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A Five-Step Guide to Hacking Your Characters With Music

December 7, 2017

While some people prefer to write in silence, I’m a firm believer that music can help fiction writers access a wide range of emotions necessary to write passionately and realistically. My Spotify account is packed with playlists sporting titles of various works-in-progress or specific scenes from my novels.

hacking your characters with musicRecently I discovered a new (for me) way to work with music. I realized I can use music to help make my characters, especially my supporting characters or antagonists, well-rounded and more interesting.

While making my playlist for my latest young adult thriller, I added Taylor Swift’s “Style,” to the mix. I thought it would reflect the tension between the main character and her love interest. But the more I listened to the song, the more I realized it actually exemplified one of the supporting characters. On a whim, I made a playlist for that character, which I listened to when I revised scenes with her in it. Suddenly, this minor character popped off the page for me. She had a deeper backstory, more motivations, and a thorough sense of style.

Since that experience, I have started making playlists to help bring each of my characters to life. Here are some of the techniques I use to maximize the usefulness of these playlists.

Find the Perfect Theme Song for Your Character

For some characters, like the one in my example above, the theme song will pop out for you. Other characters may take some time and musical research before you find an appropriate theme.

Here are a couple of tips when picking a theme song:

  1. Don’t limit yourself to just one theme song. Instead, try to find two or three songs that describe the various aspects of your character. This helps your character have more depth and complexity.

After “Style” gave me such good results, I added “The Lotto” by Ingrid Michaelson and “Hey, Soul Sister” by Train to my supporting character’s playlist. While “Style” gave me a sense of the character’s desire to fit in and be a classic woman, the upbeat rhythms and idealistic lyrics of the other two songs helped me realize my character was bubbly and optimistic to a fault. These are traits I do not possess and seldom write, but the songs helped me envision them clearly. Suddenly, I had a girl with beliefs, emotions, and motivation, whereas before I had someone who only reflected back my main character.

  1. Don’t be afraid to listen to artists and genres that aren’t on your everyday playlists. This technique is especially helpful when you write characters you don’t particularly relate to or like.

Not all of your characters should be like you. One way to branch out with your writing is to branch out with your inspirational music. If you don’t listen to metal, consider having a metal-head as one of your characters and see if the music helps you tap into an emotion you don’t often feel or a perspective you don’t often consider.

A person holds up a phone and headphones in Yosemite.Explore Music Related to the Theme Song

Choosing a theme song is just the beginning. After you choose a few songs, explore songs and artists related to your theme song. I use Spotify to do this, playing a song and then allowing the program to build a radio station around it. If you live in the US, Pandora is also an excellent platform for creating an entire playlist from multiple seed songs. If you don’t have access to Pandora, even YouTube will give you related songs through its autoplay feature.

Exploring related music helps you create an entire personality as opposed to a single snapshot of your character. Different songs evoke various emotions. Using more than one song breaks your character out of the trap of being one-dimensional. Make sure you save songs that inspire you in a playlist specifically for that character. This will be useful later while you are developing your character or writing scenes with your character in them.

Have a Conversation With the Music

While choosing music, think deeply about the musical aspects that relate to your character. Is it the genre? The lyrics? The thumping bass line? The soft undertones? Listen to your playlist multiple times to assess what your songs have in common and what components stick out as important to you. You may find that some of the songs conflict. That’s okay, as the conflict can create a realistic dissonance in your character. But feel free to weed out songs or aspects of songs that don’t fit your character.

Once you realize what aspects of the songs relate to your character, take a step further and look at how that song is positioned in the world. Does it have a music video? What fashion does the singer follow? What speech style do people listening to it on YouTube use in the comments? All this helps inform the details and personality of your character. These aspects influence a character’s lexicon, physical appearance, and more.

Listen PassivelyA person relaxes next to a boombox. You can use music to learn more about your characters

If you’re like me, when you get time to write, you want to spend it writing. But once you’ve created a character playlist, resist the urge to jump right into your manuscript. Instead, spend time listening to the playlist passively. Allow your mind to wander, and think about your character while listening to the music. This is an important step in connecting the music and the emotions it provokes to your character. It also helps you develop and understand your character’s backstory.

My current work-in-progress involves a teenage girl whose best friend commits suicide. The book deals with her feelings of resentment and betrayal towards her best friend while trying to find her own reasons to keep living. For her theme song I chose “Awake My Soul” by Mumford and Sons. The musical transition from melancholy to hopeful helped me feel the strength and determination of my main character at key points of the manuscript. The opening lyrics created a sense of confusion, questioning, and a longing to trust someone. These were key aspects in helping me write that character.

Listen While Writing Your Character

After you establish a good relationship with the character playlist, listen to it when you are writing. While I still make playlists for specific scenes, I tend to spend most of my writing time switching back and forth between character playlists now. These playlists allow me to pull from a set range of emotions that would be realistic for each character, making the characters more realistic.

Writing believable characters is one of the most difficult parts of fiction writing. Everyone uses a different set of tools to crack open their characters’ minds. Music can be a key to opening a character’s heart and soul and can aid you in writing a wide range of fully developed characters. As an added bonus, if you develop a character playlist, you can release it to your fans after your book is published, like Celeste Ng, Veronica Roth, or Stephen King.

By Lorraine Daggett

Lorraine is an expat currently living in Bulgaria. She co-published a book of traditional Bulgarian recipes in 2013 and has been a professional writer for two years. Her favorite topics to write about are social systems, youth development, and feminist parenting. Besides writing, she enjoys cooking, outdoor activities, and spending time with her family.

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