In the last few weeks, I’ve stumbled across a book several times that’s coming out this summer: The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work by Alain De Botton, published by Pantheon. De Botton is a philosopher. A reviewer commented on his exploration of work in literature (as I recall, I don’t have the review anymore, darn it), i.e. is a character’s job important to the story?
An interesting question. I’d go a little farther and ask: when is a character’s job important to the story? An example springs immediately to mind. Police detectives and PIs have jobs in fiction that are usually integral to the story if it’s a mystery or police procedural. How the character works propels the story and reveals character. In this case, the reader learns about how to do these jobs and what life is like for people who have these jobs as well as enjoying a good story. In literary fiction, I think it depends on the role of the job in the character’s life and how that affects the action. I’m thinking of a Bart Schneider novel I read a few years ago entitled Beautiful Inez in which Inez is a concert violinist who meets Sylvia as a result of being a concert violinist. Inez’s job served to bring two characters into collision in the story. Or in Michael Ondaatje”s The English Patient, Hana’s a nurse and she cares for the English Patient but it is not the focus of their relationship. The other characters have jobs that bring them into contact with Hana and her patient. Edith Wharton, however, wasn’t moved to make a job an important aspect of a character’s life in The Age of Innocence, although Newland Archer’s cushy job as a lawyer does bring him into closer contact with Ellen.
I think it depends on the character. Some characters evolve out of their work because it is their passion. Others have passions that have nothing to do with the jobs they do. So does the character work only to earn money? Or does the character work at a specific job for a specific reason that involves his life, his passion or his destiny (according to the writer)? And there’s another aspect to this question: what does the writer want to write about? What can the writer write about? I think of a friend who’s a chemist. Her work is about as far away from my mental comfort zone as a writer as anyone could get, and I don’t believe I could ever have a chemist for a character, at least not a major character. I suppose this is the reason writers often make their characters writers, although I’ve been admonished that this is the sign of a neophyte.
In the case of Evan Quinn, he, of course, made it quite clear that he was an orchestra conductor and would entertain no other possibility. As a result, his life has had a certain trajectory, and he’s come into contact with people that he would not have met if he’d been an auto mechanic, as I tried to make him at one point. Plus, as a conductor, he travels all over the world, which plays an important role in the secret he holds close. Populating his world with other people, however, gives me the opportunity to explore this question about jobs.
In Evan’s past, there was a time of great economic upheaval and jobs were in short supply all over the world. This is too close to home for comfort….