In his 2000 craft book On Writing, Stephen King says,
People love to read about work. God knows why, but they do.
What is it that’s so fascinating in reading about someone’s job in a novel? I don’t know about you, but when the protagonist has a profession that plays a large role in the story, I get excited.
I’m curious about what he or she does for a living.
And I want to see that profession developed on the page, not just tossed aside like a quick description.
We’re all interested in what people do to make money. In what people do for 40 hours or more a week to earn a living and put food on the table.
But, for the most part, we never get an inside look into what other people do for jobs. We hear stories from friends, we see news reports on TV, we visit the doctor and the dentist of course, but rarely do we get up close and personal with someone’s occupation.
That’s what’s so great about fiction. Whether the book is written in first person or third, if the author takes an interest in the lead character’s profession and doesn’t push it aside in order to get to the plot, then the reader often gets an intimate look at the person’s job, and all those details, at least to me, are fascinating.
I’ve written nineteen novels to date, but sadly, I haven’t written about work very often because, well, I write mostly middle grade and young adult novels. The jobs for my characters are pretty much school, sports, extracurricular activities, homework, you know… things twelve-year-olds and sixteen-year-olds do. Many of my characters have ambitions for what to do later in life for work, like Max in my recent middle grade novel who wants to be a horror movie director.
The parents in my stories always have jobs, yes, but I often don’t give a glimpse into their occupations because the focus of the narrative is always on their son or daughter, and what’s going on in his or her life. I’ve had scenes at the parents’ work before, like in my novel Happy Birthday to Me, in which the protagonist’s father is a slightly demented plastic surgeon. And in another novel I wrote, the unpublished Magic Hour, the main character’s father is a world-famous magician, and we actually get a glimpse at one of his shows in the final act.
But showing people’s work is something I can do more of in the future, because I do love writing that stuff so much, and I certainly love reading it.
When an author puts a lot of effort into research, and then develops not just a flawed, three-dimensional, super interesting character but also that character’s work life, a job that one might not know anything about, I’m delighted in the details, in the scenes that show what he or she is passionate in doing on a daily basis. You get to be told a great story but also learn something new you didn’t know before, get insight into a profession you might have thought one way about but now feel totally differently toward.
Again, this is why fiction is so amazing. Non-fiction too, of course. And so many films and television shows. To get a glimpse into someone’s occupation, how it works, why it’s important, what it means to that character, is a truly special part of storytelling.
And when that job comes alive on the page in a way that’s authentic and true, there’s no telling how many compelling directions the author might take you.