One of my favourite writers, the wonderful, late, Carol Shields, offers this advice to writers: ‘give your character a job.’
Carol Shields understood that the things we spend our lives doing (our work, our hobbies, our daily occupations, our passions) are unique windows into our personalities.
In a fictional sense, jobs or hobbies can act as metaphors for our characters’ lives and they can play a vital role in the plot of our stories too.
In The Astonishing Return of Norah Wells my character’s jobs and pastimes are vital. Fay is a paediatric surgeon: she fixes other people’s children – that’s what she does for the Wells family too. Adam works in a recycling plant and that acts as a pretty good metaphor for his life and what he’s had to do since Norah left: he’s had to take the ruins of his life and make something new out of it. Norah is a jazz trumpeter. She’s creative. She likes to riff her way through life. To improvise. And like all fiercely creative people there’s a solitary and selfish side to her too, which makes it hard for her to be a mother. She’s also a runner…and running away from her family is what triggers the whole story. Sai, Ella’s boyfriend, wants to be a chef – in other words he wants to nourish people, to give them pleasure, and this is what he offers Ella. Willa’s obsession with Fantastic Mr Fox isn’t a hobby or a job but it’s a passion that shapes her thoughts and actions – and epitomises her slightly zany, magical character.
I recently read Clare Mackintosh‘s gripping novel, I Let You Go. (Do read my interview with Clare here, she’s a wonderful writer). In this gripping novel, she gives her main character, Jenna, a new hobby: she becomes a photographer. More specifically, Jenna photographs words written on the sand before they’re washed away by the tide. This new occupation gives Jenna a release from the horror of her situation but also plays a vital role in the plot, especially at the end of the story. Read the extract below and think about how Clare is using photography as a lens through which to understand Jenna and to show us how she interacts with the new world she finds herself in. Then have a go at the writing workshop.
What makes this exercise effective?
Hobbies and jobs reveal our characters’ internal lives: their passions, struggles, fears and desires. They also show how our characters engage with their environment, with other people and the wider world.
Our characters’ jobs and hobbies can also play a vital role in propelling the plot of our stories.
- Read the extract from I Let You Go and consider carefully how Clare Mackintosh uses Jenna’s photography to enrich her character, setting and story.
- Think about a character you are working on or a new character altogether (name, age).
- Give your character a job, a hobby, a passion. This could be something conventional – an accountant, a doctor, a tennis player, a pianist – or it could be an obscure passion that not many people know about or that has been made up by your character. A friend recently revealed that she’s obsessed withs something called Geocaching – an internet driven treasure hunt that takes her to the most incredible places around the world. I definitely want to give one of my future characters that hobby!
- Decide whether you want to make your character proficient at their job / hobby or whether, like Jenna in this extract, they’re just learning and starting out. Watching someone struggle with something can be just as engaging and revealing as watching a master at work.
- Think of a scene in which your character is carrying out his / her job in an interesting way: a situation which reveals something interesting about your character.
- Make brief notes on the setting in which your character is doing their work or hobby: the geographical location, whether it’s inside or outside, who else is present, the weather, the time of day, the season etc. All this might influence how your character behaves.
- Decide on the tone you want for this piece. Jenna in I Let You Go is full of fear and grief – the tone of the passage reflects this. You might want to write a funny piece or a romantic piece or a piece full of action and suspense.
- Now write a short scene in which you reveal your character through his / her job or hobby. Consider all the ways in which your character is effected by what she does – her thoughts, her emotions, her body.
- If you are working on a novel, think about how you could give each of your characters something to do which gives the reader a window into their character.
- Consider how the job or hobby of your character might play a vital role in the plot of your story.
- Write a scene in which your character is doing his job / hobby and interacting with someone else who operates in the same field – for example a swimming competition or someone in the same office. Observing how various characters do the same job / hobby in very different ways can be hugely revealing.
I Let You Go by Clare Mackintosh, pp.49-50
At the top of the cliff an ineffective fence reminds walkers not to stray too close to the crumbling rock edge. I ignore the sign and step over the wire to stand inches away from the drop. The expanse of sand is slowly turning from grey to gold as the sun climbs higher, and my name dances across the middle of the beach, daring me to catch it before it disappears.
I’ll take a picture of it before the tide comes in and swallows it up, I decide, so I can capture the moment I felt brave. I run back to the cottage for my camera. My steps feel lighter now and I realise it’s because I’m running towards something, and not away from it.
That first photograph is nothing special. The framing is all wrong, the letters too far from the shore. I run back down the beach, covering the smooth stretch of sand with names from my past, before letting them sink back into the wet sand. Others I write further up the beach; characters from books I read as a child, or names I love simply for the sweep of the letters they contain. ThenI bring out my camera, crouching low to the sand as I play with the angles, layering my words first with the surf, then with rocks, then with a rich slash of blue sky. Finally, I climb the steep path to the top of the cliff to take my final shots, balancing precariously on the edge, turning my back on the cloth of fear it gives me. The beach is covered with writing of all sizes, like the scribbled ramblings of a madman, but I can already see the incoming tide licking at the letters, swirling the sand as it inches up the beach. By this evening, when the tide retreats once more, the beach will be clean, and I can start again.
I have no sense of what time it is now, but the sun is high and I must have a hundred photos on my camera. Wet sand clings to my clothes and when I touch my hair it’s stiff with salt. I don’t have any gloves, and my fingers are painfully cold. I will go home and have a hot bath, then load the photos on to my laptop and see if I’ve taken anything passable. I feel a surge of energy; it’s he first time since the accident that my day has had a purpose.