Recently, as I was preparing for my Mortal Heart book tour, I found myself in a logistical flurry trying to pack ten days’ worth of clothes and personal items into one carry on. There was the big, obvious stuff; four pairs of pants, eight shirts, ten pairs of socks, under duds, toiletries, iPad, reading material, pens, etc. However, there were also some rather unique items. Like the veritable cobbler’s bench worth of extra insoles, arch supports, moleskin and shoe enhancers that I might need for the two pairs of shoes I was taking—both brand new since my feet had suddenly grown half a size well past the time I expected my feet to do anymore growing. Or the old black t-shirt I’ve grown accustomed to draping over my eyes instead of an eye mask.
While those were admittedly odd, they weren’t nearly as discomfiting as the small medicine chest of ‘tools’ I was bringing along to ensure I could endure the strange, torture devices that the modern plane seat has evolved into; Advil, Aleve, arnica, muscle relaxants (in case things got really hairy) and maybe even a half a Xanax or two, in case it all got to be too much.
As I struggled to fit everything into that one piece of luggage, I was struck by the enormous load of invisible baggage I was carrying with me on this trip. My worries—about travel, my feet, whether or not anyone would show up at the events. My fears—of travel delays, wickedly uncomfortable plane seats, lost luggage, public speaking (mostly gone at this stage of my life but reappearing just often enough to keep me off balance.) My hopes—that I would meet reader expectations, book sales, and my own performance. And lastly, my conditioning, if you will—from my earliest, most damaging beliefs that I did not have a right to a voice, or was allowed to speak into the public conversation at large, to my more recent attempts to rewrite that programming—helped in large part by wildly enthusiastic and generous readers, booksellers, friends and family.
The thing is, my experience is not unique. Whenever any of us set out on a journey of any length, we not only have the physical supplies we carry with us, but an invisible backpack or suitcase packed full of our hopes and fears, expectations and programming.
These invisible backpacks are one of the most intimate, rich, unique and authentic things about us. They accompany us on a trip of ten days or a ten minute jaunt to the grocery store and everything in-between. Yes, even to work, and yes, even when we work in a home office.
As a writer, these invisible backpacks are one of our most powerful tools.
The thing is, if every story is about a character going on a journey, whether a physical or metaphorical one, then they, too, should have one of these invisible backpacks. If they don’t, the journey often feels flat and unimportant, uncompelling and lacking in urgency.
Unlike a regular suitcase, the weight of the invisible one is always there. It weighs down on even our most simple actions and decisions. It’s what turns a simple act—say reaching for a cup of coffee or opening a door or shutting a window—into a loaded, complex dramatic action.
A while ago I talked about how it was the unseen things that defined the relationship. This isn’t true only for relationships with other people, but our relationship with the world as well. The often unseen and unacknowledged things we carry in our invisible backpacks not only color our interactions with the world around us, but can often predict the outcome of a journey before we’ve even begun. That’s why two people can take the same exact physical journey and yet one will be transformed by the experience, see it as a world expanding and life affirming, while the other will return embittered and disillusioned, due in no small part to the content of those backpacks.
The topmost layers of the backpack is often just the emotional detritus of everyday life. A fight with the spouse, a sick child, trouble making the rent that month, a falling out with a best friend. Worry over the approaching storm. Concern if the traffic will make you late. Frustration that you can’t afford a new sword or that your horse has lost a shoe.
Below that is our acknowledged fears and hopes. Will we get the promotion. Will our boss like our presentation. Can we get to the next village before the bad guys do. Can we break into the villain’s fortress.
But below that, and more broad and influential, is the product of our conditioning or programming. Do we see the world as a hopeful, positive place? One where we can effect change and make our influence felt? Or is it a barren, hopeless place that is indifferent to our efforts and desires? Are we generally met with openness and good will or do we constantly face suspicion and mistrust?
A hopeful, confident person will greet a stranger on the road in a much different way than one who has been consistently defeated by life. The person who expects disaster at every turn and constantly scans her surroundings trying to anticipate that disaster makes decision and choices in a significantly different way than someone who has experienced mostly clear sailing.
A bonus added level complexity to be tapped is the whole way we work so hard to avoid acknowledging the content of our backpacks: using humor to deflect pain, doubling down on toughness to avoid that sick feeling of being afraid.
Often the contents of these invisible backpacks are at odds with each other. Our hopes in direct conflict with our fears or worries. Our social conditioning gives us no reason to dream—and yet in a triumph of the human spirit, we dream anyway.
If you’re not constantly rummaging through your character’s invisible backpack and stirring up the contents, then you are missing out on a mother lode of opportunity as a storyteller. It is full of rich stuff, emotional pay dirt that we have at our disposal to craft compelling stories. If you’re lost on where to start in defining your character’s invisible backpack, I invite you to spend a few minutes rummaging through your own first. As I so recently discovered for myself, it will be most enlightening.
Can you identify what your protagonist’s invisible backpack might contain? And if so, how does it color their actions and decisions—both the very small, seemingly insignificant ones and the larger, set piece ones?