I’ve worked as a stained-glass artist, a translator, a marine biologist, and an archeologist.
Or, rather, my characters have. One of the most direct ways into inhabiting character and discovering details that lift a story beyond “mere” narrative has always been, for me, what that character does with her day. How she makes a living, and what kind of a living it is.
Growing up, I felt little parental pressure about what I wanted to be when I grew up. Oh, my dad used to tease me about becoming a dentist, so I could support him and my mother in their old age. And my mother would mistily say, “Whatever you want to do,” while dropping not-so-subtle hints about becoming a wife in Greenwich, Connecticut—about as far-fetched and appealing to me as Dad’s suggestions of dentistry.
As a kid, I liked to make lists and fill out questionnaires. The little boxes and the order they implied calmed me. Lists would grow into fantasized roll calls of the classrooms I’d oversee as a teacher. I always enjoyed imagining my pretend students’ names, however, more than I entertained lesson plans.
In high school, I romanticized marine biology. Spending all that time at the beach! Wearing Irish-knit sweaters, of course, and accompanied by a big shaggy dog and a handsome shaggy man. I liked Mendel and his peas, the neat logic of big “B” and little “b” explaining my blue eyes and my brother’s brown—but I wasn’t quite cut out for the scientific method, with its patience and testing. I liked gathering a few details, observing, and ta-da: conclusion!
Lawyer? Yes, that was suggested but never seriously considered. My dad worked in law, after all, and not until many years later did I come to see how skillfully our dinner-table conversations had prepared me for the critical thinking of an attorney. At the time, though, the profession felt dry and out-of-reach, not at all appealing.
Graduating with a BA in English and French in the early 1980s meant answering, almost every time I turned around, “What will you do with that?” Law school or a PhD were the two options—that, and writing copy for pharmaceutical labels, as the representative who came to Career Day for English Majors announced not very convincingly. I went into publishing, where I worked as an editor and wrote stories on the side. Stories about layout designers and beekeepers.
Despite those childhood lists and roll calls, I had not pursued teaching in any serious way until grad school, when I was given a class to teach. In that first Intro to Fiction class, I talked about the importance of occupation in character development. A story may or may not center on a character’s job, but it helps to know what it is. Gas station attendants will look at the world differently from how beauticians or computer scientists do. The job you give to your character can yield all kind of details—important for verisimilitude, yes, and so rich in terms of image and metaphor.
Heavy-handedness lies in wait, just around the corner. My novel features a photographer, and I try to avoid what a writer colleague calls “the cooked-up feeling that professions often have in novels.” Too many references to light and shadow, development and framing, and my character’s job feels inorganic, authorial, pretentious. My device rather than his sensibility. The two are linked, of course: Christopher could never be a lab technician or a phone-sales rep, and neither could I. And yet.
I’ve been lucky, to choose the work I do and to enjoy it. I’d like to think that those jobs that I would (or could) never do aren’t off limits for my characters. Why shouldn’t a hedge-fund manager or a pimp or a Wal-Mart cashier or a Formula-One driver populate an as-yet-unwritten story? Taking on a job on the page outside my own experience seems—like fiction itself—a way into empathy for and engagement with the world around us. Maybe, Dad, I’ll even become a dentist.
What occupations have felt most natural to their characters, in your own work or the fiction you’ve read? What comes first for you, the character or the occupation?