Jun 24 2009

Key traits of interesting jobs

Many, perhaps most, real life jobs have a fairly narrow and specialized focus. For example, most people of a company’s employees work for a particular department and newspaper reports usually focus on stories related to their section of the paper. In general, I’d recommend giving your heroes jobs that are more flexible because it gives more opportunity to entangle the character in the plot and add new developments.

Here are some aspects that can make a job more flexible and plot-friendly.

1. Get the character out of his office. Offices are mostly bland, forgettable, comfortable and safe. As far as readers and interesting stories are concerned, they are Kryptonite. I’d recommend giving your character a lot of work outside the office because the real world is harder to predict and gives you more opportunities to work in new scenes, danger, seedy characters, etc.

2. Please avoid making the character the boss. Usually, the boss has the least interesting job in the building. Privates and flunkies usually have more at stake than a general or a business magnate does. In addition, low-level work is generally more interesting. I’d much rather read about a platoon patrolling hostile streets or a corporate flack trying to steal corporate secrets than about the men that decided to send the patrols or steal the secrets.

3. As much as possible, I’d recommend having the hero spend his time working in situations that are high stakes and/or heavy on conflict. E.g. if the character is the CEO, it’d probably be easier to create interesting situations if most of his problems can’t be resolved just by telling people what to do (like unreliable employees, dissension in the ranks, embezzlement, corporate sabotage, labor unrest, whatever). If the relationships within a company are usually tidy and well-controlled, it might help to have the characters interact with outsiders. For example, if a police officer has to convince a reluctant witness to testify, that’s a better opportunity to show how impressive he is. In contrast, if the cop could just order the witness to testify because it’s the law, it wouldn’t be nearly as interesting or impressive. (Technically, a cop probably could order a witness to testify, but persuasion may be necessary (e.g. if the case is dangerous, the witness is wary of police, the witness has a good relationship with the defendant or a bad one with the victim, and/or would be creating major problems for himself by admitting that he was there).

4. I’d recommend making the hero accountable to a tough boss. Characters like JJ Jameson tend to add a lot more dramatic potential than friendly bosses like Perry White. They create more of an obstacle for the heroes and usually make the heroes seem more likable.

29 responses so far

29 Responses to “Key traits of interesting jobs”

  1. Marissaon 25 Jun 2009 at 11:12 pm

    One of the things this doesn’t take into account is the sheer number of jobs that don’t take place in a cubicle. Rarely do superheroes seem to get cubicle jobs like this article suggests… Writers seem to think they’re above that kind of thing, unless it’s for humor purposes.

  2. Abdur-Rahmanon 11 Jan 2011 at 7:34 pm

    B.Mac, number 4 reminds me of the TV series 24 where Jack Bauer faces some obstacles such as CTU Directors who are opposed to his tactics – such as Ryan Chapelle.

  3. B. Macon 11 Jan 2011 at 7:54 pm

    The Wire is another show that I thought did a good job with cop vs. boss conflict. Another option would be that the character has a lot of conflict with someone on the job that isn’t a boss. For example, on Dexter, the main character is a serial killer that works as a lab tech for the police department. His main conflict on the police force is with an observant and paranoid detective that picks up too many creepy vibes from a guy whose instincts were too good.

  4. Abdur-Rahmanon 12 Jan 2011 at 3:27 pm

    Yeah, Dexter is another good example.

  5. Nick182on 21 May 2011 at 10:20 am

    Is being a detective a suitable job for a superhero that is an alien? And how would I go about it ?

  6. Silvercaton 21 May 2011 at 10:43 am

    @Nick, the Martian Manhunter is a PI, so it works for at least for one character (well, depending on your opinion of MM)

  7. B. Macon 22 May 2011 at 1:17 am

    “Is being a detective a suitable job for a superhero that is an alien? And how would I go about it?” I’m not sure how to answer that. Could you be a bit more specific? (What are some of your concerns about an alien-as-detective?)

  8. ekimmakon 22 May 2011 at 3:26 pm

    One thing that I considered once (not sure if it’s any good) is to give the superhero a job as a photojournalist… where the boss secretly knows that it’s the hero.

    “But, how did she get these photos?”
    “Simple. That’s Sonix.”
    “WHAT?”
    “How else could she get them?”
    “Then, why’d you hire her?”
    “SImple. I get the best shots of Sonix in the city, and if anyone tries something in the building, I have the ultimate security guard. All I need to do is keep her secret. An excellent trade-off.

  9. B. Macon 22 May 2011 at 3:42 pm

    That sounds like a very believable take on J. J. Jameson. (Maybe he’s just PRETENDING to hate Spiderman. In a New York City where pretty much everybody is neck-deep in shadiness, but especially the Punisher and Wolverine and the hundreds of murderous villains, it feels very strange that anyone would argue that Spiderman is the linchpin of evil).

    Mind you, I love JJJ, too. 🙂

  10. ekimmakon 22 May 2011 at 4:55 pm

    Yeah, that’s where I came up with the idea of it. Not sure whether I should, or even can, use this idea though.

  11. Anonymouson 16 Oct 2013 at 6:04 pm

    Hi, I’ve read a lot of these articles, but I’ve never commented before. To ekimmak: I seem to remember an article recommending against that, but as a fan of several superhero movies, I think that’s an amusing thought that might make for a good scene in… something. A movie, book, or the art medium known as video games, or something else, maybe?

    Also, what’s the protocol for choosing a name for myself here?

  12. B. McKenzieon 17 Oct 2013 at 6:48 am

    “Hi, I’ve read a lot of these articles, but I’ve never commented before.” Welcome!

    “What’s the protocol for choosing a name for myself here?” I’m not sure I understand the question. You can choose a name by typing your name into your comment or by registering. I’d recommend choosing a pseudonym which sounds like it could be someone’s given name. (E.g. “Luke Smith” sounds more credible and professional than “SilverSmiley39”). For security reasons, I’d recommend against using your actual name.

  13. Elecon 18 Oct 2013 at 2:22 am

    Hi B. Mac, What was the name of the article that you had on here about not using too many different words for ‘said’? I forgot the name, but I’m trying to show a friend.

  14. B. McKenzieon 18 Oct 2013 at 5:23 am

    Please Don’t Overuse Exotic Substitutes for ‘Said.’

  15. Isaac Einstein Teslaon 18 Oct 2013 at 5:36 am

    I’m the Anonymous guy who posted a little while ago. What’s the benefit of of registering, how do I do it, and why won’t the site let me post as fast as I type?

  16. B. McKenzieon 18 Oct 2013 at 5:47 am

    Hello, Isaac.

    1. The main benefit of registering is that you won’t get any messages like “Slow down! You’re posting comments too quickly.” (You should also be able to search the website’s comments if you’re logged in by going to Admin).

    2. You can register by going here.

    3. The spam filter is very strange and sometimes shows unregistered a “Slow down! You’re posting comments too quickly” message whether or not they are actually posting comments quickly. Registering & logging in will avoid this issue.

  17. Isaac Einstein Teslaon 18 Oct 2013 at 9:01 am

    For some reason, I’m not receiving the confirmation email. It says that my host may have disabled email. Is that a problem with my computer or the site?

  18. B. McKenzieon 18 Oct 2013 at 2:50 pm

    IET, I’ve emailed you a password. If you haven’t received it, please let me know.

  19. Isaac Einstein Teslaon 18 Oct 2013 at 6:11 pm

    New problem: how do I log in? I can’t figure out where the log in option is. Also, my new account name is the same as this post, but minus the spaces. The caps are the same, though.

  20. Isaac Einstein Teslaon 18 Oct 2013 at 6:16 pm

    Never mind, I figured it out. I also figured out how to keep the same screen name. Thanks for the help!

  21. Melissaon 19 Jan 2014 at 8:43 pm

    Hi! I’ve read a lot of the articles on this website and I am so happy I came across this. I’ve learned so much on what I could do with my superhero. But I’m a bit confused…well unsure on what I should do for my character’s job. I like the idea of her being a bounty hunter who often rubs the police department the wrong way. But she doesn’t have an office, and she’s called away or finds criminals to chase outside of her city too. What should I do with her occupation?

  22. B. McKenzieon 19 Jan 2014 at 11:47 pm

    “I like the idea of her being a bounty hunter who often rubs the police department the wrong way. But she doesn’t have an office, and she’s called away or finds criminals to chase outside of her city too. What should I do with her occupation?” I think it’d be workable to make her a bounty hunter without an office, especially if she’s frequently on the move and/or would prefer to avoid giving the police an easy place to find her.

  23. Melissaon 20 Jan 2014 at 2:36 pm

    Thanks so much for responding! 🙂

  24. Cillianon 10 Mar 2014 at 8:47 am

    Could a female character work say as a builder or a steel mill employee? or something along those lines

  25. B. McKenzieon 10 Mar 2014 at 3:11 pm

    “Could a female character work say as a builder or a steel mill employee? or something along those lines” I’m not sure about builder, but I feel like steelworker would be really hard to work into the plot. I don’t know anything about the plot or what you have in mind, but there are some blue collar jobs that may be easier to work in (e.g. cop, soldier, mechanic, hunter, private investigator, smuggler and several other kinds of criminal, maybe a longshoreman, etc). In general, anyone that interacts directly with criminals (or is a criminal) would be really easy to work with, and jobs that entail some risk of violence are generally more interesting… along those lines, I think that builders might have some sort of organized crime and/or political corruption angles to worry about. I’m not sure what you’d be able to do with steelworkers besides union intrigue (preferably mixed with criminal activity — e.g. in The Wire, a longshoremen union got involved in smuggling drugs and women, which created problems with longshoremen that are not into that life-without-parole scene).



    I don’t think the character’s gender would create any major challenges for you here. (In contrast, if you had a male character working as a supermodel, I think that would raise a lot of eyebrows).

  26. Alexison 01 Feb 2015 at 6:47 pm

    How necessary is it for your main character to have a job? What if your character does not have a job? What if their entire life is devoted to their cause?

    My main character is revolutionary. He commands a large revolt and does not have a day job.

    Would I need to compensate for this? How could I compensate?

  27. B. McKenzieon 02 Feb 2015 at 12:54 am

    “How necessary is it for your main character to have a job? What if your character does not have a job? What if their entire life is devoted to their cause? My main character is a revolutionary. He commands a large revolt and does not have a day job. Would I need to compensate for this? How could I compensate?”

    As long as the character does interesting things, his employment status does not matter. It doesn’t matter whether the interesting things involve a job or not.



    If an author hypothetically had a superhero that had a day job that was really boring and/or hard to work into the story (e.g. an ordinary librarian or plumber or something), I would probably encourage him/her to consider jobs which had more potential for interesting conflict and/or character development and/or could be tied into the central plot more easily. I don’t foresee your story having these problems with a main character that is a revolutionary (especially if the revolution is a major plot element).

  28. Anonymouson 17 May 2016 at 10:16 am

    So, I’m thinking a restaurant that also delivers

  29. Cat-vacuumer Supremeon 13 Sep 2016 at 12:00 pm

    In part of my novel-in-progress, my MC is a librarian, but her job is only in one scene where it lets her notice something odd which is a little foreshadowing towards the next bit of story.

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