Monday, January 31, 2011

Baggage Claim? I’ll Take It!

First off, many thanks to Bente Gallagher/Jennie Bentley for inviting me here on the eve of the release of my debut novel!

In querying Midnight Caller, I recall a particular agent rejection in which I was told that my characters had too much “baggage,” particularly my lead male character, an FBI agent who is heading up a serial murder investigation while also being forced to confront some pretty devastating secrets from his past. (Clearly, based on that comment I knew this wouldn’t have been the right agent for me. I’m all about the baggage.)

In fact, from a writing perspective, baggage is where I begin to build my character. What’s made that person who he or she is today? Have they suffered some physical or emotional trauma? Is it something recent and fresh, or something they’ve held onto (or repressed) for most of their lives?

Even more, have they managed to push their way through it (and become a stronger, tougher person in the process), or have they become mired in it and lost their way?

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.)

• Dexter Morgan, the blood splatter analyst and serial killer with a mission to kill only other killers, who experienced the profound trauma of witnessing his mother’s murder as a small child.

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.

I often read about writers who get to know their characters by developing profile sheets that cover everything from what they like to eat for breakfast to their first crush and pet peeves. If starting there works for you, then great! You’ll have a more detailed and better thought-out character for it. I’m usually too impatient (and on too much of a deadline) for that kind of thing. For me, figuring out the defining moments in a character’s life – be it something recent or from a long time ago – is my first and most direct step in development.

What emotionally driven characters have stayed with you and why?

Working Stiffs, thanks for having me!

Leslie Tentler
Midnight Caller/February 2011
MIRA Books


Joyce Tremel said...

Welcome, Leslie!

I agree that characters need some baggage to make them interesting. It seems to me that the more serious the tone of the story, the more baggage the protagonist needs to carry around. I'm working on a funny mystery right now and my MC's suitcase is pretty light compared to others I've written.

Annette said...

Welcome to Working Stiffs, Leslie. I agree wholeheartedly. Baggage is what makes a character three-dimensional instead of a cardboard cut-out. I look forward to reading your book.

Gina said...

Welcome, Leslie.

Baggage? How about Harry Potter and every other character in that series? They're all loaded down with baggage that motivates everything, making their behavior understandable.

Jenna said...

Thanks for visiting, Leslie! Can't wait to read the book; the early reviews are great!

My post at the beginning of the month was about Miles Vorkosigan. Now, there's a character loaded down with emotional baggage! JD Robb's Eve Dallas is another one, and to a degree her husband Roarke as well, although he seems less affected than she is. But they're both profoundly shaped by what was done to them as children. As far as mysteries go, Julia Spencer-Fleming's Clare Fergusson and Russ Van Alstyne are no light-weights either - and can I just say I can't wait for the new book?! She's got the cover as her twitter avatar, and every time I see it, I get all giddy inside!

Good luck with the launch, Leslie!

leslie tentler said...

Thanks for the welcome, guys! ( Joyce, I agree that the heavier the drama, the heavier the baggage.)

Ramona said...

One of the challenges with lots of baggage is keeping it from overwhelming the character or action. As Gina points out, HP has baggage galore, and I think JK Rowling is masterful at how she weaves it into the story.

I like to read about troubled people who are still struggling. Also crazy-family people. Those are fun!

Good post, Leslie!

Nicki Salcedo said...

Sethe in Beloved, Virginia Woolf in The Hours. Those ladies had a whole plane load of baggage.

I loved Sawyer's baggage on LOST. He had an old handwritten letter, but used humor as a cover.

I don't think every character needs baggage, if it's piled on too much it is just mean. But, really, who wants to read about happy well adjusted people? Let them have some baggage. (At least one to carry one and one to check!)

leslie tentler said...

Hi Nicki, thanks for coming by! Sawyer on LOST Is a great TV example. He had some serious baggage but it took some time to peel back the layers and find out what was gnawing at him.