"Careers for Your Characters: A Writer's Guide to 101 Professions from Architect to Zoologist," Obstfeld and Neumann

Pros: Broad categories; information in a writing context; further pointers; great details
Cons: More! I want more! Particularly, more references.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5

First published 10/8/2004

Who hasn’t had trouble with their characters’ careers? Sure, some writers have hopped from job to job during their lifetime and have more than enough material to supply their fictional characters with interesting work. But some of us didn’t move around that much. Too many writers “solve” this problem by making all of their characters writers – but this can start to look a little conceited* after a while, not to mention trite and contrived, and it stands the chance of alienating your non-writing readers if you don’t do a good job of it.

(*Why conceited, you ask? You really don’t want to know the number of times I’ve read books that asserted that their protagonists were so stunningly observant and clever because – wait for it – they were writers. Gimme a break!)

So what are you supposed to do? Make things up? Unfortunately, that’s how many writers end up creating work that inspires a chorus of rolling eyes – when people who know better read your “best guess” details, their willing suspension of disbelief crashes straight into the concrete. Now they know you don’t bother to do your research, and they’re unlikely to trust the rest of your material.

Ideally, your character’s career is somehow important to his personality, your plot, or the theme of your work. It shouldn’t be tacked-on as an afterthought. But when you’re sitting there saying to yourself, “well, I know how a writer works, so I guess my next protagonist should be a writer,” it’s hard not to go down that path. Fortunately, Raymond Obstfeld and Franz Neumann are here to rescue you. Behold their new book: “Careers for Your Characters: A Writer’s Guide to 101 Professions from Architect to Zookeeper.” What a great idea! Now the only worry we’ll have is that some enterprising reader will catch on to the fact that we’re all giving our characters the same sub-collection of jobs. But that’s a better worry than what we started with!

Are There Really 101 Professions?

Well, yes. Sort of. Pretty much. Technically. That is…

Let me explain. The book is divided into chapters that cover certain categories of career. Advertising, Architecture, Clergy, Courtroom Professionals, Dentistry, Education, Firefighting, Journalism, Law Enforcement, Life Sciences, Medical Sciences, Modeling, Moviemaking, Political Sciences, and the Sex Industry. That’s 15 categories, assuming I can still count, which isn’t necessarily a good assumption to make.

Within each category the authors go into a decent spread of options. For instance, within architecture they touch on Architect, Intern Architect, Architectural Drafter, Building Contractor, Interior Designer, Landscape Architect, Civil Engineer, and Urban Planner. So they do give you details on many professions. But of course, many of those professions are related, so you might feel that you won’t get quite as many careers out of this book as you’d hoped unless you return to the same industries over and over.

It would have been great if they could have covered more professions. In particular I would have loved it if they’d covered some of the “lower-level” professions (plumber? TV repair?), even if it was in brief, and I would have also liked seeing some real “fringe” jobs in addition to major categories. On the other hand, they certainly couldn’t cover everything, particularly if they wanted to keep this tome under 1,000 pages (it’s more than 300 including index, by the way). And what they cleverly did do is cover the jobs that seem to most entrance and fascinate writers – law enforcement, advertising, prostitution, lawyers, and so on. So all in all, they made a decent compromise.

How Much Information Do They Provide?

This book tells you up front that it’s meant to act as a sort of personal reference librarian, not an in-depth resource. Despite that, however, they provide a startling amount of useful detail, and quite the list of pointers to additional resources. Unlike “Urge to Kill’s” approach to explaining the details of homicide procedure, I didn’t feel that they truncated necessary material. And also unlike that book, they provide a much greater range of reference material to help you find more information.

Each section starts out with “the lowdown,” which handily addresses how the profession tends to be used in fiction, as well as some of the opportunities presented by using it. Next the chapter moves on to a section of “job description.” This is a brief overview of the greater category, as well as a few specifics of various broad sub-fields. Next we come to “daily life,” which includes such things as “work schedule.” “Dressing the part” covers what a typical member of that profession might wear to work. A section of buzzwords gives you a sampling of jargon (often a limited sample, but again, this is meant to be an introduction). Then we find out what sort of education is generally required in the field – degrees, experience, and so on.

“Job conflicts” walks you through the areas of the field that are particularly ripe for use as conflicts within your stories. Next we move into “myths about the job” – a particularly handy part which will help you to avoid stereotyping.

My favorite section is called “jobs within the profession;” this is where the authors go into valuable specifics. We get a brief job description, some educational specifics, a description of necessary clothes and tools, a rough estimate of salaries, and sources for further information. Often odd tidbits of information are included to make things more interesting and useful.

Next there’s a list of “additional occupations” within the field, so if something catches your eye you can look into it on your own. We even get a brief list of places that might employ such people.

Finally we get to all of the resource material. The authors did not skimp here, and this is what makes this book truly useful! A list of nonfiction books is presented, as well as fiction books, movies, TV shows, and web sites (sometimes documentaries are included as well). Small signs of the authors’ sense of humor can be found here and there, such as the inclusion in the Life Sciences movie list of: “Night of the Lepus (1972). A zoologist is called in to fight giant rabbits.”

Lastly, a few short fiction book excerpts are included to lend a bit of flavor to the chapter close.

Details

I hate (hate, hate) the blocky typewriter-like font used for the book excerpts. I find it difficult to read and headache-inducing. While there aren’t many typos, it is perhaps unfortunate that there’s one in the Table of Contents, where it’ll be truly obvious. (“Denistry” instead of “Dentistry.”)

The opening details in each chapter describing the use of the profession within fiction are absolutely wonderful. They provide much-needed context, help you to think about the use and place of profession and career within your story, and also give you some idea of what’s already been done a hundred times.

The buzzword lists occasionally confuse more than they help: “Body copy: The text in an ad. Text is further classified as headline, tag line, pull quotes, and callouts.” Not all of these further words have their own entries.

The one detail truly missing is a list of suggestions for places you might look for details on other careers. Even a few trade journal listings, or a page or two of web sites, would have been welcome. If they’d done that, they could have easily provided references for another 30 careers in, at most, 5 pages of space, and it would have felt like a great deal more material had been covered.

Even though the category-based approach would seem to limit the usefulness of the book in some ways, in other ways I truly appreciate it. For one, it gives a much wider view of a professional field. For another, it gives you a great idea of who your characters are likely to be working and dealing with from day to day, which can give you career ideas for your other characters.

Do I recommend this book to writers? Absolutely. Without hesitation. Even though I wish the book had been something more, and I have a few very minor gripes here and there, it’s a fabulous reference! Consider its rating to be 4.5 stars. Meanwhile I’m hoping for a volume 2, and a volume 3, and a volume 4…

Posted in Reviews, Writing

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