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 Roles We Play

Third in a series of articles about meaning and characterization

Copyright © 1998, Dorian Scott Cole 
A question of meaning | Career roles | Stages of life | Religious roles | Family roles | Core values |
A question of meaning

There are moments when suddenly you stand outside of yourself and observe your own behavior. You wonder why you are doing whatever it is you are doing - selling something, loving, talking to a stranger about sports you care nothing about, ranting at someone for some bad thing they did and realizing your passion is pretend.... And you wonder if it really has any meaning to you. And then you wonder who you really are. Is anything really important? What makes things important to you? What if you were a character in a story - what would be motivating this character?

I have been fortunate to have had several different careers. Some I hardly cared for at all even though I performed excellently. Once I found myself confessing to a secretary that my manager job was nothing more than a role - it wasn't really me. I put on the role when I walked in the door, and when I left I was someone else. What I have realized through having so many different careers, especially ones that I did not like and could not really identify with, is that we are not our jobs. 

Jobs are often vehicles in life that give us something we need - they often build a sense of self-esteem, make us feel competent, useful, wanted, respected, give us a sense of belonging and purpose, and sometimes even make us feel loved. Losing a job is often as disastrous as losing someone close to us. My first job was radio announcing - it was a great confidence builder. 

But when you begin to notice that we are not the activities that we do, then you begin to wonder, "What are we?" Is all of life a stage and we are acting out something? If so, what? And are any of these things that we think are so important, really so important? And are there really any real values? When we find meaning in some activity, is it really just smoke and mirrors? Just something momentary that has no lasting meaning? What is the real basis of human behavior that we can use to build realistic characters for stories that need real depth? 

One of the things I tuned into as a writer was the layers in stories. It partly came from making changes that I knew had absolutely no effect on the story or on character motivation. For example, scenes have an effect on the audience, but have minimal affect on character, plot, or theme. 

Motifs have an effect on the audience, but the character may not even see or hear them. The things a writer throws in to affect mood have little to do with the things that drive the character.

Locale, family, friends, and other characters typically have very little to do with character motivation. The things that drive a character are usually internal. You can change the entire character set, except for the protagonist, and still come out with a character who is driven by internal motivations that will keep him moving in the same direction - conquering whatever obstacles that any person throws at him. These are things that help make a story - and life - interesting. Spice.

Although you can change the other characters, there have to be qualities present in them that bring out the spirit of the central characters. Characters also reflect in many ways what the central character's life is about: How he treats people. What kind of friends he collects. What values he upholds for them. Those things also are a portrait of the person. For example, it isn't the fact that the female lead has a husband, or that he is happy or sad, or handsome or ugly, or bearish or boorish, or that instead of a husband she has a gay relationship... It is the relationship itself that reflects the qualities of the person. And that often requires people with specific attributes. In real life, I suspect we are surrounded by those special people.

Situations can be changed with ease. I put the character in whatever kind of situation I think will make an interesting challenge and make a good story. Situations show the length and breadth of the character's motivation.

Jobs are a little like clothes - I change the job more for audience appeal than for the character. But there are certain kinds of jobs that the character would do, and certain kinds that he wouldn't. The thing that a character has choice a over and really reflects his character is his job. The job is in some ways a portrait of the person. His job reflects a little of what his life is about.

So, there are three aspects of a person's life that can be distilled from this that really reveal the character. What his relationships reflect about him. What his life pursuits say his life is about. And the values he is willing to fight for, how he fights for them, and the inner resources he finds to conquer the monster in the story. The rest is just window dressing. And it is really his values that are reflected in his relationships and his life pursuits. Not principles, but values (the story Lord Jim was a good story about principles). Values - those things that give life meaning and purpose.

To avoid making something of this theory that it is not, many people's lives seem to be about relationships, and their jobs are just something they do to support themselves. For some, relationships are de-emphasized and what they accomplish for themselves and others through their jobs is what is really important to them. However people balance their lives, their values are still reflected.

I will be looking at three issues from this perspective. Career roles, life stage roles, and religious roles.

Career roles

We are in a very short period of history when people can think in terms of careers. In past ages, women raised children, and sons followed in father's job footsteps and most jobs had a labor intensive quality to them and lacked creative input. The job world was oriented toward what was practical and immediately commercial. Craftsmen. The modern world ushered in something very different: choices. Today people think in terms of what they want to do with their lives. A world of choices. The sky is the limit. People today think in terms of careers. You can even change careers, sometimes several times. And with that change has come a change in attitude from "working to live" to "living to work," as if work gives life purpose. Of course those attitudes don't characterize everyone, but they do apply to many. I have heard the chant, "I work to live, not live to work" many times by those who felt consumed by employers.

Work has probably always given life purpose, to a large extent, and today we are much more aware of that because it is a choice we have to examine. If a person is not in tune with his life, he can always "cast his fate to the wind," and let the military or an employment service assign him a position. 

What do we get from working besides paid? From the time we get up in the morning until we arrive home for dinner, our mind is occupied with work. For many, work occupies the remaining hours until bedtime through work they bring home, or by travel and entertaining clients, or just being available by phone, or worry. I personally have been in a profession and a career that required twenty-four hours day, seven-days a week commitments, and the weeks frequently went that way. Even for those with eight-hour jobs, after dinner there are three hours left for taking care of family, home, and other activities and interests. Many sacrifice rest to squeeze in another hour or two. This is twelve or more hours that work requires of us each day, which is seventy-five percent of our waking time. Work is by far our major life activity. 

In those twelve hours we often try to do many things: 

  • We define ourselves by our job (position, knowledge/skill level, purpose)
  • We establish a group of friends (belonging, useful, respected, love/loved)
  • We prove ourselves (competence, esteem, confidence, respect)
  • We grow intellectually and emotionally (knowledge, skills, relationships)
  • We define feedback and power relationships that tell us who we are (our place, position, importance)
Many people have these same resources outside of their work environment. They have professional groups, civic groups, friendships, clubs, extended family, religious groups, etc. But a growing number of people have defined themselves by their career and have very little else except their immediate family.

Some of the reasons that many people define themselves by their jobs is that, they have so little time outside of work, it is where they are exposed to other people, they have never sought other types of groups, such as religious or professional groups, and many career fields or corporations move their people so frequently that community ties never get a chance to grow. The major problems faced by those who are tied so solidly to their careers are, they have no support outside of their job, so success or failure on the job, or job problems are more severe. Corporations do a lot of downsizing, which means that when they are terminated, their identity and sense of purpose is terminated. When they retire, their identity is terminated. When people in this situation lose employment, life ceases to have meaning, and they almost cease to be.

From outside looking in, it is obvious that our careers can assume a disproportionate role in our lives. And when work does become overemphasized, some other difficulties can arise. In Modern Madness, Douglas LaBier explores the human cost of careers. What often happens is that business attracts managers who have very unbalanced lives and who very often exploit the people who report to them. They would probably be diagnosed as having a mental problem, but business masks their symptoms and they seem normal. Their business relationships are often cruel, destructive, and require the people to sacrifice their values and put corporate values in their place. I recently (April 1998) saw a television news program in which one person reported that their manager had demanded that he miss his child's graduation in order to be at a business function. Even moral and ethical boundaries are often crossed in some manager's pursuit of the gold ring. And business is not likely to investigate success. 

In my own experience, (see Business Y2K+) I have found that managers who do not treat their employees with respect are very destructive to the organization and drive away the most talented people while making everyone else so demoralized and fearful that they can't get any constructive work done. LaBier found essentially the same thing. Many books on business management and supervision talk about the roles different managers play in business. These books go so far as to name the managers by the types of games that they play. 

Bad managers aside, the business environment tends to create problems for many people. Twenty-five percent of employee health claims are emotional. This is partly because of lack of meaning in work. Too many people find their work to be boring, inconsequential, and mind-numbing. All too often people don't realize that their managers have led them to sacrifice their values until it is too late. A survey of the top 20% of Harvard Business School graduates twenty years after graduation found them largely to be dissatisfied with their careers to the point of heartbreak. Results in France and Britain were similar. The business environment holds up the illusory symbols of success, possessions, position, money, power - yet these things are not found to be satisfying substitutes for relationships and personal growth. Business works hard to recruit and retain the best and brightest people through the salaries and perks they offer, but business is just as demanding as it is materially rewarding.

Is business bad? No, business does what it must to compete, and it attracts people who are found in all walks of life - many of those people aren't suited for working with people. I have personally worked for many businesses with managers who were very sensitive to personal needs, and I always tried to be one myself. We go into business ill-advised, thinking we are going to find in a career things that will fulfill the values that we have. Along the way we often get side-lined in profitable but unrewarding positions that business must fill. Many careers are simply unable to let us express our values, and have no opportunity for personal growth. The key is to get in tune with our values, recognize their importance, and explore how we can express our values and need for growth in our careers and in other things. 

How does this apply to characterization? In several ways. Realize the importance of careers in many peoples lives, which is emphasized by the amount of time we spend doing them. Understanding what is important in people's lives is a major key to effective characterization. Understand what the career means to the character. What values is he expressing through his career - this will tell a lot about the character and make him more human. You can often look at the career as a "role" the character plays - he may be a different person at work than he is at home. If he is playing a "role," is he in the right career, or is he just supporting his family? And you can create good villains just by looking at some of the management types described in books on management, then understanding that the worst of these are people who can't express parts of their personality, such as love, giving praise to others, or who value their own success higher than other's, etc. You can also make your story revisions easier by understanding that jobs can be changed easily if you know what the character's values are.

What kind of job is a character likely to have? Considering 75% of his time is related to work, ideally it will be something that 1) allows him to express his values, 2) has room for personal growth, 3) is at a level that lets him work at his level of competency, but at a level in which he is still challenged, and 4) is something that interests him. If the position/career doesn't offer these things, he probably won't find the job fulfilling. But he may have to accept less in the job and find more outside of the job. 

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