Storyboard: You've got to make a living

Eliot Lefebvre
E. Lefebvre|09.20.13

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Storyboard: You've got to make a living
You move sixteen tons and what do you get?  Another day older and you're deeper in debt.
Your character does something to stay alive. No, I'm not talking about fighting off demons or flesh-eating wolves or whatever else you blunder into on a regular basis. I mean that your character either needs to construct shelter, gather food, and produce clothes himself, or he has to pay someone to do it.

Yes, most games probably allow for the possibility that those wolves contain enough meat, articles of clothing, and end tables to provide all of the above. That would be a separation of mechanics and story. It's much more fun than watching most of your characters die of infections caused by mild scrapes against rusty metal.

As a roleplayer, you need to think about what your character does for a living, not just because it gives you an explanation for what's going on when you aren't playing (although that certainly helps) but because what we do informs a lot of who we are as people. It's always better to show than tell, and nothing shows quite as nicely as character occupations done right.

Spacesuits still exist, yes, but that's different.What do you do (within the jobs that actually exist)?

Here's an interesting fact to consider: There aren't really any astronauts in Star Trek Online. Lots of people go into space, yes, but astronauts don't exist.

Why not? Because going into space isn't unusual there. It's not a field that requires intense study or a great deal of advanced knowledge. Astronauts exist because going into space in the real world is so dangerous that only highly trained individuals can head into the wild black yonder and survive. When you have an entire space station filled with people who live there and couldn't tell you the first thing about the mechanics of space travel, having an astronaut makes as much sense as a profession dedicated to exploring travel in a car.

There's always a range of jobs for your character to do, but sometimes you're going to have to think a little bit about the world and the setting and eliminate certain professions right away. Your Jedi in Star Wars: The Old Republic is probably an actual Jedi instead of a farmer, even though she might spend most of her time working with farmers and encouraging the growth of crops through the Force. Occult bookstore owner is a perfectly valid career path in The Secret World, but in World of Warcraft that's a function mages already provide.

What does it say about you?

I am definitely not what I wanted to be when I grew up, but that says more about my goals when I was a child than the state of my life. My career goals as a child cycled between being a dinosaur, a Transformer, and a combination race car driver and research scientist. (I never figured out what kind of scientist, but I'm willing to bet it was the kind that made dinosaurs or Transformers.)

The fact that I'm a professional writer now does say quite a bit about me and my goals, especially when you consider that I'm a professional writer here instead of, say, Maxim. Certain traits are expected of me just because they're conducive to success in this environment.

Our jobs both shape us and are shaped by us. Even if you absolutely hate your job, that says something about you; you're at a point in your life when you need money more than you need a job you enjoy. Someone who lives in the wilderness and makes his own shelter, food, and clothing is going to have a very different outlook than a teacher inside the nearest major city, and it says something about both characters that they're doing one thing instead of another.

I'm sure this lady is excellent at whatever the heck job this is supposed to represent.How successful are you?

Success is a relative thing. You could be the best shoe-shiner in the world and you'll still never be surrounded by people who want your autograph; you could be the worst investment banker in history and people will still give you money every now and then. But how successful you are with a given profession is a major element in how satisfied you feel with that profession. Being good at your job and getting respect for it is very different from being one screw-up away from termination.

It also says a lot about what your priorities are. An author can try to write what she believes to be true, even if it's unpopular, or she can try to write to popular tastes that may not reflect her honest emotions. The former means that she's more interested in being respected; the latter implies she'd rather be popular or wealthy. Both are completely valid pursuits, even if the latter also means she'll be accused of "selling out" because she enjoys eating and paying the rent.

If your character is a merchant, he might be a great salesman but a terrible accountant. Or maybe he's got a great head for numbers but a terrible sense for market trends. Maybe he swims in money based on dumb luck, or maybe he's an excellent merchant but is always on the edge of starving. All of this says a lot about your character without your ever having to explain the details.

What do you want to do?

No one wants to work at a Target store. Ask anyone there and he'll have a good reason for working there, often including the sentiment that it isn't so bad -- it's just not where anyone wants to be. But even the best job you can think of likely has a few people working there who would rather be elsewhere -- the doctor who wants to be an actor, the lawyer who'd rather be a fisherman, the game designer who dreams in secret of being a sanitation employee.

Sometimes you realize that what you want in your heart of hearts is neither a viable career path nor something you'd really enjoy doing all that much. I don't actually want to drive race cars any longer, and designing dinosaurs would mean working at Nintendo on the next Pokémon title. Sometimes you still want it. Sometimes you actually could do the job but don't know how to get there.

It's one thing to have your character be a mercenary. It's quite another if your character works as a freelance mercenary, bids well for his contracts but tends to get too cozy with his employers, and dreams about someday putting down the sword and working in cheese manufacture. You can tell which one I prefer.

As always, feedback is welcomed via mail to, or it can just be left in the comments down below. Next week I want to talk about who gets the star billing, and the week after that I want to talk about keeping a character fresh.

Every Friday, Eliot Lefebvre fills a column up with excellent advice on investing money, writing award-winning novels, and being elected to public office. Then he removes all of that, and you're left with Storyboard, which focuses on roleplaying in MMOs. It won't help you get elected, but it will help you pretend you did. If you need a refresher, check out the Storyboard Library.
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