Occupational Hazard Writing Exercise

Occupational HazardInterview enough writers and you’ll find that the inspiration for stories can come from almost anywhere. Sometimes the writer starts out with a social issue, a new technological development, a character, or just a single scene. Slowly, writers accrete details in their minds until the pieces coalesce as a story.

We’re going to start with an occupation…a job. We’ll imagine the kind of person who might take on that job. Before you know it, we might even have a story struggling to be born…just by picking an interesting occupation.

Task 1: Three Jobs

Try to come up with up to three occupations that lend themselves to a speculative fiction story. Make sure you have a couple of bullet points for why each job belongs in an SF or Fantasy story.

For example, occupations might be things like:

  • Dragon Killer
  • Inquisitor (in an SF world)
  • Bodyguard
  • Pilot for the Rebellion
  • Therapist for Robots and Androids
  • Forensic Mage
  • Solar Yacht Racer

Time Limit: 5 minutes

As an example, my occupations when I did this exercise were:

  • Courier: My courier lives in a gritty fantasy realm and securely transfers contracts, correspondence, and other documents by memorizing them and then traveling to the recipient. It’s not unheard of for couriers to be killed or tortured.
  • Dragon Tamer: It turns out that dragons have a pecking order. They’re intelligent and can be integrated into society, but only if they are forcibly taught that they are not the top of the food chain by a human. A dragon tamer’s job is to drive that lesson home…or kill the dragon.

Task 2: Choose a Favorite

Choose one occupation to focus on, the one that resonates the most with you and feels like it might have the most story potential.

Time Limit: 2 minutes

In my case, I decided to focus on the Courier role in a fantasy setting.

Task 3: Job Goal

We haven’t defined the character who’s going to take on this occupation. He or she could be a protagonist, a supporting character, or maybe just an interesting walk-on. But let’s start defining somebody and his or her goal related to the job.

By now, there may very well be some details coming into focus for the character who is in the job, such as gender, some background details, etc. Be sure to note those down, too.

Some typical goals could be:

  • Get the job, i.e. – they don’t have the job yet
  • Make money
  • Become famous
  • Improve their skills
  • Be the best at the job (possible competition with a rival)
  • Just survive (because the job is dangerous and they can’t leave it for some reason)

Time Limit: 5 minutes

In our example role, the Courier, I’ve decided that it’s a dangerous job, but it pays well. My character, who is most certainly a protagonist and not a supporting character, is focused on the money. I’m starting to feel like it would be interesting if my character was female, in a field dominated by men. That has the advantage of making her an underdog, which seems to have story potential. It also means that adversaries may underestimate her, to their detriment.

Task 4: What Makes the Character Want to Do This?

It’s time to start thinking about what makes the character tick. Why does the character want to do this job?

Again, it’s possible that thinking about the character’s goals will also start suggesting more details about the character filling this job. If so, write them down.

Time Limit: 5 minutes

In my own exercise, my Courier has to be whip-smart and tough, but tricky enough to avoid confrontation whenever possible. The job pays well and my courier has used the money to lift her extended family out of poverty.

Clearly, she wants to survive, because her profession is obviously dangerous. But she also wants to continue long enough for her family to get a solid foothold in the middle class. In this job, you’re only as good as your reputation, so failure is not an option.

Task 5: What external factors are blocking the character?

Every job has its problems, its challenges to be overcome. What are the external factors blocking the character from achieving their job goal?

Possible obstacles might include:

  • A rival or nemesis
  • A rating board (bar exam, rules organization, etc.)
  • Changes in the field
  • New technologies
  • Competition of some sort
  • Social disapproval

Time Limit: 5 minutes

For my Courier, several factors come into play. I’m envisioning a semi-medieval society, so women are not taken as seriously as men in a dangerous profession such as this one. It’s a small, specialized profession…so she’s definitely got rivals.


The chances are that, just by diving deep into an interesting occupation, you may have actually started creating an interesting character and, possibly, even begun imagining a world or society in which that character might reside. It’s even possible that you’ve started thinking about some story possibilities.

The bottom line is that there are lots of ways to approach character creation and story development. This is just one of them.

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