Tag Archives: main character

Book Review: “In Zanesville,” by Jo Ann Beard

Jo Ann Beard’s debut novel, In Zanesville, takes an overworked concept–the coming-of-age story–and gives it a fresh perspective with a story that crackles with dry wit supplied by a precocious narrator.

Set in the 1970s in a gritty Illinois suburb, In Zanesville centers on an unnamed narrator about to enter her freshman year in high school and her best friend Felicia, called “Flea.” The narrator is at that awkward age, between childhood and adolescence. The story begins over the summer when the narrator, who is identified only twice as “Jo” and then “Joan,” and Flea land a babysitting job that ends disastrously when one of the six unruly children in their care sets fire to the upstairs bathroom.

The two friends are inseparable. They are self-described late bloomers, a phrase the narrator hates. “It sounds old fashioned and vaguely rank, like something a prairie woman would wear under her sweaty calico dress,” she writes. Their exploits include sleepovers in a camper in Flea’s backyard, hilarious efforts to save three stray cats, and trips downtown to buy clothes on lay away.

The main character’s home life is grim. Her father is a drunk and her mother is moody and prone to lashing out at the children. In spite of this dysfunctional household, the main character maintains a quirky, lovable spirit and outlook toward life.

As the two girls begin high school, a rift develops. Caught between the worlds of the cheerleaders and the band nerds, the two girls hastily hatch a plan to quit the band. “In retrospect we probably should have quit band after the parade and not during it,” she recalled. Later, they wrangle an invitation to a sleepover at a cheerleader’s house. Felicia pairs off with one of the boys who sneak into the backyard from the woods, leaving the narrator alone and hurt. As she struggles with her feelings, she eventually makes her peace with Flea and finds solace from an unlikely source.

The strength of this novel is the sharply drawn main character, whom the author infuses with a wry and wise perspective. The humor leavens the main character’s bleak home life.

The author of a memoir entitled, The Boys of My Youth, Beard graduated from the University of Iowa with a BA and an MFA and she teaches at Sarah Lawrence College. She was a Guggenheim Fellow and her writing has been published in The New Yorker.

Beard is a talented writer and I hope to read much more from her.

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Wanted: Flawed Main Character. Super Heroes Need Not Apply

As a kid, I watched the old “Batman” series every week. Bruce Wayne was a suave, urbane philanthropist until the Batphone rang. Then he transformed into Batman, and it was off to the Batmobile to rid Gotham City of the Joker, the Riddler, or Catwoman.

As a new writer, I used to treat my main characters like super heroes. They had to be likeable, ethical, and heroic, possessed of perfection and without a single flaw. That was a sure recipe for a bad novel. If your main character is a super hero,  what’s the point? Where’s the tension? When a crisis emerges, he will simply put on his Bat suit and vanquish his adversaries.

Writers understand intuitively the need to create flawed main characters. And yet, we fall in love with our characters. We get emotionally attached and pretty soon we build a protective shield around them. We know we must place our main character in peril at some point. We know the problem might even be of the main character’s own making. And yet, we don’t want to see our precious main character get hurt. Or look stupid. Or hurt other people. After all, Batman would never get drunk and cheat on his wife (to my knowledge Bruce Wayne was not married, but you get the point). Batman would never hurt his best friend. Batman wouldn’t turn his back on his parents. We make our main characters too good, even though we know a fundamental trait of the main character is imperfection.

Look at character sketch templates and you will see a variation of these key questions:

  • What is your main character’s greatest weakness?
  • What is your main character’s greatest fear?
  • What is your main character’s darkest secret?
  • What does your main character want that she doesn’t have?
  • Who is stopping her from getting it?

I’m not suggesting you create a detestable main character, though Scarlett O’Hara was one of the most memorable main characters I’ve come across. I’m suggesting you give your main characters some flaws. Throw them into dangerous situations and see what happens. Force them to make difficult choices. Give them some complexity.

Super heroes don’t have weaknesses, but main characters must have them. Your main character must overcome obstacles, conquer weaknesses and, above all, emerge transformed in some major way. And that doesn’t mean dressing up like Batman. Excuse me, I hear the phone ringing. To the Batmobile!

Are your main characters too good? What do you do to make them flawed?

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