Friday, October 16, 2015

Work in fiction

Work. For most people, it's a default setting on life: you go to work, and if you're lucky, you go home in time to do other stuff. Sometimes you go to more work. And most of us really prefer this state to the more terrifying prospect of "too much free time"; job searching sucks.

But have you noticed how little work interferes with fictional characters' lives?

Lots of winery/brewery/small
business owners in fiction.
In some stories, it's because the job is the basis of the storyline; the character is defined by what she or he does: bounty hunter, detective, police officer, soldier, doctor, lawyer, etc. Boom, setting and character all wrapped neatly up together. On the other hand, you never get any heroes from less interesting jobs this way. No delivery workers, no office junkies, no barista/burger flipper/retail workers. By the definition of interesting characters, only interesting jobs that involve a lot of moving around and flexible scheduling can be used for this.

It's a theme of fiction, though, that adventures can happen to anyone. So how else do writers deal with jobs? You know, like those jobs everyone wants to pretend no one does, or no one wants to think too hard about because it hits a little too close to home.

"Zoo worker" in books seems to involve much less
waste-scooping and much more cuddling with giraffes
or tigers or wolves than the real thing.
Vacation is a useful tool, for workers who get it. And in the nature of adventures, typically workers who can't get time off are pulled away in such a fashion that their main source of worry is staying alive, not how they'll pay their rent. A lot of them are young and not yet in the work force, while some are unemployed and staying with family. And in some cases, the heroes keep going to work and the story only progresses in the off hours, because nobody wants to ride along with a hero while she is spending her 9-5 redeeming other peoples' savings bonds and telling them their new bank balances.

And of course, there's always the tried-and-true "vaguely described job that somehow earns lots of money without interfering with the character's schedule except when it's convenient for plot." That one comes out a lot.

At the end, though, we often have to turn to the suspension of disbelief. Characters in books and movies have more time than we do, and get paid more so that they can better stuff and bigger homes. I call this the wishful thinking effect: we write it because it's what we wish our lives were.

Can you think of any books where the protagonist has a mundane job where the job is handled realistically? And which characters' jobs do you most wish you had instead of your own?

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