Sunday, February 28, 2016

Of campus visits and character development

Last week, my husband and I accompanied our son on a college visit. The outcome of the visit was never in doubt. My husband and I both received our undergraduate degrees from this university, and I've worked at it for almost 20 years. We know it well. Our son, who didn't even look at any other universities, applied and was admitted to the program of his choice last fall.

Still, we encouraged him to make an official visit on the off chance that he, as a prospective student, might not like what he saw. The visit was everything a parent could hope for: Demonstrations of beloved traditions, a walking tour of campus, meetings with his future professors, opportunities to explore extra-curricular activities. At the end of the day, he believed he'd made the right choice.

As expected.

What I didn't expect was my reaction to the visit, on two fronts.

First, I didn't expect that visiting campus as a mom would be so different from the way I experienced it as a student or see it now as an employee. But the mom lens colored the whole day. Will he be happy in the dorms? Will he and his stuff be safe? What supports are available if he struggles in any of his classes? Will he have opportunities to connect with mentors, pursue internships, participate in study abroad?

Will he get enough to eat?

As a mom, I have different priorities and different responsibilities and different questions for my alma mater.

Second, I didn't expect to get sideswiped by nostalgia. Our walking tour of campus took us through the journalism school building, where I practically lived for my last two years at the university. I've only been back inside once or twice since graduation 30 years ago, and the changes were unsettling. They moved the student newspaper newsroom, the center of my life for half my college career? I felt my heart break a little. I guess I expected time to stand still, even though I haven't?

These two unexpected reactions, part of the roller coaster of my emotions as my kiddo grows up and prepares to leave home, got me to thinking about a problem I'm having with one of the characters in the manuscript I'm working on now. She started off strong but lost her voice halfway through the story. The problem, I think, is that she's not layered enough. She has only one role at the moment, not the multiple roles (alumna, employee, mom) that give characters depth and inspire the strong, sometimes conflicting, emotions that motivate them and make the story sing for readers.

I have more work ahead to write her well. As I tackle revisions, my goal is to get to know her better as a whole person who has diverse interests, a lifetime of experiences, and, maybe, unexpected reactions to the fictional world around her.


  1. On the other hand, Julie, I've read manuscripts in which the twenty-something MC has insights only a fifty-year-old could possess--which isn't credible. She still may need more layers, but if she's young, she may see the campus guys more than the older woman. She won't notice the older, but debonair gentleman professor. She may realize there are undercurrents within the campus population an older person would miss. Adding layers to characters is always a good idea, but they have to be the right layers or the character becomes invalid.

  2. College visits: three kids, three circuits of the southeast from our Atlanta home base. I was allowed to ask the student guide one mommy question: what do you do to feel safe on campus and in the city?

  3. This is so touching, Julie. Transitions are always hard, but think how much fun it will be for your son. It's the start of a new relationship for you both. Sounds like a solid one too.

    You hit the nail on the head about characters. It's the writer's job to make them as human as possible. They need to be multilayered and writers need to translate all of that to the reader without use of information dumps or reams of additional information. Did someone say writing was easy? HAH. You'll do it. You're a talented writer.

  4. Does life imitate art or is it the other way around? There is no experience that cannot enhance your skills as a writer.

  5. So true, E.B. I'm reading a YA novel right now in which the author has done a brilliant job of writing from the perspective of a 17-year-old. I hope to be as accurate with my older-than-teen but a-lot-younger-than-me character. :)

    Margaret - Does it get easier with each successive kid? Our son is our only. One kid. One visit to one college. Despite the anxiety and roller coaster emotions, I think we get off easy.

  6. Choosing a college is a big step. Not that a kid can't make a change if he/she discovers that the fit just isn't there, but the right kid and the right college make for a much smoother and more productive launch into adulthood.

    In some ways, we miss our kids when they leave, but my husband says that the empty nest syndrome is one of the most underrated social phenomena. The freedom is wonderful for the parents! Now if only the pets all grew up and went away to college...

  7. Thank you, Kait! I am so proud of the young man he has grown into, but it's hard to let go of the little boy.

    One of the things I find most satisfying about writing is adding the little touches that make characters come alive on the page. It's the same thing I love about reading - when a writer creates a character so convincing I become immersed in the fictional world and have a hard time transition back to "real" life.

  8. Warren - You're right. I'm thankful for all of my life experiences, both positive and not-so-positive. They all help my writing feel true.

    KM - Ha ha! Yes! Even though the boyo will be leaving us, we won't lack for company: Two dogs, a cat, a giant tortoise, a dozen chickens, two goats, a few lizards...

  9. Julie, my kids left gradually and by the time all of them were gone, I was ready for it. It sounds like you have a lot of critters to fill the gap like I do.

  10. Gloria - We do have a lot of critters. Only one of them actually lives in the house, but that's OK. We won't be too lonely. :)

  11. Aw, congrats, Julie! He'll be happy there and you'll be happy with him close! I love how you channeled that experience into a character exercise...I'm sure that will make your already great character work even better!

  12. Thanks, Sarah! I have a feeling the next few years have many lessons in store for me!