Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Baggage—not the kind we take on vacation; but then again, maybe we do. And everywhere else, too.

Land ho—mates! Clear days ahead! One can hope, right?
I’m not complaining. It’s just that this weekend I lost an hour of my life and with another season quickly approaching, I paused to wonder why the draggy steps when usually I adore spring.
But there’s a nagging feeling something’s off. So…being a writer, I decided to use this blah mood to my advantage and make an article out of it.

I’ll call it Baggage. Every well developed character should have some. Maybe not traumatic enough to require white coats and meds, but characters need issues to make them believable. Behind every curtain and locked door are the events that shaped their lives. Don't hesitate to look under your character’s skin for the scars, bruises and ribbons. Because the things that make us cry, also make us care.

Let’s visit the places our characters have been. For a few moments we'll ‘walk a mile in their shoes.’

A great place to look for baggage is in biography books. I’ve discovered fascinating facts regarding some of my most beloved characters this way.

Did you know although the search for Scarlett O'Hara included many hopeful actresses, David Selznick still hadn't found her when the burning of Atlanta scene took place. He gave the signal and the set began to blaze. One guest arrived on the arm of Laurence Olivier, a vibrant, attractive Vivien Leigh. Selznick watched as the dying flames lit up the pale green eyes Margaret Mitchell had described so vividly in her novel and knew without a doubt he had found his Scarlett.

But go a little farther and uncover the juicer material. This is a great way to find traits to sprinkle on the characters in your own story. (I say sprinkle because you take a snip here and a tag there.

Suppose you need a really demented individual for a story and in searching the archives hit upon someone like Ed Gein. His outward appearance seemed as normal as any other man living in rural Wisconsin and farming in the 1950’s.

His mother, Augusta, described as a demanding and overbearing woman who, after her alcoholic husband died, suffered a stroke one year later. Confined to her bed, her shrill voice unknowingly created a monster as she repeated the phrase to her son that he could never survive without her. So often, in fact, that Ed prayed his mother would never die. And when she did...well. Gein’s arrest made headline news and snagged the attention of Alfred Hitchcock, who recognized the value of such outlandish evil and used this trait to create Norman Bates in Psycho.

Or maybe you need a different type of character. Someone gentle, tender but pretends otherwise. My favorite kind. Like Mickey Rourke who played a detective in Angel Heart.

And many other great movies. After watching him in "The Wrestler" I was compelled to dig around a little bit and learn more. This passage I found in the biography titled "Mickey Rourke- wrestling with demons" written by Sandra Monetti.
The book reveals Mickey’s parents divorced when he was boy and he would be a grown man before he saw his father again, leaving Rourke only a worn photograph of his father flexing his muscle. The two are reunited and despite the years, Mickey used every opportunity to apply the word Dad.

'“Dad, would you pass the salt?” and “Dad, shall we get another drink?” so his father would know he still thought of him “Dad.” In another emotional moment, he touched his dad’s upper arm just like he used to do when he was a kid- but this time there was no muscle there, the skin was just soft. Mickey felt his stomach lurch. He couldn’t believe this was the same powerfully built man whose picture he had been carrying around for the last seventeen years.'

Can you feel the sadness and disappointment? The baggage left over from empty promises, missed birthdays and lonely weekends without a father’s love and approval. It adds a whole other dimension to the person I didn’t know before. * Notice I dropped the word character and added the word person. Because now he’s become more than a character, but a real person. And of course, although he is, (real, rather than fictitious) when we build our story characters, the moment they start to feel and act like real people is the greatest feeling. When it happens, you know you’re on.

Let's mix this up a bit. Snip and add. Our character is a young girl whose family has split but her father comes every Saturday for the first two years. He gives her a watch so she can count the time until his next visit. Abruptly weekends pass and he doesn't show. No word or explanation. Just gone. Now lets up the ante. Secretly, the mom is jealous of all the attention lavished on the child and sells the watch, claiming they need the money for bills. Taking from the child the last remaining tie.
This is what transpires....

The man I always longed for
was difficult to find.
I searched for him high and low, and found him drunk on wine.
He looked at me through blurry eyes and tearfully he said, "I hate for you to see me, darlin'. I wish that I were dead."
The mattress that he lay upon was matted down and gray. I reached for rags and covered him. And then he passed away.
I kissed his dirty whiskered face. And held his wrinkled hand.
He was the one that I loved most. My father was the man.

Baggage. It's what characters are made of. Have fun with it!


  1. What a touching article! And so helpful. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

    all the best, Annette

    1. Thanks Annette! So glad you found it helpful and happy you stopped by.

      Be talking to you soon!

  2. Great post Tere! Gives you lots to think about...writer or not. Heartbreaking about Mickey Rourke, but you are so right that learning that tidbit makes him more human...just like it would a character in a book.

    1. So true, Christine! I just love reading and rooting for the tortured hero. They make the best reading. Thanks for commenting. : )

  3. Chill bumps, raced across my body when I read that poem!
    Very touching post,

    1. Hi Neecy! Thank you so much for such a nice comment. I'm glad you liked it. : )

  4. Wonderful post! I agree! Without baggage and conflict your characters are flat and one-dimensional. Boring. The reader won't have a reason to care about them. Give them a reason to care is my rule of thumb.

    1. I'm with you, Jennifer. Give readers a reason to love our characters as much as we do. Great rule of thumb. Thank you so much for coming by and commenting.


Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts. You're awesome!