Yep. It’s called baggage, and we’re all encumbered with it. Some of us move through the world with just an overnight bag. Others of us have steamer trunks full, and insist on lumbering through life with them, dragging them everywhere.
We all know --- or should realize --- that childhood is a fundamentally, critically formational time in our lives. While just about all of us change as we progress through the years --- if we don’t change as we endure the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune (and the joys, too, I’m not dismissing positive forces for change in our lives), then we’re at risk of becoming examples of that dreaded literary apparition, the static character --- most of us don’t spend a great deal of time reflecting on just how important those childhood years are in terms of moulding what we ultimately become.
So if you’re looking to explain why you --- or the characters you create --- do the things they or you do... perhaps you need look no further than those tender childhood years. We can speak in positive terms, of course; how we learned courage or perseverance or endurance or developed those devastatingly quick wits we’re blessed with. And those are, undeniably, very important character traits. But when I speak of baggage, I’m referring, as does the quote, to the various neuroses we picked up in the half-remembered traumas of childhood: the fears, irrational and otherwise, the cautions, the petty insecurities that stamp our adult personas. Frankly, they’re more interesting to readers than the good points. (Which kind of makes you wonder why on earth we’re so drawn to accidents and train wrecks, doesn’t it? Especially viewing them in slow motion. What is it with us, anyway?) Sigh. It’s a wonder, when you actually stop to think about it, that many of us can function at all after we’ve left those angst-ridden years behind. Particularly the teenage years, when we add hormones to the mix --- for some of us, that’s just like splashing gasoline over the heaped pile of our personality traits and adding the match. Yikes. Stand back and watch the resultant conflagration with awed and horrified eyes, folks.
This is very useful to writers contemplating their characters. We all know that, as humans, we do silly or stupid or irrational things... some of us occasionally, others with a frequency which convinces me that some people’s prime function in life is obviously to serve as a cautionary note to others. But as writers, we need to ask ourselves why do our characters do these silly/stupid/irrational things? And childhood experiences, positive and negative, makes for a pretty good rationale.
For example, in my novel Gryphon’s Heir, I bestowed on my protagonist doubts concerning his own ability and self-worth that vary somewhere between mildly debilitating to crippling at times. I’m still not clear in my own mind what brought about those doubts of his, but I’m darned certain it was some trauma (or series of traumas) that took place in his childhood years. One day, we may even get around to exploring the issue --- if it naturally comes up --- in the second volume that’s being written even as we speak, or the one after that, or the one after that... Who knows? Perhaps my protagonist will seek, or stumble across, some fatherly or motherly type who specializes in psychoanalysis, and away we go.
That’s the beauty of these traumas, as far as a writer is concerned: childhood is such a wondrous --- and at times terrifying --- set of experiences, and as the quote says, moulds us in such indelible ways, that it can explain all sorts of things about us. Of course, you can’t lay everything, good or bad, about your character on what did or didn’t happen to them as children --- many other things have occurred over the days of our lives which have profound impacts on us and the ways in which we relate to the world around us --- but it’s a good place to start when we seek to understand either ourselves or our literary creations, bless our broken little hearts and wounded psyches.