Tag Archives: The Accidental Tourist

Does Your Main Character Need a Job?

One of the major decisions a writer faces when creating an initial character sketch is what job to give to the main character. This is a crucial decision and must not be taken lightly.

Why does a main character need a specific job? What difference does it make whether she is an accountant or a lawyer? The occupation a writer chooses for her main character speaks to the character’s values and identity. It should also tie into the story. So how does the writer choose a job for her main character?

In some cases, the choice is genre-driven. In a mystery, the main character will be a detective or a private investigator or involved in law enforcement in some way. In a spy thriller, the main character will be, um, a spy. Duh! In a legal thriller, the choice of a lawyer is a no-brainer. In other genres, the choices can be far more complicated.

In Richard Ford’s classic Frank Bascombe trilogy, the main character went through a major career change. In the first book, The Sportswriter, Bascombe is, well, a sportswriter. However, in the second book, Independence Day, Bascombe transitioned to real estate. Sportswriting to real estate? What a strange and unlikely transition, one might think. Ford makes it work. Bascombe’s writing career is on a downward arc, as his marriage falls apart and he becomes unglued. Real estate works for Frank. He gains satisfaction from helping people achieve the American Dream of home ownership and this career gives Ford the opportunity to make a number of insightful observations on the way a person’s identity and worth are bound up in the homes they choose to buy.

Similarly, in John Updike’s “Rabbit” series, Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom sells a kitchen gadget and then works for a printing company. A former high school basketball star, Rabbit finds his work and his marriage unfulfilling. By the third book, he has moved on to work for his father-in-law’s car dealership. This career choice allows for rich scenes as Updike chronicles the ups and downs of the auto industry tied to fluctuations in the price and availability of oil in the 1970s.

Anne Tyler has come up with some of the most interesting occupations for her characters. In “A Patchwork Planet,” the main character, Barnaby, works for a company called Rent-A-Back, and his job is to move heavy furniture for elderly clients. This job speaks volumes about the burdens poor Barnaby carries. In “The Accidental Tourist,” writer Macon Leary writes travel guides, even though he hates to travel. By traveling, Macon is running away from his problems and he accidentally finds love in the person of the woman he hires to train his dog.

How does a writer choose an occupation for her main character. Here are some questions to ponder:

  • How does the choice of occupation support the theme?
  • Is the character’s job consistent with his character?
  • Is the job of the main character important to the story? In genres like mystery, this is clearly the case.
  • Does the character need a job at all? A character who is enduring a period of prolonged unemployment or bouncing from job to job can provide a number of story possibilities?

How do you choose a job for your main character?

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Author Spotlight: Anne Tyler

This is the first in an occasional series of articles on authors I admire.

Anne Tyler, who recently published her 19th novel, The Beginner’s Goodbye, is one of the most prolific and respected authors of the late 20th and early 21st Centuries. Best known for her Pulitzer Prize winning novel, Breathing Lessons, (1988) and Pulitzer finalist, The Accidental Tourist (1985), both of which were made into movies, Tyler writes with uncommon depth and uncanny perceptiveness about families and the struggle for individual identity within the whole of the nuclear family.

In a profile on Tyler that included a rare interview with her, Jessica Strawser of Writer’s Digest wrote: “Her books are about families and the complications therein—marital discourse, sibling rivalry, resentment, and underneath it all, love. Tyler’s eccentric and endearing characters are so intensely real, so thoroughly developed, they come to life on the page—both for her as she writes and for the reader, who suddenly can see a bit of his own mother, father, brother or even self in their blurted-out words, their unspoken impulses, their mistakes, and with any luck, their moments of triumph.”

Read Anne Tyler’s Tips on Creating Strong (Yet Flawed) Characters in Writer’s Digest

Her unique style is on display in Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, which Tyler considers her finest work. In a review of Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant in her book, Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel, fellow author and literature professor Jane Smiley wrote of Tyler’s style: “Tyler is subtle and retiring as an author. Her style is precise and insightful, her incidents are full of interest and psychological weight, and her structure works to lay bare the workings of the family.”

Although I found Dinner a satisfying work, my favorite Anne Tyler novels are Earthly Possessions (1977) and The Ladder of Years (1995). The two novels explore similar terrain—a  mother who is unappreciated by her family and has lost her sense of self. In both cases, the main character leaves her family, which in the hands of a less skilled writer, could come across as an act of selfishness, but in these two works it evokes empathy in the reader. In Earthly Possessions, Charlotte Emory decides to leave her husband. She goes to the bank to withdraw some money and is kidnapped. She decides during her ordeal that she doesn’t want to return to her family and actually begins to like her kidnappers. In The Ladder of Years, Delia Grinstead walks off the beach during a family vacation in Delaware and simply begins a new life without her family. Her long journey culminates in self-discovery.

As an author Tyler doesn’t follow trends or write big, grandiose novels. Her subject matter is the every-day travails of families and individuals. She once said that, “there aren’t enough quiet, gentle, basically good people in a novel,” words that are anathema to most agents and publishers. And yet there are few authors who can match the consistent high quality of her work.

In the Writer’s Digest interview, Tyler said she doesn’t think of her audience while she is writing a novel. “I’ve learned that it is best not to think about readers while I’m writing. I just try to sink into the world I’m describing. But at the very end, of course, I have to think about readers. I read my final draft pretending I’m someone else, just to make sure that what I’ve written makes sense from outside,” she said.

Tyler was born in Minneapolis but grew up in North Carolina. She graduated from Duke University at the age of 19 and completed her graduate work at Columbia University in Russian studies. She lives in Baltimore, where many of her works are set.

What is your favorite Anne Tyler novel and why?

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