All freshmen at my college had to wear beanies at the start of school. Besides the obvious fashion quandary, the problem was that students from the town’s rival college gloried in stealing beanies. And I knew if any of my upper classmates caught me sans beanie, they had the power to make me stand on a table in the cafeteria and sing my high school fight song. It was a time of great personal trepidation.
Then one day a nice young man stopped and talked to me on campus. Look at this, I thought to myself. I am in college talking to a nice college boy. College is great! And then that nice college boy grabbed my beanie and ran. Turns out he was a Montague. I was a Capulet. Our romance was tragically short-lived, but unlike Juliet, I somehow survived.
Many years after that, while putting my college education to good use as a publishing employee, I wandered down to the company’s second floor. A guy I didn’t know was visiting; we made polite introductions, he got a funny look on his face when I said my name—and he then confessed that he was the beanie-stealing Montague (my name was helpfully printed on my beanie’s nametag and he’d clearly never forgotten it). He left, I moved on. The beanie did not haunt me. I never thought about the beanie at all.
But several years again after that, once I was published and had become easily “google-able,” I got an email out of the blue. From the Montague. He reminded me of our previous encounters and told me he still had the beanie, but would like to send it back to me. And despite my protestations that the beanie no longer played any part in my emotional health, it arrived in my mailbox a few days later.
In a follow-up email, the Montague also told me that his oldest daughter was now a freshman in college. I made an intuitive leap: Was his move to make amends partially motivated by fear that he or his daughter might be run over by the karma bus? My beanie was no more than a bump in the road for me, but I speculated that returning it to me twenty-six years later was the outward signal of a self-transformation for the Montague.
The characters who move us as readers are those who have gone through some kind of relatable transformation. Experiencing that transformation is the thing that sticks to readers like emotional superglue; it keeps them mulling over certain stories for weeks. But new writers sometimes forget this critical element. Challenge your writing students to track exactly how their main characters have changed from the beginnings to the endings of their stories. If it’s not obvious, they need to spend some time revising.
Get them to focus on their character emotional arcs and you just might make Shakespeares out of them yet!