Baggage Check

From Susan/Miranda:

As readers of this blog may remember, I’ve volunteered as an interpreter at a nearby 18th century living history museum. Dressed as a colonial Pennsylvanian farmer’s wife, I’ve spoken primarily to school groups from the Philadelphia area as I led them around the restored farm, house, and outbuildings. One of my favorite “trick questions designed to make you think whether you want to or not” was to ask the kids to name the most important thing that immigrants brought with them to the new world. The answers would range from good (a plow or an axe) to ludicrous (electricity), but the students very seldom came up with the reply I was seeking: the information in your head, the knowledge and experience that were unique to you. Or, in pop-culture-lingo, their baggage.

So, obviously, when the Pilgrims came to New England, the settlers whose knowledge included felling trees and making fences had much more success than the “gentlemen” in the party, whose intellectual carry-on sailing in the Mayflower was more inclined to theological learning. One hundred and sixty or so years later, another Englishman, Samuel Slater, arrived in New England with very few actual belongings, but untold riches in his head – he’d memorized all the secrets of the spinning mill where he’d worked. He was able to recreate the first factory in America, pretty much single-handedly launching the Industrial Revolution in this country.

Just this past weekend, I heard of another example –– with fewer historical consequences, but just as telling. While comparing Thanksgiving celebrations, a friend of Irish-American ancestry described the full-blown “American” turkey-centered meal her extended family enjoyed. Sadly, she said that the one specialty they’d always added to their table had been missing this year: a great-aunt’s Irish soda bread. This venerable lady was the last member of the family to have been born in Ireland, and the only one who carried the family secret of this bread in her head. Yet she’d resisted all efforts by the family to write down the recipe, and when she’d finally died this year, the soda bread-secret had been lost with her. This was as much mourned by the family as the aunt had been herself, a humble recipe had been treasured as the final connection between this family’s Old World heritage, and their new lives in New York.

Which (finally!) brings me around to how all of this relates to characters and characterization. The best, most memorable, characters are defined not only by how they look or what they do, but by the intangibles in their heads: what they think, what they believe, how they’ve processed their past experiences and learning into who they are (or aren’t.)

It’s one more way that “show, don’t tell” rings true. Too often a character is described only as, say, a privileged lord of great wealth. We’re expected to take that a face value. The best authors will show us what makes him this way through all the little ways that make a lord different from an ordinary Joe Tenant-Farmer. He’ll sit his horse differently, or prefer a special wine that he first tasted years ago on his Grand Tour, or make allusions to Ovid based on his long-ago university education.

Would Jane Eyre have been so willing to stand up to Mr. Rochester if she hadn’t had suffered through the deprivations of Lowood? Would Huck Finn have been as satisfying a companion for Tom Sawyer if he hadn’t been a scrappy survivor, with all manner of skills and experiences acquired outside the schoolhouse? Would Goldilocks have been so bold about trashing the Three Bears’ House and belongings if she hadn’t been raised with such a strong sense of blonde entitlement?

Well, yes, so that’s a stretch to make a point. But what sorts of “baggage” do you feel makes a character touch you? Are you a sucker for a self-made-men heroes, or are you bored to death by yet one more “I survived an abusive childhood” heroine?

21 thoughts on “Baggage Check”

  1. Very cool insights, Susan Miranda! I must admit that if I were a student on one your tours, I might not have thought to answer that it’s the mental furnishings that matter most when coming to a new world.
    And, since my knowledge of American history is modest compared to British, I didn’t know about Samuel Slater, but it’s a remarkable story how he used his knowledge to kickstart American industrialism. (I do remember that those New England spinning and weaving mills created a class of independent young working women.)
    It’s sad about the lost soda bread recipe. Maybe a family member who enjoys cooking can experiment with traditional soda bread recipes, with everyone tasting until they agree that it’s just like the aunt’s version. I know a family (Italian/Lithuanian) where members have done this, and while it’s not precisely the same as having the original, cherished recipe, it because a celebration of the lost family members, and a way of recapturing something that was lost.
    Mary Jo, chuckling over Goldilocks’ sense of blonde entitlement 🙂

    Reply
  2. Very cool insights, Susan Miranda! I must admit that if I were a student on one your tours, I might not have thought to answer that it’s the mental furnishings that matter most when coming to a new world.
    And, since my knowledge of American history is modest compared to British, I didn’t know about Samuel Slater, but it’s a remarkable story how he used his knowledge to kickstart American industrialism. (I do remember that those New England spinning and weaving mills created a class of independent young working women.)
    It’s sad about the lost soda bread recipe. Maybe a family member who enjoys cooking can experiment with traditional soda bread recipes, with everyone tasting until they agree that it’s just like the aunt’s version. I know a family (Italian/Lithuanian) where members have done this, and while it’s not precisely the same as having the original, cherished recipe, it because a celebration of the lost family members, and a way of recapturing something that was lost.
    Mary Jo, chuckling over Goldilocks’ sense of blonde entitlement 🙂

    Reply
  3. Very cool insights, Susan Miranda! I must admit that if I were a student on one your tours, I might not have thought to answer that it’s the mental furnishings that matter most when coming to a new world.
    And, since my knowledge of American history is modest compared to British, I didn’t know about Samuel Slater, but it’s a remarkable story how he used his knowledge to kickstart American industrialism. (I do remember that those New England spinning and weaving mills created a class of independent young working women.)
    It’s sad about the lost soda bread recipe. Maybe a family member who enjoys cooking can experiment with traditional soda bread recipes, with everyone tasting until they agree that it’s just like the aunt’s version. I know a family (Italian/Lithuanian) where members have done this, and while it’s not precisely the same as having the original, cherished recipe, it because a celebration of the lost family members, and a way of recapturing something that was lost.
    Mary Jo, chuckling over Goldilocks’ sense of blonde entitlement 🙂

    Reply
  4. Interesting question: I do prefer characters that have had to overcome some adversity in their background and, best yet, learned that what they’ve gone through has made them the person they are. It’s up to them to realize that, after a certain point, they can take the difficulties in their live(s) and turn them to their advantage. These are the type of heroes and heroines that I admire most.
    The characters that stay bogged in their history, bemoaning their fate, waiting for someone to come along and make everything right, I have very little compassion for.
    I do have a lot of respect for those that take their past as a challenge, something to surmount and to use it as any experience can be used ~ as an opportunity for growing.
    Wow, I guess I kinda went on a bit of a rant; excellent thoughts Susan Miranda ~ Thank you!
    Kathy

    Reply
  5. Interesting question: I do prefer characters that have had to overcome some adversity in their background and, best yet, learned that what they’ve gone through has made them the person they are. It’s up to them to realize that, after a certain point, they can take the difficulties in their live(s) and turn them to their advantage. These are the type of heroes and heroines that I admire most.
    The characters that stay bogged in their history, bemoaning their fate, waiting for someone to come along and make everything right, I have very little compassion for.
    I do have a lot of respect for those that take their past as a challenge, something to surmount and to use it as any experience can be used ~ as an opportunity for growing.
    Wow, I guess I kinda went on a bit of a rant; excellent thoughts Susan Miranda ~ Thank you!
    Kathy

    Reply
  6. Interesting question: I do prefer characters that have had to overcome some adversity in their background and, best yet, learned that what they’ve gone through has made them the person they are. It’s up to them to realize that, after a certain point, they can take the difficulties in their live(s) and turn them to their advantage. These are the type of heroes and heroines that I admire most.
    The characters that stay bogged in their history, bemoaning their fate, waiting for someone to come along and make everything right, I have very little compassion for.
    I do have a lot of respect for those that take their past as a challenge, something to surmount and to use it as any experience can be used ~ as an opportunity for growing.
    Wow, I guess I kinda went on a bit of a rant; excellent thoughts Susan Miranda ~ Thank you!
    Kathy

    Reply
  7. My gang has a catch phrase: “Oh, no! The pretty, rich people are in trouble again.” So long as I don’t hear that sounding in the back of my head I’m ok with characters who survive abuse, pulled themselves up by their boot-straps, etc. I just don’t want that to be ALL they have to offer me.

    Reply
  8. My gang has a catch phrase: “Oh, no! The pretty, rich people are in trouble again.” So long as I don’t hear that sounding in the back of my head I’m ok with characters who survive abuse, pulled themselves up by their boot-straps, etc. I just don’t want that to be ALL they have to offer me.

    Reply
  9. My gang has a catch phrase: “Oh, no! The pretty, rich people are in trouble again.” So long as I don’t hear that sounding in the back of my head I’m ok with characters who survive abuse, pulled themselves up by their boot-straps, etc. I just don’t want that to be ALL they have to offer me.

    Reply
  10. I think I am engaged mainly by characters who can think for themselves, who are capable of original thought outside the cultural confines of their society and their niche within it, whether humble or socially exalted. Those who accept other humans objectively, on their merits, regardless of age, sex and rank – and such people have always existed, even in the most stratified societies. Even though the writer must beware of writing a 15thC or 18thC heroine who thinks exactly like a 21stC woman, it is not unrealistic to write a person of those earlier centuries who is able to perceive at least some of her own society’s norms in a detached and dispassionate way. It is because such people have always existed that society has steadily changed and evolved.
    I also admit to a general attraction towards characters who share my own interests – a fascination with history, artefacts, how things work – and a love of animals and the natural world. I could never be in sympathy with a hero or heroine who casually mistreated dogs or horses.
    Oddly, hunting, an important element in both aristocratic and demotic life in the past, is not *wholly* incompatible with a love of animals. If we admire the hunting prowess of a carnivore like a cat, a weasel or a magnificent avian raptor such as a sparrow-hawk, we have to accept the reality of their tearing their victims limb from limb and eating them. I think today, when most hunting and fishing is done purely for reasons of sport rather than in order to eat the quarry, the situation is a little different.
    🙂

    Reply
  11. I think I am engaged mainly by characters who can think for themselves, who are capable of original thought outside the cultural confines of their society and their niche within it, whether humble or socially exalted. Those who accept other humans objectively, on their merits, regardless of age, sex and rank – and such people have always existed, even in the most stratified societies. Even though the writer must beware of writing a 15thC or 18thC heroine who thinks exactly like a 21stC woman, it is not unrealistic to write a person of those earlier centuries who is able to perceive at least some of her own society’s norms in a detached and dispassionate way. It is because such people have always existed that society has steadily changed and evolved.
    I also admit to a general attraction towards characters who share my own interests – a fascination with history, artefacts, how things work – and a love of animals and the natural world. I could never be in sympathy with a hero or heroine who casually mistreated dogs or horses.
    Oddly, hunting, an important element in both aristocratic and demotic life in the past, is not *wholly* incompatible with a love of animals. If we admire the hunting prowess of a carnivore like a cat, a weasel or a magnificent avian raptor such as a sparrow-hawk, we have to accept the reality of their tearing their victims limb from limb and eating them. I think today, when most hunting and fishing is done purely for reasons of sport rather than in order to eat the quarry, the situation is a little different.
    🙂

    Reply
  12. I think I am engaged mainly by characters who can think for themselves, who are capable of original thought outside the cultural confines of their society and their niche within it, whether humble or socially exalted. Those who accept other humans objectively, on their merits, regardless of age, sex and rank – and such people have always existed, even in the most stratified societies. Even though the writer must beware of writing a 15thC or 18thC heroine who thinks exactly like a 21stC woman, it is not unrealistic to write a person of those earlier centuries who is able to perceive at least some of her own society’s norms in a detached and dispassionate way. It is because such people have always existed that society has steadily changed and evolved.
    I also admit to a general attraction towards characters who share my own interests – a fascination with history, artefacts, how things work – and a love of animals and the natural world. I could never be in sympathy with a hero or heroine who casually mistreated dogs or horses.
    Oddly, hunting, an important element in both aristocratic and demotic life in the past, is not *wholly* incompatible with a love of animals. If we admire the hunting prowess of a carnivore like a cat, a weasel or a magnificent avian raptor such as a sparrow-hawk, we have to accept the reality of their tearing their victims limb from limb and eating them. I think today, when most hunting and fishing is done purely for reasons of sport rather than in order to eat the quarry, the situation is a little different.
    🙂

    Reply
  13. Heck, I still like all the baggage. LOL I don’t think I really have read too many of one type (or if I do, I apparently spread them out really well!). But in the end, there probably is just so many different plot points available. I guess that’s why soaps constantly have the same storylines, just try to change it around a bit or something. 🙂
    Lois

    Reply
  14. Heck, I still like all the baggage. LOL I don’t think I really have read too many of one type (or if I do, I apparently spread them out really well!). But in the end, there probably is just so many different plot points available. I guess that’s why soaps constantly have the same storylines, just try to change it around a bit or something. 🙂
    Lois

    Reply
  15. Heck, I still like all the baggage. LOL I don’t think I really have read too many of one type (or if I do, I apparently spread them out really well!). But in the end, there probably is just so many different plot points available. I guess that’s why soaps constantly have the same storylines, just try to change it around a bit or something. 🙂
    Lois

    Reply
  16. Cute, Susan/Sarah. And what would it all mean if Goldilocks had had a dye job?
    I’m ambivalent about past baggage in a novel for two reasons. I think life gives most people baggage, so it doesn’t have to be being orphaned, having a dire disease, or being abused.
    But also, I like to see what happens when people whose lives are pretty normal have trouble dropped on them. Then they have to show what they’re made of without being able to plead past wounds.
    Jo 🙂

    Reply
  17. Cute, Susan/Sarah. And what would it all mean if Goldilocks had had a dye job?
    I’m ambivalent about past baggage in a novel for two reasons. I think life gives most people baggage, so it doesn’t have to be being orphaned, having a dire disease, or being abused.
    But also, I like to see what happens when people whose lives are pretty normal have trouble dropped on them. Then they have to show what they’re made of without being able to plead past wounds.
    Jo 🙂

    Reply
  18. Cute, Susan/Sarah. And what would it all mean if Goldilocks had had a dye job?
    I’m ambivalent about past baggage in a novel for two reasons. I think life gives most people baggage, so it doesn’t have to be being orphaned, having a dire disease, or being abused.
    But also, I like to see what happens when people whose lives are pretty normal have trouble dropped on them. Then they have to show what they’re made of without being able to plead past wounds.
    Jo 🙂

    Reply
  19. One of the things I look for in stories of all kinds is a sign of pyschological/emotional change in the lead characters. My preferred series–like the Aubrey/Maturin stories–involve baggage of one kind or another. The past informs the present, deepens characters, warps them a little–but there’s change. So it feels like life. In my own books, at least one lead has some kind of baggage because my view of the romance involves love as a healing element as well as an element for emotional growth. So yes, I think baggage is important, but I despise stories where it seems to be slapped on, simply to give the character a problem. As to personal taste–I tend to shy away from things like serial killers (what’s the motivation besides being crazy?), abuse or rape stories. I get enough in the newspapers. Not crazy about it in my so-called pleasure reading.

    Reply
  20. One of the things I look for in stories of all kinds is a sign of pyschological/emotional change in the lead characters. My preferred series–like the Aubrey/Maturin stories–involve baggage of one kind or another. The past informs the present, deepens characters, warps them a little–but there’s change. So it feels like life. In my own books, at least one lead has some kind of baggage because my view of the romance involves love as a healing element as well as an element for emotional growth. So yes, I think baggage is important, but I despise stories where it seems to be slapped on, simply to give the character a problem. As to personal taste–I tend to shy away from things like serial killers (what’s the motivation besides being crazy?), abuse or rape stories. I get enough in the newspapers. Not crazy about it in my so-called pleasure reading.

    Reply
  21. One of the things I look for in stories of all kinds is a sign of pyschological/emotional change in the lead characters. My preferred series–like the Aubrey/Maturin stories–involve baggage of one kind or another. The past informs the present, deepens characters, warps them a little–but there’s change. So it feels like life. In my own books, at least one lead has some kind of baggage because my view of the romance involves love as a healing element as well as an element for emotional growth. So yes, I think baggage is important, but I despise stories where it seems to be slapped on, simply to give the character a problem. As to personal taste–I tend to shy away from things like serial killers (what’s the motivation besides being crazy?), abuse or rape stories. I get enough in the newspapers. Not crazy about it in my so-called pleasure reading.

    Reply

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