Why Lack of Straightforwardness Matters

Yesterday, I talked about how almost everyone will look at a character’s job and decide that it’s easier than it actually is, including the character doing the job. Today, I’m going to talk about why that should matter to us, particularly to those of us who write rather than tabletopping.

The first, of course, is characterization—figuring out how hard the character thinks the job is, how hard the characters around the character think the job is, and how much the discrepancy annoys the character. One fun way to establish characters as highly experienced and competent is to have them think of it as markedly easier than it is, not due to ignorance, but due to having internalized the procedures, mastered the shortcuts and moved on—but still having a healthy respect for everything they’ve learned. The discrepancy, meanwhile, can make for a lot of interesting conflict—there’s nothing quite like having someone on your case to get something done now because they don’t realize how much behind the scenes work goes into it to set off a shouting match.

If you’re writing a character, remembering this is also a good way to make sure you’re closer to making the character ring true. After all, if you’re writing about someone who does things you don’t, what’s to say that you’re not one of the people who does think the job is much simpler than it actually is? If you know you’re likely to think that, it makes it easier to remember to do the research; if you do the research, the character is going to seem a whole lot more genuine.

It’s also good for world-building. When you’re constructing someone’s occupation, think about what sorts of things it might entail that people wouldn’t actually see. While you don’t have to actually show them unless they’re plot-important, hinting at them and making it clear that they exist (even if you don’t specify what they are) will make the job seem more like a job and less like a convenient character label, and show that you’ve done your homework. In addition—particularly if it’s a job that your audience would expect you to look down on—it makes it clear that you have some modicum of respect for the people who do it.

Job can inform plot. I’ll grant, it seems a lot easier to write about some jobs than others—the ones that play for high stakes, that carry conflicts with them at every turn, that might even go for full on life or death. But any job has stories. Any job has stakes. They may not be as large issues in the grand scheme of things, but if they matter enough to the characters, and you can sell the audience on the fact that they matter that much, then they’re still likely to be enough to carry the story without insisting on, say, making a romance the A-plot because you’re not sure what else to do.

The take-home lesson is this: understanding the roles your characters play and the work they do will, in the end, make them, their world and the story as a whole better.

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