Labor Day and the work of Characters

This blog was originally posted Aug. 31, 2018. It has been edited.

With the long holiday weekend honoring workers upon me, I am thankfully in a workplace that gives us that day off to spend with family and friends.

Thinking personally, I’ve done a lot of different sorts of jobs over the span of my working life, but have not ever had a job where I worked the “typical” Federal (U.S.) holidays, like Labor Day, Christmas, New Year’s Day, or Memorial Day. But I know many do, from hospital workers and first responders to shift workers in all those stores and tourist attractions where everyone else expects to visit and spend money.

Thinking politically, realize that Labor Day was established by those who wanted to celebrate and honor the workers used/abused by employers. The fact there is a “weekend” (simply days off) at all is because of organized labor demanding changes as the reality of the Industrial Age set in for people working at the rapidly multiplying factories.

Thinking mathematically, most of us will spend more than half of our waking lives at some form of work or another. (and that’s disregarding commute time). Love it or hate it, work has a major impact on how we view ourselves, and how we view others.

Finally, thinking like a writer, I considered the kinds of jobs which I have written characters doing. I can’t help but note how, for many of them, their work gives them self-definition: “I work, therefore I am.” I have had plots which turned on the loss of work or the gaining of it. I have had other stories showcase the disparity between a person at one type of work (and thus income) and another.

Confession, I generally enter the process of creating characters with a discovery of the work or job they are doing, or the work that they want to do and aren’t for some reason or another. I begin shaping their skill sets, deciding how they were educated or trained to do that work, why they chose that job (or sometimes how that job chose them). This process backtracks me through the character’s life and I write out character sketches before I begin their “present moment” stories.

Sometimes this education-work-life path is explained on the page, as I do with Jess, Elena, and Eric in We Three: One and One and One Makes Three. It’s naturally occurring because they are getting to know each other and building their relationships. Sometimes this education-work-life exploration will only inform me so that I can write dialogue and inner monologue, select words that capture their unique voices or convey their perceptions and method of dealing with the rest of the world. Hours of research becomes just the unseen muscle filling out and strengthening a narrative shape.

Because characters DO work, some portion of this work needs, in my opinion to be on the page, otherwise as someone noted recently — how in the heck did the playboy manage to write a 100,000 word book only saying periodically he was a writer to whoever he was with at the time? We might not write every time a character goes to the bathroom — but we all know they go. But woe to the author who only has a character mention their job and we readers never get to see the character DO it.

On the other hand, how much work in a story that’s not about the work, do you bear before you wonder what’s really the plot to focus on? Are you meant to care most about the project their rushing against deadlines to complete at work or the budding romance their having with the late night delivery girl who’s always bringing by food ordered by their secretary just before leaving for her own home “because she hasn’t eaten all day.”

Just a few thoughts I’m having as I head into my weekend. Enjoy your time off if you have it (and remember the workers who can’t take the time). If you are working, I offer support that you are treated well by those you encounter this weekend. I won’t be among them.

I intend to stay in today and spend time at my other “job”: writing about my characters and their work and life.