So here I am in Cambridge, UK… which is about as real a University (College) type place in the world. At the top of the world rankings in several indices, a dream and goal for lot of students. Avoiding seeing and meeting students is a whole new trick which is beyond me here. On the way across to the UK we stopped in the Tasmanian town of Launceston, which has two colleges (or a branch of one), and had lunch in a food-court nearest the… shall we say less academic of these. Launceston is a relatively (on a world scale) small town, and in a small state. We were there at student lunch (or possibly, by the meal choice, breakfast) time. and there were mobs of students in there. I got a good chance to look at the people, the dress and behaviour of the people there, and obviously I have here.
Look, it’s what I do as a writer: I watch, I listen, I notice. That’s how you get characters and their dress and mannerisms right – so they feel natural and believable and that’s obviously what I’d like to do.
And here is the question:- so which lot of students would you expect to have the most display of ‘I’m a student, I’m really way out there. Notice I’m a student. I have weird piercings and strange things in my ears and interesting hair styles and colors, my clothing is fashionable and noticeable’?
Yep. Launceston. By a country mile. They’d think Cambridge students terribly conservative in appearance. Quite mundane. There are a few exceptions, but in Launceston they were the norm, in Cambridge they’re exceptions.
It’s an interesting observation which holds good I suspect way beyond the students from a small campus in the back of beyond compared to one at the centre of the academic world. New Zealand has started growing past it now, but for many years it worked on being more British than the UK, introducing animals and plants to where they didn’t fit. If you see someone complete in every detail of ‘being a writer’ and telling you exactly what they imagine ‘real’ writers do and think… there’s long odds they aren’t, and so on…
Of course sometimes the unreal become the real, or poseurs and wishful imitators overwhelm the ‘real’. The false Buddha causes the true Buddha to disappear, so to speak. I suspect, in time those would have imitators too (who would be more prone to the exaggerated mannerisms of the real, and probably loose those ‘markers’.)
Humans are social animals, and we’re quite good at picking up cues and clues (well, yes, I know there are many gullible ones among us. Being gullible is no longer a death-sentence.) I often wonder if this signalling -especially among the unsure, the new writers, the ardent follower of some writer’s style, is the reason that so many readers pick up… and put down, books.
It’s odd for me to say ‘don’t try too hard’ – but that is exactly what I am saying. Try harder at the skills that writers need that readers just don’t see – but work for you with them. Work on flow, natural seeming dialogue (which isn’t natural) and easy to read and compelling stories. That’s more important than virtue signalling (which you will do in the fashion of the backwater student. Trust me, it won’t be virtue you’re signalling as much as ‘avoid’) or attempting to write more convoluted and interesting prose than your idol.
The real does it. The imitator signals loudly and tries.