What a fantastic idea for a holiday, an entire day to relax and celebrate the contributions of our workers.

Yet, even when a writer is enjoying the cookouts, sales, and pool parties, she never really stops thinking about her novel.

How would our characters celebrate this day? What memories would this holiday stir? What emotions?

Well, that depends on what kind of jobs they have.

When creating a fictional character, few decisions are as important as choosing his occupation. A person’s point of view will always be shaped by his day-to-day work experiences. Still, authors seem to limit their characters to a rather short list of careers. Our fictional worlds have an over-abundance of policemen, waitresses, reporters, artists, and archeaologists.

Sometimes, the choice of career is dictated by the genre. A cowboy romance has to have a cowboy hero. In regency romance, the character’s occupations are going to be limited by what was socially acceptable for nobility at that time. The lead in a mystery or thriller needs to have the necessary skills to bring down the bad guy. Above all else, our stories have to be believable.

But sometimes, common career choices just seem like lazy writing. When the book’s not riveting, I think this author made her heroine a baker because she didn’t have time to research a more interesting profession. Personally, I prefer stories where I learn something. I don’t learn much when the heroine’s a waitress in a greasy spoon.

I can’t count the number of times I’ve abandoned a book because the lead character–and his career– were too clichéd. It’s almost as if the writer is using shorthand. No character development needed. All she has to do is put a uniform on the hero, and we’re supposed to divine everything about him.

Wouldn’t it be more interesting to create an unusual character who is not prepared to fight the bad guy? Then we could cheer him as he struggles to overcome the villain’s unfair advantage. Doesn’t everybody love an underdog? Don’t we always root for the fish-out-of-water?

When choosing a traditional career for his character, a writer risks falling into the cliché. However, with a little extra work, a talented author can always find a quirk or two to lift his hero up out of the stereotype.

I would love to hear your thoughts on this. What careers do you think are over-represented in fiction? Do you see this as a cliché or a genre requirement? How do you take a character in a stereotypical career and break him out of the mold?


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29 responses to “Is Your Character’s Career a Cliché?

  1. lizkflaherty

    September 3, 2012 at 5:30 AM

    I like your post, but I like my protagonists–especially the heroine–to have professions I can identify with, so I’m always cheered by the one who’s a waitress by choice or a carpenter because he likes the feel of wood. The heroine in my own WIP is a beautician who’s a size 14. The book may never sell, I must admit, but I’m sure enjoying Carol while I”m writing her.

    • Clarissa Southwick

      September 3, 2012 at 12:56 PM

      Great insight, Liz. I hadn’t really considered the how important it is for readers to identify with the characters. That would definitely explain why we use familiar occupations over and over again. For the record, neither a carpenter nor your beautician sounds cliche to me. Good writing can always make common characters seem fresh again. Thanks for the comment.

  2. ramblingsfromtheleft

    September 3, 2012 at 7:41 AM

    Clarissa … an interesting post which poses the question … how can we make the mundane more engaging? Or how to think of things that are a bit off centered??? My newly finished mystery novel is entitled as one of the Third Eye Mysteries … the third eye being the lens of a camera. A photojournalist who ferrets out clues with photographs … finds old black and white photos of people she then researches and tracks down. However, I have read many romance, mystery and WF books where the characters are every day people, a teacher, a caterer or a retired detective.

    Linda Howard, Nora Roberts and Margaret Maron use everyday people with a twist … some of Nora’s characters are in odd professions, some are ordinary people who do extraordinary things and Margaret Maron features a judge who comes from a backwoods background. It’s not only the career we choose, but how we fill in the blank spaces around them … fill them up with unique quirks or amazing talents … something that sets them apart. Mott-Davidson uses a catering business and makes each job a mystery or find How to Bake a Perfect life by Barbara O’Neil who just won the RITA … Shelley Freydont who writes about a place called Celebration Bay where an event planner from NYC gets involved with the local “happenings.” Loved this post, thanks 🙂

  3. Janis

    September 3, 2012 at 9:09 AM

    I think it’s hard when creating a character from your noggin. We want to give the h/h the tools needed to succeed, but we don’t want it to be too easy. 🙂 I think researching a profession with which we are unfamiliar is a landmine of potential missteps. That doesn’t mean we should shy away from the unknown. Just that we have to be careful or put a spin on it. FREX: In the TV show Leverage, the hero Nathan foils the bad guys, who often have very complex scams that most people wouldn’t ferret out. Nathan isn’t a cop or a PI. He was an insurance investigator who figured out if insurance claims were legit. Great twist.

    • Clarissa Southwick

      September 3, 2012 at 1:00 PM

      Yes, I agree. It takes a lot of research to write about an unfamiliar field. It’s always best if you know someone who does that for a living who’s willing to guide you. I haven’t seen Leverage, but I’m sure I would love that twist too. Thanks for the comment.

  4. terryspear

    September 3, 2012 at 9:33 AM

    I was fascinated when a writing student of mine was sharing excerpts from her current work-in-progress about a mystery involving scuba divers. It was interesting to me because it was different and I was learning something. But you could tell from her story, she was a scuba diver and knew exactly what she was talking about. I think it’s too easy for writers to think they can research something and write about it, but not really know the nuances of the profession. Not that we can’t do it. How many of us have actually lived in the Regency era? Or in the jungle with jaguar shifters?

    The other problem is captivating the readers’ attention. When I think of an FBI agent out to catch the bad guy and providing safety for the heroine, it’s much more appealing to me than let’s say a shoe salesman. Unless the shoe salesman is an undercover agent. LOL 🙂 Sorry, they appeal to me. 🙂 Unique is great, if you can carry it off. But just to give any kind of job to make it different, I think it can hurt the character appeal.

    • Clarissa Southwick

      September 3, 2012 at 3:36 PM

      Terry, you bring up so many good points, I don’t know where to begin 🙂 But I have to say– as someone who has never been a wolf,– I believe it must be exactly as you wrote it. Thanks for stopping by and commenting.

  5. ellaquinnauthor

    September 3, 2012 at 9:49 AM

    Interesting post. Makes me glad I write Regencies.

    • Clarissa Southwick

      September 3, 2012 at 3:39 PM

      Ella– Even with limited career choices for their characters, regency writers still have to do way more research than average. Personally, I can’t even keep the titles straight, so I am in awe of anyone who can. Thanks for commenting. 🙂

  6. Judith Keim

    September 3, 2012 at 9:56 AM

    Loved the post, Clarissa! Reading about a character’s interesting job is definitely a plus for me, especially if I’m learning something new. But I really liked your idea of taking a profession that seems ordinary and giving it a twist. A hairdresser to the stars or whose client is a member of the mob pumps the profession up a bit. A cowboy who’s afraid of snakes can be interesting. Fun, fun stuff! Thanks!

    • Clarissa Southwick

      September 3, 2012 at 4:46 PM

      Those all sound like great story ideas, Judy. Good, creative writing never gets old. Thank you for commenting.

  7. Paisley Kirkpatrick

    September 3, 2012 at 10:19 AM

    My current heroine drives a stagecoach. I guess that wouldn’t be something that happens too often, but for her it works. I guess you realize I write historicals, but in my case I live where the actions happen and have been lucky enough to have a stagecoach driver to ask questions of. Life was so different in those days it gives me a little bit of leeway to embellish.

    • Clarissa Southwick

      September 3, 2012 at 9:03 PM

      Hi Paisley! Your story sounds truly unique. I’d love to read it. Thanks for commenting.

  8. Angela Adams

    September 3, 2012 at 10:25 AM

    When writing, my heroine has to hava profession that not only compliments the story, but one that I know something about.

    • Clarissa Southwick

      September 3, 2012 at 9:11 PM

      Hi Angela! Yes, you are right. It’s important to feel comfortable with whatever career we give our characters. If the author can relate to them, then the readers will too. Thanks for stopping by and commenting.:)

  9. Tiffinie Helmer

    September 3, 2012 at 10:52 AM

    Very interesting post, Clarissa! It really has me thinking. I write most of my books set in Alaska, which takes the mundane job and gives it a twist just because of where that job is at. I do a few cops, but they aren’t just cops. In Alaska they are Troopers and their job encompasses so much more than a policeman say in LA. For insistence, in one book I have my trooper policing the commercial fishing craziness in Bristol Bay. In another book, MOOSED UP, I have a Wildlife Refuge Officer hunting poachers. I, too, understand the idea of picking a career the reader can relate to, but to take that career and give it a little something extra. Though I did have a lot of fun with one character who I had work for the Geophysical Institute at the University of Alaska Fairbank, and his job was to study the Aurora Borealis. His head was always in the stars, so to speak.

    • Clarissa Southwick

      September 3, 2012 at 9:22 PM

      Hi Tiffanie, Thanks for commenting 🙂 I think doing an ordinary career in an exotic place is a great way to make your story unique. Your books sound fascinating 🙂

  10. maryvine

    September 3, 2012 at 11:02 AM

    Very interesting post, Clarissa! I’ve never stopped reading a book because of occupations-didn’t even think about that. I do like learning something different while I read, but I don’t want the author to write too much about it. You know, cut to the chase. I’m trying to write different careers, other than what I know, with each new manuscript.

    • Clarissa Southwick

      September 3, 2012 at 9:43 PM

      Great advice, Mary. I think many authors manage to use their hobbies and expertise in other areas to keep their stories fresh. You’ve certainly done that with books like Maya’s Gold. Thanks for commenting !

  11. Peggy Staggs

    September 3, 2012 at 11:53 AM

    I love books with different occupations. I’ve recently read two that were very interesting–and I learned a lot–one was a clerk at the Supreme Court and the other an archivist at the National Archives. Both thrown into worlds that put them way outside their comfort zone.
    I think hard and long about what my characters do for a living. It affects everything in the story.

    • Clarissa Southwick

      September 4, 2012 at 8:21 AM

      Those books sound really interesting. Again, they’ve taken a familiar job (clerk) and put it in an interesting place. That seems to really keep things fresh. Thanks, Peggy!

  12. Liz Fredericks

    September 3, 2012 at 4:07 PM

    I think my favorite approach is to take a job that tends to be stereotyped by gender and flip it. This is a great post!

    • Clarissa Southwick

      September 4, 2012 at 8:23 AM

      Another great idea, Is it just me, or is it much harder to flip the male role? Thanks for commenting, Liz!

  13. Corina Mallory

    September 4, 2012 at 11:56 AM

    Great post! I totally agree with your point, while coming at it from the opposite perspective. I actually think there’s a dearth of “regular” jobs, especially in contemporary romance novels. Sure, you can get a waitress paired with your rock star, or a secretary with her CEO boss. But the “regular” jobs are chosen from such a small pool of acceptable romance novel occupations. (And yes Clarissa, the gender flip thing doesn’t happen nearly often enough.) But where is the middle management guy at the phone company? Or the woman who works at the DMV? Don’t they deserve love too? I see, as a writer, how it can be difficult to create a story hook around jobs like that. It’s so much easier to create big conflicts with lawyers and cops and small business owners and international assassins! (Guilty. SO SO GUILTY of this.) But I’m always excited when I see a blurb featuring an accountant. Does this make me weird?

  14. Clarissa Southwick

    September 4, 2012 at 2:15 PM

    Not weird at all, Corina. I love the idea of a heroine who works at the DMV. There’s so much potential for humor and drama there. Thanks for commenting and welcome to the Gem State Writers!

  15. Lynn Mapp

    September 5, 2012 at 9:58 PM

    Clarissa. Did you see the period? Jobs are a tough one. I remember wanting a character to have an interesting job, but…I didn’t have enough information. That was before the internet. I think I’ve just been lazy. Time to cowgirl up.


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