How to Give a Character a Job

8 Dec
Chaitali Sen's The Pathless Sky updates the star-crossed lovers tale with a novel set amid political turmoil and the possibility that geography and politics might still be overcome.

Chaitali Sen’s The Pathless Sky updates the star-crossed lovers tale, in a novel set amid political turmoil and the possibility that geography and politics might still be overcome.

Just as oceans cover 71% of the Earth’s surface, so do jobs occupy the vast majority of our waking hours. Yet in novels and stories, we tend to write about only the dry land—the family members, relationships, and conflicts that we often view as separate from work. Some critics claim this is due to the novel’s bourgeois roots. In this view, writers (for instance, Henry James) have often been people with wealth, who never had to get a “real job,” and so their novels reflect their lives of leisure. The opposite approach is to give characters low-paid, backbreaking jobs that reveal the oppression of society, as in Stephen Crane’s Maggie: A Girl of the Streets.

It’s true that jobs carry social connotations and political implications (today as ever), but this is not the only way to view work. What if the character likes the job? Or, what if a job is neither terrible nor great but, simply, part of the fabric of the character’s life? To write about work in this context, we need a different approach than ignoring labor altogether or using it as a metaphor for society.

Chaitali Sen demonstrates how this approach might work in her novel The Pathless Sky. You can read an excerpt from it here.

How the Novel Works

The Pathless Sky is set in an invented country, a purposeful and careful choice made by Sen (which she wrote about here). In her essay, “Why I Set My Novel in an Unnamed Country,” Sen writes, “My fictional setting was some sort of strange hybrid that probably revealed more about my own psychology than a singular geopolitical entity.” As with Naomi Shihab Nye’s poem “Before I Was a Gazan,” which I wrote about last week, the goal is to view a character not as a political entity but as a unique individual. The politics don’t disappear, but they are no longer foregrounded. As American readers, we tend to view characters from non-Western countries as representatives of an entire group of people, just as we tend to view characters who are restaurant servers and cooks, farm workers, and bankers as representatives of their work groups. The challenge is to allow readers to see character first and then the character’s job.

Watch how Sen does this:

Dr. Malick of the University of Sulat Province was a spry, wiry man in his fifties, with thin strands of hair that seemed drawn to some heavenly body wanting to lift him upwards. His papers were mostly technical, minor in scope. He seemed to relish the practice of geography, the tools, the products, the meditative fieldwork, the craft rather than the theory, as if he wanted to know only what was there and capture it with an artist’s hand, with little interest in the forces that created it. His talks were so tightly focused, so fixed on one object, in this case a single, intensely detailed map of English Canal illustrating the difficulties of mapping around an urban center where the geology is often obscured, that he often left his listeners wondering if he’d been speaking in a long, extended metaphor and they’d failed to grasp it.

The passage begins with details that have nothing to do with the character’s work as a geology professor. Instead, they’re focused on his appearance and what it reveals about his personality (spry, wiry, attracted to heavenly bodies). These traits are immediately juxtaposed with the nature of his work (technical, minor). It’s an unlikely pairing that leads to unexpected phrases (“relish the practice of geography”) and the terrific image of his students “wondering if he’d been speaking in a long, extended metaphor and they’d failed to grasp it.”

Sen has given her novel room to create character and a job for that character. Neither is a manifestation of the other. Each has the integrity of its own existence, and when they’re brought together, tension is created.

The Writing Exercise 

Let’s give a character a job, using The Pathless Sky by Chaitali Sen as a model:

  1. Describe some aspect of the character’s physical existence. This could mean appearance: how he looks or how she carries herself. It could also be a reflection of the character’s interior life. For example, how often have you read a book with a dreamy character who sits and reads in the midst of some social gathering? You can do better. In the film Breach, Chris Cooper plays a FBI agent who sold secrets to the Russians, and when he walks down the hall with a coworker, he leans into the other man, continually pushing him into the wall. The character’s internal life is given external force. This is what Sen does with Dr. Malick’s hair. The force of his personality becomes externally animated: his hair seems to attempt to leave the Earth’s orbit. So, try to see your character as active, rather than passive (or with passivity that is consciously chosen). What details would the character’s acquaintances notice? How would they finish this sentence: Whenever we ___, she always ____?
  2. Attach adjectives to the character. I know that Ye Olde Workshop Rules ban adjectives, but that’s a bit like banning salt from food. Over-seasoning can ruin the product, of course, but a little bit can accentuate the natural flavors. In Sen’s passage, spry and wiry highlight the description of hair that follows. Without the adjectives, the image might pack less punch. So, try making a list of adjectives that might match the trait or description you’ve just written. How can you add one or two of these words to a sentence about the character?
  3. Introduce the job. Keep in mind that the job is not entering a neutral space. You’ve given it a charge with the description of the character. How does the job react? Is it charged a similar way? Does it carry an opposite charge? We think in similar terms in real life. When we learn someone’s job, we think, “Yeah, that makes sense,” or we’re befuddled. It doesn’t really make a difference which option you choose. What matters is that you’re conscious of the choice. Whether the job is a neat fit or an unlikely one, make the nature of the pairing clear to the reader.
  4. Develop the relationship between character and job. If the job is a neat fit for the character, describe the ease with which the character goes about her work. Or, describe how the meets the characters needs, whatever they are or how the character excels at the job. If the job is an unlikely pairing, describe, as Sen does, how the character surprises people in that workplace with how he carries out his duties. Or, how do the character’s traits make him unexpectedly good at his job?

The goal is to give a story space to create both character and a job, opening up more possibilities for tension and conflict.

Good luck.

2 Responses to “How to Give a Character a Job”

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  1. An Interview with Chaitali Sen | Read to Write Stories - December 10, 2015

    […] To read an exercise about giving jobs to characters, inspired by The Pathless Sky, click here. […]

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