Monday, February 7, 2011

Question from a Writer - More Baggage Than An Airport

Could you maybe clarify the difference between "too much baggage" and "good internal conflict"? I think I get what your saying, but characters do need a good dose of internal conflict.

This is really a good question and I have to admit that a lot of writers struggle with this issue. You are not alone and honestly, much of the problem with this stems from feedback that you have likely gotten from critique partners. Of course, in turn, a lot of writers pass this on to other people as well.

Let's start with good internal conflict. This is something "emotional" and "personal" that drives a character to do things they do, act they way they do, and say the things they do. In essence, this is material that comes from their personality. The internal conflict is something emotionally and personal that the characters have to work through to move on to the next level in their life.

Now, the problem here stems from asking yourself what led the characters into acting and behaving this way. This is where all of that external baggage comes into play. In all likelihood, someone (or even you did this personally) asked you "Why is your character acting this way? You need to have a reason for the character to do this." That part is true, but you have to understand that people in general act and behave in a lot of ways without an extensive history or a lot of baggage. In other words, you don't need to go overboard.

Think of it this way. Your heroine is the President of a company. She worked hard in school, she knew what she wanted and she clearly demonstrated that she is the right person for the job. Enter the hero. Maybe he is just a neighbor that she meets at a neighborhood block party. So, what is her internal conflict. She sees that it is important to separate business from pleasure. We don't need to create a big drama of a past boyfriend, or a father that mentally abused her for now doing well in school. We don't have to add in sexual relations or abuse that happened in college. She just has to decide if she can be the corporate powerhouse and be a simply woman in love. That's all you need.

The simple truth is that stories with too much baggage become unbelievable. Readers cannot relate to ALL of the problems the characters have. Along the same lines, if this was happening in the real world, the odds are there would be no romance because the characters would have too many other things to worry about.

The answer? Keep it simple. Your plot can be about the growing attraction. We can see the characters trying to deal with these internal conflicts and not bog it down with the extra plot stuff. You don't need to have all of the extra baggage just to make it interesting. Let the romance and the characters do it for you.



  1. Scott, you are so right about keeping it simple. As I edit writers' work, over-complicating (and adding too many characters) are two of the most common problems I see. It's hard, in the beginning, to teach the difference between deepening characters versus giving them complications. You've said it very well.

  2. I get the thing about the baggage. In one of the series I follow, the author has every single character going to therapy. One of her most recent books has the characters whining and boohooing about their past. Now, I don't want to seem heartless or anything, but she's ruining the whole series for me. I just want to tell all these people to get over it and move on with the story. In regards to JJ's statement about too many characters, does this refer to too many main characters, supporting characters, or characters in general? Thanks.

  3. This sums it up perfectly. I worried the last book I wrote would be too quiet because the heroine's inner conflict wasn't over-the-top, but it ended up being the book I landed an agent with. It took me a long time to understand how to write believable inner conflict.

  4. LOL, Dang it Scott, now you've thrown out a plot bunny, and it's hopping into my imagination. :)

    May have to go explore this one a bit.

  5. I feel better after reading this. Your columns are most helpful. Thank you.

  6. Laila, I was referring primarily to main and supporting characters. Too many main characters and the focus is diffused. Too many supporting characters and the reader doesn't get a chance to know and care for them. We all love great historical fiction with a vast cast, but we have to have someone to follow through the story.