Mar 21 2012 2:00pm

Author Tawna Fenske Talks Building Characters with Career Research—and Sequined G-Strings

Books, coffee mug, and laptopThose unfamiliar with the romance genre may assume selecting careers for one’s characters is a simple task. He’s either a duke, a pirate, or a kilt-clad Scotsman, while she occupies her time stamping her pretty little foot and contemplating how heavily to heave her bosom.

Those of us who read, write, and love romance know there’s more to it. In fact, choosing and researching characters’ professions is one of the most crucial tasks romance novelists face (second only to selecting the shirtless men to massage our feet while we write).

One of my favorite romantic comedy authors, Jennifer Crusie, is the master of picking professions that put her hero and heroine at odds with one another. Welcome to Temptation features a small town mayor and a videographer who may or may not be making an adult film that could jeopardize the mayor’s career. Faking It stars a professional con artist and a painter with a history of forgery.

What do you notice about those careers? They’re unique, of course, but they also create tension in the hero and heroine’s budding relationship. Besides that, they give the characters dimension. The con artist may have a rap sheet longer than his…um, arm…but he also has a history of conning people who deserve it.

Until There Was You by Tawna FenskeAnother romantic comedy author who does brilliant things with character careers is Kristan Higgins. Her newest release, Until There Was You, has a reformed bad boy hero who builds motorcycles, and a heroine who owns an architectural salvage firm and tears down old buildings for a living.

If you haven’t read the book, admit it—you’re picturing him as a tattooed badass, and her as an athletic goddess with great big…shoulders.

But Higgins seldom plays to the stereotype. The hero might be a grease monkey in a leather jacket, but he’s also a sensitive single parent grappling with mild obsessive-compulsive disorder. The heroine might swing a sledgehammer and drive a truck, but has the figure of a young boy and body-image issues surrounding her inability to gain weight.

While both characters’ jobs say a lot about them, the way they cope with the fact that they don’t quite fit the stereotypes says even more.

I’ll admit I sometimes choose jobs for my characters based on an urge to research an occupation. The result is that I end up asking the IRS questions like, “which tax form do I use for deducting tips I stuffed in the Chippendale dancer’s g-string?”

In my new romantic comedy, Believe it or Not, Drew owns a bar that features male strippers several nights a week. Next door is a psychic studio occupied by Miss Moonbeam, the most renowned psychic in Portland, Oregon.

Moonbeam’s daughter, Violet, is a straight-laced accountant who wants nothing to do with the oddball world of strippers and psychics. She’s worked hard to carve out a normal life for herself, and isn’t thrilled when an accident requires her to fill in for Mom at the psychic studio.

When I originally wrote the book, Drew owned a male strip club instead of just a bar that routinely hosts male exotic dancers. A minor distinction, but one my editor felt was important to ensure we didn’t alienate readers who’d be put off by the idea of naked men writhing on the floor 24/7.

Hold on – I need a moment to enjoy that mental picture.

In all seriousness, the small tweak allowed me to give Drew a touch of defensiveness about his business. He runs a BAR, not a STRIP CLUB, and even if it is sort of a strip club, the gender of the performers means the place is packed to the gills with frisky women. Not a bad gig for a single guy, eh? Except…well, maybe the shallow flings are getting a bit old.

Originally, I didn’t focus much on Violet’s profession as an accountant. It gave her a career back on the east coast, but wasn’t a big factor once she arrived in Portland.

My editor urged me to make Violet’s accounting career more central to the story, and I’m glad she did. Forcing my type-A heroine to balance her life as a straight-laced number-cruncher with her role as a reluctant fake psychic gave her the opportunity to show two opposing aspects of her personality – the side that craves a normal, boring life, and the side that enjoys dancing on tables from time to time.

In the end, I had fun learning about my characters’ occupations and exploring how their professions shape them – and how they shape their professions to fit their evolving life plans.

And yeah, I enjoyed the half-clad men. What? It was for research purposes, I swear.


Tawna Fenske traveled a career path that took her from newspaper reporter to English teacher in Venezuela to marketing geek. Named a Writer’s Digest 2011 Notable debut, Tawna blogs daily on “Don’t Pet Me, I’m Writing,” and lives in Central Oregon where she is working on her next romantic comedy. For more information, please visit or follow her on Twitter, @TawnaFenske.

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Heather Waters
1. HeatherWaters
What a fun post! I've often wondered what it'd be like to have a different career, say as a cop, a lawyer, a doctor, a pilot, etc., so reading for me is a way to get a taste (even just a fictional one) of all of these and I really enjoy that. It's cool to know that so much thought goes into creating these characters and their careers.
Carmen Pinzon
2. bungluna
I do enjoy a book with more than wallpaper jobs for the hero and heroine. You are so right in pointing out that a job can add so much dimension to a character. I'm looking forward to reading your new novel.
Lege Artis
3. Lege Artis
This is great and interesting post, Tawna! You have a point: there aren't that much unusual jobs in romance. I myself am a lawyer and my boyfriend is police inspector ( I know, it screams romantic suspense :)).
Marian DeVol
4. ladyengineer
Interesting article! Tawna, thank you for not taking the easy way out of using jobs as just so much wallpaper in your writing.

Very little occupational detail can be one of the drawbacks of my preferred romance addiction - historical, especially Regency and other Georgian. ;->
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