by John Bucher (@johnkbucher)
In the United States, people often feel defined by what they do for a living. In the world of story, a character’s occupation can have similar importance. If your character is of working age, audiences expect to learn how they make their living. This may or may not be a significant element of the story. A character’s occupation can, however, play an important role in the development of the overall narrative. Here are six ways to connect a character’s job with the story you are creating around him or her.
1. THE JOB IS THE CONFLICT
The most direct way to deal with your character’s occupation is to make that job the central conflict in the story. In 42, it’s Jackie Robinson’s job to play professional baseball. This job is the source of conflict between all the opponents he faces and himself. In Dallas Buyer’s Club, Ron Woodruff creates a job selling medication to AIDS patients. This job becomes the central point of conflict in the story. The Help, Belle, and Gravity all feature key characters whose job is the conflict in the film.
2. THE JOB PROVIDES THE ENVIRONMENT OR SETTING FOR THE CONFLICT
Every person who has ever held a job has experienced conflict in that job. This is likely why jobs make good environments and settings to explore our character’s conflict. In Moneyball, baseball is the environment the characters work in and thus the environment the conflict plays out in. In High Fidelity, it’s the record shop that our protagonist lives and works in. In Adventureland, it’s the theme park all the characters work in. Field of Dreams, The 40 Year Old Virgin, and even The Godfather all feature occupational environments key to the protagonist’s development in the story.
3. THE JOB IS TO SOLVE THE CONFLICT
Some of the most interesting characters ever developed have been those who make their living by solving conflicts. We love these characters because we all long for someone to help solve our own dilemmas. Austin Powers, James Bond, Sherlock Holmes, and Indiana Jones all have made occupations out of solving problems and mysteries no one else could solve. Inherent Vice, Argo, Angels and Demons, and Ghostbusters all feature characters with occupations that center on solving conflicts.
4. THE JOB IS TO WIN
A staple among sports films, sometimes a character’s job is simply to win. The Karate Kid was a student and didn’t really have a job, except to win the karate tournament. Beatrice was an assassin, but her true task came to be winning by Kill(ing) Bill. The Permian High Panthers had no other job but to win in Friday Night Lights. It’s safe to say the job of the protagonist in the upcoming Creed will be the same. Outside of the sporting arena, Erin Brokovich‘s main goal is to win her case for her clients.
5. THE JOB IS TO SURVIVE THE INSTITUTION
Some characters don’t have occupations either because they are students and do not yet have a job or they are guests of institutions. Ferris has no job but to survive the institution of school in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. All the main characters in The Breakfast Club have the same job. The men in The Shawshank Redemption and Cool Hand Luke have the same job as well. All these characters’ primary occupation becomes simply surviving the institution they are a part of. Even Gladiator and 12 Years A Slave feature protagonists with no job but this, since both men are enslaved.
6. WHAT JOB? I’M ON VACATION!
Occasionally in the world of story, we encounter characters who are either unemployed or on vacation. Even though his occupation is referenced, Clarke Griswold is clearly on Vacation. Forgetting Sarah Marshall features a protagonist on a vacation with a hidden agenda. The Hangover tells the story of a vacation (in the form of a bachelor party) gone wrong. In Couples’ Retreat, we meet a group of people all on vacation. Even The Wizard of Oz could be considered a vacation story since it features a character that is away from her normal life and tasks.
While the occupation of your character can be extremely important, it’s key not to let it completely define them. Characters tend to fall flat when all we know of them is what they do to make money. Remember, just as none of us can be completely encompassed by our job descriptions, the same is true of the characters we create. Create well-rounded people who have many layers and a variety of interests. Then, their occupation becomes a lens to who they are instead of a singular definition.
John Bucher is a writer, speaker, and story consultant based out of Los Angeles. He is the author of several books including The Inside Out Story and the upcoming Secrets of Short Visual Storytelling. He has written for entities ranging from HBO to International Ambassadors. He teaches at The LA Film Studies Center and has conducted story seminars on five continents. He can be reached on Twitter @johnkbucher and through his blog, welcometothesideshow.org.