We have a new eye doctor and this past weekend I had my first appointment with him for my annual checkup.
He noted that I’m a literary agent. For one, I was impressed that he understood what a literary agent is. Most people have to ask. The conversation led to thoughts about professions as they are portrayed in books and on TV. Let me recap his thoughts:
“There are very few opthamologists in movies.” He named a couple of films, one with an eye doctor as a minor character.
“It’s hard for a character to have a 9-5 job because they work all day. People in movies seem to be architects. For one, no one knows what hours they work, so they can be available any time. Two, you can show them carrying around a set of blueprints as a visual. And three, they have a cool prop like a drawing board.”
From that perspective, he’s right. Visuals for the career of an architect can be rather effective and easy. And though regular office hours may be the reality for most architects, few people know one way or the other, so the perception is that they work when they please. Just look at any “Brady Bunch” TV show. Did the dad ever put in a full day of work?
I always laugh at older films showing a writer driving to an agent or editor’s house to deliver a hard copy of a manuscript in a manila envelope. That has never happened in my experience. I wonder how many people think that was actually how publishing professionals worked on a routine basis?
And how many characters do we see living well beyond the salaries they would be paid in real life?
The fact is, books and film can portray idealized working hours for rarified professions, partly for glamour, and to keep the plot from becoming encumbered. And as readers and viewers, we are more than happy to play along.
What professions do you like to assign your characters? Why?
What professions do you think are over-represented in books or TV? Under-represented?
What professions would you like to see more of?
Great post, Tamela. I usually make my characters self-employed (mechanic, writer, editor) or give them a good reason for being off work for a few days (vacation, bereavement, etc.).
Engineers! We do not drive trains. My current protag is a retired Detroit cop. However, I have on my list of books to write a mystery with an auto plant engineer as the protag (I live near Detroit in case you didn’t pick that up). I agree that we tend to go with convenient occupations. It would certainly add an element of tension if our guy was forced to run out of a big meeting to stop a killer.
Tamela, for me the choice was easy, since I have a great deal of experience in medicine. Although doctors, nurses, and other health professionals are busy, they still have lives outside the hospital/office walls. Besides which, what happens to them while they practice their profession seems to interest readers.
That having been said, I seem to have made an unconscious decision to add the legal profession to my character armamentarium. It’s not because of any bad experiences there. Rather, I suppose it’s because I’ve been around so many of them (including my golf partner) and have read so much about them in the books I choose for pleasure.
Armamentarium. Cool word, Richard! I figured what it meant from your context, but I googled it anyway. Learned something new today!
I like armamentarium, too. But my editor just told me to stop using big words and keep things simple, so I think I’ll need to write “tools” instead.
Patti Jo Moore
Being a former kindergarten (and first grade) teacher for many years, I often have my heroine being a teacher. However I’ve also had a veterinarian, secretary, librarian, and gift shop owner. ~ When I read, I enjoy reading about main characters in the medical profession or any career involving children. 🙂
And reading your post reminded me I’m overdue for an eye exam–thanks! 😉
I choose professions for my characters that I know something about, because I’m not that fond of research. I have a handyman in one of my books. He works for himself, so he can take time off when he needs to. (I could never be a handyman, but I’ve sure seen a lot of them work in my old house.) I have a soldier on leave, so I don’t have to know much about his day-to-day work. In the novella I just finished, I have a computer programmer, but we never see him at work. I guess I have most of my action out of the office.
Interesting post, Tamela. Good points.
Plumber, hairdresser, accountant, dairy farmer. I think I chose the hairdresser profession because I go to the beauty salon fairly often. I chose dairy farmer because I found the profession interesting and there are not that many small family dairy farms around anymore. Not sure why I chose the plumber, but, in my novel, you hardly see the plumber at work.
I chose accountant because I know a lot about that profession.
I have ‘Chesapeake Weddings’ sitting right beside me!! I bought it because I live in Maryland and in the center of the farming community!
Janet Ann Collins
Since I write fiction for kids and non-fiction for adults I’ve never had to deal with that problem. But, besides being a writer, I’m a substitute teacher and that job provides lots of opportunities for flexible hours and encounters with a variety of people and locations. It might be a good job for people in novels.
I just got my first set of glasses a couple of months ago, thanks to the visit to my ophthalmologist visit.
I have a hard time picking occupations for my characters. In my first ms, my heroine was a teacher, in part because I was one, so I knew how to write that one well. My hero was a custom home builder, because that’s what fit the story.
In my current wip, my characters’ occupations fit in with the story line. My heroine is a crisis pregnancy center director and my hero is in sales. I find that the occupation has to fit with the story in order for it to resonate with me as the author, if that makes sense. I have had to do research to figure out the nuances, but hey, I learned how to lay wood floors and rough in electric on a room addition because of the character’s occupation, so it’s not totally wasted. 😉
I loved this topic today, Tamela.
I loved reading this post! I am always struggling with giving my characters the right profession. I come from a long line of contractors and farmers. My first reaction to occupations like these was, “Gee, those are boring jobs to write about.” But then I did my homework. Did you know for a while in the late 90’s to around 2003 the farmer’s job was rated the most dangerous in the country? Later it was changed to deep see fishing.
The more I read about general contractors-and experienced with contractors-I learned their job is not so easy either. Accidents and shortages as well as cancellations and interesting co-workers make this job intriguing!
In answer to your questions: I love handing out the job as “farmer” to most of my characters because I know the most about the profession and there’s always a draw to the southern way of life.
I would love to read more about a character’s job as the ‘average joe'(or Jane) who is just working to make ends meet, then one day is handed his/her due after years of labor. (Sounds like Jacob’s story from the Bible) :)I think more people can relate to this type of character and (hopefully) feel encouraged by his/her story.
Thanks for the great article!
Great post. I’ve actually talked about this with friends because one of the reasons most of my main characters are nobles or royalty is because I don’t have to work around their jobs or limited financial means.
Tamela Hancock Murray
Elizabeth, I once read an article about writing that said, “Make your characters rich.” The point was exactly what you are saying — they are unfettered, at least financially. I also read an article on craft that said, “Two people working out how to pay the rent is realistic, but not interesting.” So while all characters in our novels can’t be royalty or even wealthy, we can at least give them the ability to make a good enough living that meeting the bills isn’t a plot point.
Tamela Hancock Murray
In revisiting the blog this morning, realize I should have said that paying bills shouldn’t be the only plot point, or the major driving plot point in a novel. Certainly if it’s appropriate to the story, money worries can be a problem that complicates characters’ lives, among other issues and concerns.
Love this subject, Tamela. So many great plot ideas can spin off of a good occupation. It seems that lawyers are over-represented in books and movies (especially as antagonists – grrr!), but it could be that I notice it just because I am one/was one before children. Still, though, it’s a profession that is flexible and can stick a finger in just about any plot twist.
Scientists, clergy, artists, politicians, stay-at-home-moms.
April W Gardner
Too many cops, doctors, and lawyers! At least on TV. 🙂
I’ve had a rancher, soldier, race car driver, mechanic, and street sweeper in my novels.
Fun post. Had a good chuckle over the visual of the architect. So true!
When writing contemporaries, I tend to lean toward characters involved in the arts:musicians, actors, event planners, and models. I’ve gravitated toward those career choices because I have family members in those fields. I understand what’s involved, and I’m drawn to those fields myself.
When writing my historical romance, I went in an entirely different direction and made the heroine a store clerk and the hero a pastor in a small town. But I grew up in that same,small town, so there was a lot of things I could relate to.
Over-represented in the media: Too many female ninja assassin disguise experts struggling to escape the control of massive brainwashing secret corporations. Honestly. Who does that for a living??
Since I write ancient historical, my characters are adventurer types. They go cool places and discover things in the ancient world. They tend to be military, scholarly, or outcasts seeking safety away from their originating culture.
The MC in my current story loses her job because she strikes, which throws her into a quandary about what to do next. In this way the lack of a job propels the story, brings conflict, and provides character motivation.
When new story ideas unfold in my mind they usually begin with a setting and then expand to a little known profession in history. My WIP centers around the shipwreck salvage industry in Key West.
It’s funny you should mention this, Tamela. Although I’m not yet writing a novel, I will one day in the not-too-distant future. And almost everywhere I go, I find a character or setting for a future work of fiction.
A couple of years ago, I was convinced I needed to set a novel in the salon/spa where I get my hair cut. I considered every visit there a research trip, although I didn’t take a deduction for the salon services. Funny thing: after I decided this, it seemed every other novel I picked up featured a cosmetologist, nail tech, or some other variation of my main character. I still like the idea, though.
Hmmm. Maybe a novel about a literary agent? I’m sure it would be a best-seller.
For fun I’m working on time-travel fiction. My protagonist is a cop; it just seemed the thing to do.
I’m working on a series where the main character is studying to become an optometrist. I worked as an optician for many years (they’re the ones who fill the prescriptions ophthalmologists or optometrists write out and help their patients select an appropriate frame). It’s fun to write about an occupation you some some experience with even though they don’t carry blueprints and have flexible hours. They wear the best glasses, though.
A pharmacist is a career you don’t want your character to have if you need a flexible schedule.
Now if you want intrigue and drama, that’s the profession you want. I’m telling you there is never a dull moment.
My current story I’m polishing has a librarian and veterinarian.
I enjoyed your post today.
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