Monday, July 7, 2008

Baggage vs. Backstory

I just had this question come up and it is certainly a worthwhile questions:

Could you please define baggage a little better. Every romance I have ever read has baggage. It is the meat of the main characters. It is their history.

When we look at this question, we go back to that old Goal Motivation and Conflict concept. We have a character and we have to figure out what makes the person tick. What is it that drives the character to do the things he or she does in the story and, in many cases, it is the same thing that creates a little bit of tension with the interpersonal relationships. But here is the thing.

Your character does not have to be from a totally rotten life to be interesting.

Look around you. Consider the friends and people that are interesting in your life - the people you are drawn to. Do they have terrible lives. Have they had to overcome odds that for many of us we would have been jumping out of the nearest window? Probably not. They are interesting because of who they are.

Now, in stories, we can build up the characters in the same way, without an excessive amount of "baggage". We can make our characters interesting because of who they are. The tycoon can be tough in business because he has always been a competitor, even in school. He had to be the best. No, he didn't have to have an abusive father who would beat him if the grades were bad. He didn't have to have a parent to "prove something to." It's just the way he is.

We can create a great backstory for the charcter to give the reader a sense of who they are and how they got there with some simple details. We don't need to go overboard.

For me, I really hate baggage. I hate characters that have so many issues and problems in their personal life that they become a distraction. The problem here is that the characters have so many personal problems that a relationship is the last thing they would ever consider.

Think about this for a second. If you are familiar with Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs you have likely seen this picture.

I bring this up because characters have to have certain needs met before they go further up that scale. Take a look at the bottom two layers. This is where we often see a ton of the backstory coming from, and yet, we throw the characters into interpersonal relationships before they feel safe.

I see this the most with Romantic Suspense. Come on people. Someone being chased by a sexual preditor is not going to want to suddenly be jumping into bed with the first person they meet.

The point of all this is pretty basic. For those of you who fly think of it in terms of your luggage (since we are talking baggage here). Consider what drives the character but limit that character to one carry-on bag. He or she does not need 5 huge Samsonites.

Hope that helps.

Oh, and by the way. In terms of seeing stories out there that have a lot of it. You are right, there are writers that do this. And guess what, those are the books I am not a big fan of. I didn't say hate, just that if I had a choice, I wouldn't read the book.


  1. I never considered that any of my characters should or shouldn't have baggage! After reading your post, I thought long and hard about that.

    I had several people from my writer's group that thought my main character NEEDED more personal issues. I disagreed then, and still do.

    I think the story conflict can cause enough issues without making characters dysfunctional to the ninth degree. Normal well adjusted individuals put in extraordinary circumstances is more than enough IMHO.

    Thanks again for giving me something new to ponder!

    :) Terri

  2. I think that if your characters have a lot of excess baggage, your readers don't need to be told everything about their past. The fact that you know is enough to help you develop your story people. So when a character says or does something, you'll know why. And you don't have to go into a long drawn out explanation. It should be obvious to the reader without the baggage being opened and riffled through by the story police.

    One of my exercises for getting to know my story folks before starting a book is to go through their purse or pockets. What they carry with them says a lot about who they are, and it can be as much about their personality as their personal history.

  3. Karen,

    The point I am making is that all of the baggage is something that really brings down a story. We don't need to have an excessive amount of "soap opera" style problems to motivate someone in their work and in their activties. This is the baggage.

    Let me explain it another way. I am a motivated person. I have always been raised with the idea that if there is something I want, then I should go after it. Overcome the barriers and do it. No, I did not come from a family that had abusive parents that beat me. No I did not have to compete with a sibling that got it all and I got the short end. No, I did not see my best friend killed... It was just something that I grew up with, from a family that was really good.

  4. Without question, I agreed with you a hundred percent. I was just adding other ways a writer might use to add depth to their characters. There are frequent discussions among writers over this overused method -- excess baggage -- to make their characters more, I don't know, deep? Not necessary, obviously. I think most seasoned writers understand this. New writers are still figuring it out. I think it's great that you pointed it out.