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Thursday, February 23, 2012


Morgan St. James is the author of Writers’ Tricks of the Trade: 39 Things You Need to Know About the ABCs of Writing Fiction, numerous award-winning short stories, some of which are in her new anthology The MAFIA FUNERAL and Other Short Stories, and she co-authors the comical Silver Sisters Mysteries with her sister. The third funny crime caper, Vanishing Act in Vegas was released this past September. Morgan also writes columns for the Los Angeles and Las Vegas editions of www.examiner.com, edits Writers’ Tricks of the Trade E-Zine and is a frequent speaker. Learn more about Morgan at her two websites, www.morganstjames-author.com and www.silversistersmysteries.com and her blog

Morgan is offering a copy of Writers’ Tricks of the Trade: 39 Things You Need to Know About the ABCs of Writing Fiction to one of our readers who posted a comment to the blog this week. -- AP

How a character’s training and profession can be used in different ways

As an author, it is important to consider your characters’ professions relative to the story you want to tell. What do these people actually do in their day-to-day lives? How could it affect the progression of your story. To lead your characters where you want them to go, you have to know them inside out. That way you can use their profession in keeping with their personality strengths or failures, and they might do unexpected things.

Selecting professions for your characters is one of the most important decisions a fiction writer can make. Will they respond in a way normally expected of someone trained to do what they do? Will they go “over-the-top” or perform in a scared or devious manner? Each reaction is the basis for an entirely different story, but once the theme choice is made the character still operates under the umbrella of their profession, whether it is positive or negative.

Maybe they act totally outrageous while doing something they must in order to move the action in a certain direction. If that’s the case, be careful not to lose the believability factor. If the author goes too far afield, it might work, but that means taking a great risk. Considering the storyline, perhaps they need a different profession for the reader or movie-watcher to believe what happened really was possible.

I can think of many instances when I’ve read a book or watched a movie and either thought or said something like, “No way. A [fill in the profession] would never do that!” A good example is the TV series “House.” It has beaten the odds and is quite popular, but a hospital would never keep a prescription-addicted doctor on staff who behaved like House. My friends in the medical profession insist the hospital would be too afraid of malpractice suits. The scripts are developed by a team of writers and Hugh Laurie carries it off and makes it work. Reading the same scenarios in a book without a great actor to mesmerize the reader, something that off-base could backfire. Worse yet, they might tell their friends how unbelievable it was.

Doubts could cause them to lose confidence in the entire story. Things that aren’t 100% accurate, still have to have a ring of believability. The reader has to trust that the author knows what they’re talking about.

Themes play a big part in the credibility of a story, because more often than not they are related to the profession or professions of main and supporting characters. Take any given situation and the characters would all probably have different reasons for acting a certain way, despite their training. So, whether the story or the characters come first, be sure you know what would motivate them to do what they do, how they would do it and why.

Take a cop for example. A cop might be more compelled to aggressively force order than a hair stylist. Maybe he is fighting an inner rage, and let’s face it—his weapon is a gun, not a hair dryer. But then, maybe the hair stylist holds a black belt in karate. It’s always good to have a surprise, and the characters’ professions can help to create it.

Sometimes ordinary people wind up in extraordinary circumstances, and that is often the fuel that fires the story. You know how a character in a given profession is expected to act, consider what would happen if he/she doesn’t react as expected.

Here are two examples of characters in the same professions and same circumstances, but their reaction dictates the rest of the story.

Two thugs assault a middle aged man as he enters an alley, ultimately killing him. A cop witnesses the incident.

Theme 1 – Rage triggered by doing what he was trained to do:
A cop who has only been on the job a few months exits the back door of a restaurant into the alley and he sees two thugs assaulting a middle-aged man. He reacts like Rambo, springing into action, gun drawn. This is what he’s trained to do. His adrenaline takes over when he realizes these guys are about to kill the man. He jumps right into the action. However, despite his quick response, the man dies. Now he spins out of control and becomes an abusive cop. His inability to save the man unleashed long-buried rage emanating from a different source.

 Theme 2 – Fear triggered by the necessity to do what he was trained to do:
The cop enters the alley from the restaurant’s rear door and witnesses two thugs assaulting a middle-aged man. He watches for a moment, frozen with fear. He darts behind a dumpster, quaking in his boots while the man is murdered in front of his eyes. Unable to face what he’s done, he sinks deeper and deeper as he tries to cover up his cowardliness with a series of lies. He paints himself as a dedicated servant of the people who tried to save the man. Only he and the thugs know what really happened, and they sure aren’t about to come forward. Unable to reconcile what he did, the bottle becomes his solace as he struggles through life.


Both stories were affected by what someone in that profession is supposed to do. The themes were what he should have done vs. what he didn’t do, and in both instances a less than perfect ending.  However, both suggest believable scenarios.
Writers have a certain amount of creative license, so it’s okay for things not to be 100% accurate, but totally unbelievable situations just don’t fly. Believability is an essential element that allows the reader to trust that the author.

Thanks for joining us today, Morgan! Readers, don’t forget to post a comment for a chance to win a copy of Writers’ Tricks of the Trade: 39 Things You Need to Know About the ABCs of Writing Fiction. -- AP


Sandy Tilley said...

Great post! I have been struggling with a scene, and after reading this, I realized why it didn't work!
Thanks for the epiphany!

Betty Gordon said...

Morgan, not only an informative post but emtertaomomg as well.

Lynn Chantale said...

Ahh you've given me insight into a character I've been struggling with for a few days. I'm so glad I read this post. Thank you.

I do love the House analogy, it does make for interesting TV though.

writerstricksofthetrade.blogspot.com said...

Glad you liked it and it helped. Things always get interesting when you look at your character from different angles. Also professions can have some quirks that aren't widely known.

My latest novel has just been picked up by Oak Tree Press and wow--the professions really were an inspiration here.

Did you know that $800 Million a year of products are manufactured in Federal Prisons every year and sold to the federal government? It's big business and in the new zany book written with co-author Meredith Holland, someone is ripping off the Department of Justice, but the questions is: Who's Got the Money?

It will be coming out this year on a fast track. The plot is driven by the protagonists who are marketing representatives for the furniture division, having lifted the lid off a Pandora's Box of deceit and greed.

Pat Marinelli said...

What an eye opener! Never thought to use character professions this way.

And the prison info. Wow!

jeff7salter said...

I've taken great care in selecting the professions of my heroines & heroes.
And I totally agree with you about the TV show HOUSE.

How do you feel about writing a character whose vocation leaves them completely unprepared for what they encounter? You know: a fish out of water?

writerstricksofthetrade.blogspot.com said...

Pat, when Who's Got the Money? comes out you won't believe this could happen. But it could. It is fiction but was inspired by fact, and it's a hoot--sort of like blundering Charlie's Angels! Meredith and I marketed prison-made office furniture for four years and we've been inside the factories and warehouses.

And for Jeff, I think the fish out of water presents a wonderful opportunity for an out of the ordinary plot. Just think of all the situations this person can get into. Have fun with it.

Here is something from life that fits your guidelines. My ex-husband got a job managing a Riviera Sofa Bed store years ago. When the owner said, "Now you realize you need to know accounting," during the interview he quipped back, "Sure. Debits and credits. Nothing to it."

Well he knew absolutely nothing about accounting and when he got home with the job offer in hand, asked me, "What the Hell are debits and credits?"

Apply the "what if" formula to that situation and it could spawn many plots. Thanks for asking.

LRHunter said...

I wish I could claim that I carefully select a career for to suit my story line, but it works just the other way around for me. If I know my gal's training (and her emotional history) I can pretty well figure her method of dealing with any particular event.

The fun part comes when she meets an event for which she has no fall-back position.

Great post, and the story sounds like a hoot, too.

writerstricksofthetrade.blogspot.com said...

Yes, in Who's Got the Money Jennifer, Cameron and Kate are down on their luck former executives who lost their jobs. They take jobs with the prison system to keep the wolf from the door, but they have no idea what they've gotten into.

This is a pure case of using their savvy from their former positions to investigate something they know very little about.

The book is expected to be out in late July or early August.