Monday, January 31, 2011
Baggage Claim? I’ll Take It!
Answering such questions is almost always how I begin to develop what I hope will be a multi-faceted and compelling character. In real life, few of us are without some form of baggage. The luckier among us may be simply strolling around with the straps of overnight bags over our shoulders. The rest of us, however, have these giant suitcases on wheels, packed so tightly we have to sit on it to zip it closed. But that baggage is what makes us who we are and especially in fiction, more nuanced and interesting.
Once I know my characters’ baggage, the rest of the story spins off from there.
In writing, we have the ability to use that dreamed-up baggage for dramatic effect, to build empathy and to reveal our characters’ motivations in doing what they do. In Midnight Caller, members of the same family who all experienced a common tragedy have dealt with it in very different ways. Uncovering exactly what happened – and how it affected each of them – became as big a part of the story as the serial murder investigation itself.
As a reader and television viewer (and I admit, I think much of television is better than a lot of movies today), my favorite and most memorable characters are those who have their fair share of baggage. Consider the following:
• The X-Files’ Fox Mulder, who has spent his life chasing UFOs after the childhood abduction/disappearance of his younger sister. Fox is witty and a genius, but also a little mentally unraveled from the trauma of his missing sister and his relentless quest for the truth.
• Detective Archie Sheridan of Chelsea Cain’s marvelous Heartsick. Abducted, tortured and nearly killed by a serial killer, Archie’s dysfunctional relationship with his captor even after she is imprisoned, and his mental state following his trauma, is the foundation of this book. (BTW, if you haven’t read Heartsick, you should.)
These are the characters that come to mind for me when I think of what makes “good” emotional baggage in fiction. You may notice that all of them are in law enforcement, and that’s a topic for another blog, sometime.
What emotionally driven characters have stayed with you and why?