Working Men and Women: Characters & Their Development

Erika Dreifus | January 2004


Ever notice how much time fiction writers spend focusing on love and love relationships? How many workshop sessions can elapse while the group dissects the plausibility of the lovers' relationship in any given manuscript? Analyzing the blossoming romances-and the bedroom betrayals? Advocating for more-or less-backstory? Arguing that any particular situation, however poignant or pressured, may seem too much like a cliche? Reading as writers, we seem nearly always to notice how characters are defined by whom they love and how they love. Whether they love. What gets in their way. How they survive love's slings and arrows.

Not that long ago it occurred to me that in the vast majority of cases even fictional characters cannot necessarily sit around all the time either pining away or spend every day and every night more pleasantly poised in passion's throes. Some of them actually must make a living. I remembered, too, the old saying attributed to Sigmund Freud, when reportedly he was asked what he thought a "normal person" should be able to do well. " Lieben und arbeiten,"Freud said. To love and to work.2

As a fiction writer sometimes consumed with creating and understanding fictional lives, and as a teacher helping students with that same process, I confess that at times I find myself less interested in "normal people" than in "normal characters," in what our fictional friends should be able to "do well." And to that extent the element of work in a character's life seems worth attending to, both in the fiction we read and the pages we, and our students, write. To that end what kinds of people characters may be (or appear to be) at work, how they work, with whom they work, and what issues and challenges might obstruct their professional ambitions are intriguing questions. The answers compel us to deepen the characters and their stories.

The place of work in fictional characters' lives is, in truth, so obvious that at first we may not even notice it. But all we have to do is take a more careful analytic glance at the opening lines of a few commonly-anthologized short stories to see how inescapable this fundamental element of life truly is-even on the page.

Characters go to work and something pivotal happens on the way, or begins to:

I read about it in the paper, on the subway, on my way to work. I read it, and I couldn't believe it, and I read it again. Then perhaps I just stared at it, at the newsprint spelling out his name, spelling out the story. I stared at it in the swinging lights of the subway car, and in the faces and bodies of the people, and in my own face, trapped in the darkness which roared outside.

James Baldwin, "Sonny's Blues"3

Or characters may simply be identified, from the outset, by occupation, for doesn't one's profession confer something key about his or her identity (as well as how another character-or narrator-may view it):

My friend Mel McGinnis was talking. Mel McGinnis was a cardiologist, and sometimes that gives him the right.

Raymond Carver, "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love"4

For half a century the women of Pont-l'Évêque envied Mme Aubain her maidservant Felicite.

In return for a hundred francs a year she did all the cooking and the housework, the sewing, the washing, and the ironing. She could bridle a horse, fatten poultry, and churn butter, and she remained faithful to her mistress, who was by no means an easy person to get on with.

Gustave Flaubert, "A Simple Heart"5

Or work may play some key role in the underlying themes and thought processes guiding the characters' lives.

It was eleven o'clock of a Spring night in Florida. It was Sunday. Any other night, Delia Jones would have been in bed for two hours by this time. But she was a washwoman, and Monday morning meant a great deal to her. So she collected the soiled clothes on Saturday when she returned the clean things. Sunday night after church, she sorted and put the white things to soak. It saved her almost a half-day's start. A great hamper in the bedroom held the clothes that she brought home. It was so much neater than a number of bundles lying around.

Zora Neale Hurston, "Sweat"6

My mother believed you could be anything you wanted in America. You could open a restaurant. You could work for the government and get good retirement. You could buy a house with almost no money down. You could become rich. You could become instantly famous.

Amy Tan, "Two Lives"7

And those are just the opening paragraphs to these stories.

But what if we aren't Baldwin or Carver or Flaubert or Hurston or Tan? How can we explore our own-and our students'-characters' work lives and ensure that the discoveries enrich the manuscripts?

I've now had the opportunity to teach fiction workshops specifically focused on character development and concentrating on this theme of work in characters' lives, but even in a more broadly-based creative writing class certain exercises can be adapted and used fairly easily. What I call the "resume assignment," for example, translates well to nearly any fiction writing workshop where character is concerned. It's one I often assign early in the semester, asking students to write up resumes for their characters. Such an assignment requires a writer to consider a multiplicity of concerns.

  • What kinds of educational background the character possesses.
  • Whether the character has lived in one geographical location all her life, or has moved around a lot-and what that might suggest.
  • Whether a character has remained in one job for twenty-five years, or perhaps reveals now, on paper, a rather staccato work history, with gaps that might not be so easily explained at an interview.

The writer must consider which verbs best describe a character's activities on the job, and any special skills or talents the character might have-or which he might wish to have.

Then, of course, there are the characters, we discover, who do not know how to type. Or even have access to a computer. My favorite remains the 19th-century character whose resume arrived in the workshop on parchment, written in ink flourishes, although his primacy has since been challenged by the prison inmate (about to be released) who offered a smudged and evidently typewritten rather than computer-produced self-description (circa 1940).

It's also helpful to consider how other characters, bosses, and co-workers can add texture to a scene or chapter themselves, as well as how their interactions with a central character may reflect more about that central character's own fears, frustrations, or fascinations. Another assignment entails writing sketches of such "minor" characters through the eyes of a protagonist-keeping in mind the questions of why these people, whom the character would likely only have met through work, appeal to, infuriate, or simply push the character's buttons. Such characters themselves often add life to the fictional world, too. In the character development courses my students and I read Elizabeth Strout's Amy & Isabelle ; the class nearly always becomes enchanted with "Fat Bev," an older woman who works in the mill office where teenage Amy Goodrow must spend her summer working. Fat Bev is not-shall we say-the most industrious worker. But for Amy, she's arguably an ideal person to be seated near.

Fat Bev came back from the bathroom, sighing as she sat down, plucking pieces of tiny lint from the front of her huge sleeveless blouse. "So," she said, reaching for the telephone, a half-moon of dampness showing on the pale blue cloth beneath her armpit, "guess I'll give old Dottie a call." Fat Bev called Dottie Brown every morning. She dialed the telephone now with the end of a pencil and cradled the receiver between her shoulder and neck.

"Still bleeding?" she asked, tapping her pink nails against the desk, pink disks almost embedded in flesh. They were Watermelon Pink-she had shown Amy the bottle of polish. "Setting a record or something? Never mind, don't hurry back. No one misses you a bit." Fat Bev picked up an Avon magazine and fanned herself, her chair creaking as she leaned back. "I mean that, Dot. Much nicer to look at Amy Goodrow's sweet face than hear you go on about your cramps." She gave Amy a wink.8

In a way it isn't surprising that the students find Fat Bev so sympathetic, for her general amiability and her kindness to Amy stirs a number of positive feelings in Amy, too. When Amy's mother remarks that Bev "really smokes too much. And she eats too much too," Amy responds: "She's nice, though," and adds, simply: "I think Fat Bev is nice." We all think Fat Bev is nice, and none of us would really mind working with her.

For another linked reading-and-writing exercise, one that examines how a character might feel about himself at the end of his career, the class reads Peter Ho Davies's "Sales," a story about an encyclopedia salesman which opens with the line: "My early retirement came about after one of my customers wanted to cancel an order."10 My students' writing assignment is to consider: At the end of his/her life your character will take pride in one major professional accomplishment. What is it? Have the character explain it, in no more than two-three double-spaced pages. Alternatively, the character may focus on one major regret.

The possibilities often seem endless. Write your character's ideal job description. Write a letter of application from your character for this job. Write a scene depicting your character facing a challenge at work.

As with so many exercises, what rests at the heart of these endeavors is discovery. What do you learn that you didn't know about the character before? What possibilities open up for the scene, the story, the novel?

Interestingly, the more one focuses on "work" and characters' work lives the more their private selves seem to emerge. In "Sales," for instance, we see how the characteristics that may have been effective for the protagonist in his job have been utterly harmful in his personal life. For instance, after the salesman, Tom Robson, and his wife, Beth, separate, their son spends only short amounts of time with Tom, and it isn't long before Beth can ask, in an "icy" voice: "So tell me. When you're with him, those weekends, you think it's work, don't you. Like he's customer. What is it you think you're selling him, exactly?"11 The reader ultimately may judge that Tom Robson seems destined for early retirement as a father, too.

And in our own work, and in our students', it may become more difficult to separate characters' personal dreams, conflicts, wants, wishes, and worries from the situations that face them in the studio, at the desk, in the field, as they must manage child care, in negotiating demands from bosses, in weighing decisions to relocate. It's an exciting development, discovering such new complexities in characters' selves-and quite likely revisiting other memorable characters and stories from our own reading pasts, with renewed appreciation.


Erika Dreifus (MFA., PhD) has taught fiction workshops emphasizing character development through "work" at the Harvard Extension School and at the Cambridge Center for Adult Education. Her own stories and essays have appeared in Lilith , Teachers & Writers , Women in Judaism: Contemporary Writings , and elsewhere.


  1. An earlier version of this article appeared in the Oregon English Journal 24.1 (spring 2002): 27-29. I am grateful for the opportunity to continue to develop this topic in a panel presentation, "Power and Pleasure in the Fictional Workplace," at the AWP Conference in Baltimore in Feb. 2003; this article stems directly from that presentation.
  2. Erik Erikson, Childhood and Society (New York: W.W. Norton, 1963), 264-65. Emphasis added.
  3. James Baldwin, "Sonny's Blues," in The Story and Its Writer: An Introduction to Short Fiction , ed. Ann Charters, 6th edition (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2003), 84.
  4. Raymond Carver, "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love," in The Story and Its Writer , 252.
  5. Gustave Flaubert, "A Simple Heart," in The Story and Its Writer , 522.
  6. Zora Neale Hurston, "Sweat," in The Story and Its Writer , 664-665.
  7. Amy Tan, "Two Lives," in The Story and Its Writer , 1278.
  8. Elizabeth Strout, Amy & Isabelle (New York: Vintage, 1998), 6-7.
  9. Strout, 14-15.
  10. Peter Ho Davies, "Sales," in Equal Love (Boston: Mariner, 2000), 107.
  11. Davies, 117

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