Get A Job, You Handsome Bum (and while you’re at it, get a hobby, too.) by Nicole Kimberling

As editor of Blind Eye Books, I have to say that I am deeply concerned about joblessness. Every day manuscripts arrive in my mailbox featuring protagonists who appear to be out of work. Still more protagonists seem to be so deeply unqualified for the jobs that they do hold that in addition to worrying about them being fired, I wonder how they every got hired in the first place.

And tragically, it is my own genre, fantasy and science fiction that suffers the highest rates of unemployment. Like the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, I consider assassins, thieves, intergalactic pirates, hookers and all other crime-based workers to be technically unemployed. I feel that sorcerers, wizards and witches qualify as self-employed, but only if they’ve actually been contracted for a job. Ditto for star captains, mercenaries and any sort of bounty hunter. “Agents” must be on the payroll of an “agency” to which they are accountable for me to count them as members of the workforce. And I regret to inform you that “adventurer” is not and has never been a job, alas.

But that is not the worst of it. Turning to the paranormal front, vampires and shape-shifters seem to be the most job-challenged of all. Very few of these individuals seem to have any practical, steady income. If they were to have to fill out an application for food stamps, for example, they would definitely be in the category of person who would need to write a small essay at the bottom of the form beneath the line that reads, “If you have no source of income, please explain how you support yourself in the space below.”

(For my opinion of vampire and demon hunters see: space captain/mercenary above.)

I’d like to think that the recession is to blame for the proliferation of marginally and murkily employed protagonists. Sadly, I fear that the problem might be a failure of characterization.

In contemporary fiction choosing a job for your protagonist is crucial, because the career you give him is more than just the costume that he wears on the cover. It is the lens through which he views the world. Lets say you have your protagonist (we’ll call him Justin) walk into a party. The career you have given him will affect his perception of the party. If Justin is a musician, he’ll most likely notice the energy level of the people in the room immediately. Are people excited? Rowdy? Low-key? Musician Justin, like all live performers, is going to be attuned to the existing vibe of a place and be responsive to it.

In contrast, Artist Justin might not initially notice the existence of people at all. He will most likely be looking at the quality of light in the room and noticing the colors that fill the shadows before he even considers the fact that all these shapes and colors reflecting the light are people.

Writer Justin will probably wonder who everybody in the room is, and how they are connected to each other. Chef Justin will go check out the food and, using that barometer, will assess what kind of event he’s at and whether or not he belongs there. Cop Justin will not be able to avoid monitoring the overall level of inebriation in the crowd or noticing laws that are being broken, even if he chooses to take no punitive action, and so on.

So in giving your protagonist a job, you also give them a basic viewpoint. If you choose a fictional job that you have not actually done yourself, it will be your job as an author to boldly go and find out what that might be. That is called research. The flat-out easiest way to research a character in this way is to just phone someone who does the job you want to give your character and ask them what writers always get wrong about their profession.

For example, my other career is in professional cooking. Because being a chef is now considered sexy, many writers are jumping in with characters who are either chefs or who work in or own upscale restaurants. As a result, I’ve purchased and then subsequently DNF-ed a number of books where the author clearly did no research into the restaurant industry. Probably the most memorable gaffe was an author who had their protagonist, a lowly peon who had been cooking less than a year, sass the chef without incurring severe, immediate punishment. What should have happened to the mouthy little punk? Well, here’s a hint: Gordon Ramsay’s savage mood swings are neither a put-on, nor particularly rare for his profession.

(And incidentally… Note to any of you decide to write about an upscale restaurant: go read the menus of some Michelin-starred restaurants before you start describing the food. Chicken Cordon Bleu went off the menu of most fine dining places at approximately the same moment that Schwan’s started delivering it frozen to your doorstep, which is to say, at least two decades ago.)

I’ve found that most people, even strangers that I’ve cold-called, are happy to tell me all about their professions once they know I’m writing a book. Some even go the extra mile and find plot solutions that I, as an outsider, would never have considered. So don’t be shy about contacting the real deal and asking some questions. As I said before, you’re a writer—doing this sort of thing is your job.

No discussion of careers in fiction could be complete without a mention of jobs that are so over-used and standard as to have had their viewpoint rendered somewhat meaningless. These include, but are not limited to:

Any sort of law enforcement (includes secret agent)
Unspecified “doctor”
Unspecified “lawyer”
CEO of nebulous company
Artist or musician of no distinguishing medium or style
Professor of any broad category like English or Palentology who appears to have no personal emphasis and never steps foot on a university campus for the entire story.
Stripper—all kinds
“Hacker” (This was never a job, anyway.)

In order to use the over-used professions a protagonist has got to go the extra mile and have either a specialty, such as pediatric onocologist, or a descriptor like CEO of a company that builds wind-turbines for green energy programs, or be differentiated from the rest of their faceless ilk by the addition of a hobby. An example of this might be cop who is obsessed with disc-golf.

More than anything, though, I would love to see some romance protagonists who go outside the box in terms of their profession. In Bellingham (the real city of Bellingham, not the fake version in my mystery series) there is a reconstructive dentist who does pro bono work for the women’s shelter. In other words, a lady who has had all her front teeth punched out can go to this guy and literally have him help her get her smile back. How cool is that?

Does not this dentist deserve to be the hero of a love story? Can he not find love with a hot cyclist who has broken his teeth during a road race while qualifying for the Olympics? Who are we to deny them their strange attraction?

What about the guys who work as professional jousters at Medieval Times? Tree surgeons? Sales reps? Hand models? Voice actors? CPAs? Driving instructors? Vintage airplane mechanics? Think of all the fascinating and unique details that their experiences, conflicts and ambitions could offer your book.

By nature, romance stories are formulaic. One way to keep stories fresh and interesting is to bring in non-standard characters and an easy way to generate those is to be a job-creator. Give your men unique occupations that they love, are good at and can be proud of and they will reward you with many sales.

74 comments

  • All this was painful to read, if illuminating.

    It’s not just guys that feel diminished by lack of meaningful work. I’ve never discovered anything I’m good enough at to earn a living and I’m 47. I managed a 16-year relationship before it broke up, which was horrible but at least it doesn’t leave me with anything I have to prove; comparatively the longest I’ve held a job without being sacked is one year. One of the few insightful things Freud ever said that didn’t sound as if he made it up was that ‘love and work’ define human beings. I suspect those of us who have little objective proof of their value in the erotic or the commercial marketplace feel the lack, women or men.

    Am trying to learn copy-editing (the arcane marks! the grammar!) because the work I enjoyed most at a voluntary job was proofreading.

    One of the things I find hardest with creative writing is the voice at the back of my head saying ‘you know few and have done nothing–what right do you have to write anything and what subject do you know?’. I suspect I’m struggling with the ‘creative’ end at the moment for similar reasons and I’d feel happier cleaning up someone else’s attempt to write English prose, or trying to write non-fiction.

    Reply
    • Hi Alex,

      Well, you know there’s no law that says that one must find one’s true calling by some sort of deadline.

      And RE: what right do you have to write, etc.: Writing is not a calling that is granted to an author because of some pre-existing set of qualifications. Writing is something that an author just decides to do and then does.

      No permission is required.

      Although there is something of a long learning-curve. 😉

      Reply
  • Hi Nicole — Great post and truly interesting comments. I’m in awe that writers manage as often as they do to convincingly portray the details of occupations in which they may have little or no personal experience. When it’s really convincing I tend to suspect that they have worked in that area, although asking about someone’s work will also garner info filtered by the interviewee’s personal perceptions. And our perceptions of ourselves and what we do can be skewed to say the least, but I suppose that may actually add authenticity.

    The need for authenticity extends to avocations/hobbies. I have for the past decade+ been very involved with a particular social dance. When I mention this to non-participants they almost always immediately ask if we compete or perform. I explain that no, it’s nothing like what’s on the TV shows, that we dance socially once or more each week, and for the most part it’s about meeting with a like-obsessed group or people and about the “conversation” between partners. But that’s also something of a lie because we also watch and judge each other the whole time, even if in mostly a good-natured way.

    I used to grab any book that mentioned “my” dance, but have been cured of that, much eye-rolling later. 🙂 I especially eye-roll when an MC is planning to pursue this as a profession, as even the most renowned teachers and performers of this dance, almost always have another job. Back to skewed perceptions, it’s often been those who are caught up in it who seem the most delusional. I suppose that sounds mean (or self-descriptive? 🙂 ), but may be a useful caveat for writers…

    Reply
    • Hi Karen!

      Sorry it took me a couple of days to reply.

      It sounds like being a “professional dance teacher” is a lot like being…. A WRITER! In that we almost always have other jobs, I mean. 😀

      What I don’t understand about not researching hobbies is… why wouldn’t you? I mean, researching a book gives one the perfect excuse to dabble in almost any activity (for a couple of days, anyway) without the pain of further commitment. It’s always seemed like a win/win situation to me.

      Reply
  • BTW, I never thanked Aunt Lynn for finding the straight-up funniest picture of a chef type I’ve ever seen.

    Thanks, Aunt Lynn!

    Reply
  • Yikes, either my dyslexia is getting worse, or my mind is further in the gutter than I thought. I read the topic as “Get a handjob, you some bum!”

    Reply
  • Imo, vampires would brood far less if they had to work for a living. Instant riches that seem to come with conversion are bad for morale.

    Anyone who wants to make their protag a professional chef should read Anthony Bourdain’s “Kitchen Confidential.” Reading that and Ramsey’s bio gives you a vivid image of the macho world of kitchens.

    Reply
    • Hi Lou! Yes, Bourdain’s book is very accurate in terms of showing the machismo and strict hierarchy in pro kitchens.

      Reply
  • Great post, Nicole. You’re absolutely right that profession shapes someone’s personality & POV.

    Because I used to work in school, I learned about things teachers do behind their students back. Teachers aren’t as saintly or evil as people make them out to be. Even the most uncaring teacher I meet have this mindset that every achievement & reward should be earned. Which probably give them the impression that they’re uptight. lol.

    I told my friends some teachers I know watched porn at school, she didn’t believe me. (Not me, I watch them at home, where I can drool and gawk freely, thanks. :grin:)

    Reply
    • Cleon! You scamp!

      I agree. Teachers are much more like regular humans than students think they are! 😆

      Reply

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