Using Music to Show Character

As an author who loves music, it would be lovely if I could include a soundtrack with my books and stories. Do publishers ever do that with audiobooks? I would put songs or tunes that had inspired characters or scenes. Or my publisher could hire someone to write original music. Since those dreams will have to stay dreams, I have to include music in my stories the best way I can. Using music to show character is a fresher, more novel way for readers to get to know my characters than physical description and dialogue.

A Main Character Who’s Also a Musician

My teen detective Rae Riley is, first and foremost, an amateur photographer. It’s the way she sees the world. But, like a lot of creative people, she enjoys other arts. She played drums in her high school marching band and jazz band. Making her a drummer gives her personality another layer. She’s playing an instrument that leans more toward males, so some might see her choice as unusual or offbeat (ha!).

When I was in band, certain personalities tended to pick certain instruments. The Type A, straight arrows played flute and trumpet. The clarinet was the everyman or woman of the band. The more quirky kids picked trombone, saxophone, or percussion. My character’s choice of instrument can say a lot about who he or she is.

If you need to draw disparate characters together, making them all musicians gives them a common interest and a plausible reason for people who might not normally associate with each other to interact. Rae joins three young police officers in jam sessions because they play outlaw country music for fun and didn’t have a drummer. (Yes, it’s supposed to be funny that cops like outlaw country.)

Favorite Music Reveals Character Traits

The fact that these millennial cops are playing music from the 70’s says something about their personalities. Houston, who sings lead and plays lead guitar, explains how he can’t stand current country music. His love for outlaw country can mean any number of things. Maybe he’s not concerned with following popular trends. Or he doesn’t like how big business takes over an art form; he likes art for art’s sake. Or he just likes to be different, to stand out from the crowd.

When Rae and the cops take a break from jamming, they play songs from their playlists. I can use their choices to say something about their characters. Since Rae doesn’t know the three young men well, she hesitates over her selections because her playlist contains what she considers some pretty obscure songs. So she picks more popular songs. Her choice shows her uncertainty in this new social situation. Out of the four characters. the bass player is the only one to pick instrumental pieces instead of songs. I can use that deviation from the other characters to reveal something about him.

Now it’s your turn. Have you written or read about characters who love music? How did the author use music to show character?

Here’s another post on adding music and poetry to prose.

When a Character Turns into a Problem Child

When a character turns into a problem child, a writer wants to administer a serious time-out session.

I ran into this frustration while writing my YA mystery. My main character Rae belongs to an extensive, extended family. I decided to give her father an older sister, a younger sister, and a younger brother. The dad and his two sisters came to life early and easily. But Younger Brothers turned into a problem child. No matter what approach I took, I couldn’t develop him into an interesting character, one who would contrast with his siblings.

If you are faced with a character who turns into a problem child, try these four trouble-shooting techniques.

Change the Name

Naming characters appropriately is critical for me when developing them. If I give a bubbly character a name that somehow suggests a quiet, sensitive type, the character won’t work for me. But the name wasn’t Younger Brother’s problem.

Change the Face

This is the same as changing the name. Usually when I build a character, I start with a face that I’ve seen somewhere and that signals a certain kind of personality. Younger Brother’s face suggested a reserved, intellectual, but I had another character like that who was working well within the story. I thought maybe I just needed to …

Write a Scene with the Character

This technique had worked with Rae’ grandmother. I knew I had to have a grandmother, but she proved a slippery character, her personality assuming all sorts of traits as I tried to structure her in my mind before I began writing. Finally, I decided to stick her in a scene and see what happened. Pretty soon, Gram’s mellow, warm-hearted personality shone through, making her a nice contrast to her son, Rae’s father, who is a worrier.

But when I wrote a scene with Younger Brother, he became irritating, sounding whiny. So the only thing left to do was …

Combine or Eliminate the Character

I offed him in cold-blood with a a lot of relief. I simply didn’t need him. If I hadn’t already had a character similar to him, I might have taken his qualities and those of another character to combine them into someone new.

I think the reason I worked so hard to keep him is that I often create groups of four characters. I’m one of four sisters, so I understand how that group dynamic works. What I had failed to realize was that I already had a group of four characters. Oldest Sister married the neighbor boy, whom Rae’s father and sisters grew up with. So he’s like a brother, although an older one to Rae’s father. But I’ve had a ton of fun writing about how the brothers-in-law jab at each other.

Click here for more tips on creating characters.

Have you had a character turn into a problem child? What did you do to fix it?

How to Add Humor to Any Story

No matter what genre, if a few characters in a story display a sense of humor, that hooks me as readily as quirky characters or an intriguing plot. Click here for a previous post on the importance of humor.

Inserting humor into a story, especially one with a serious premise, can be difficult. I’ve discovered how to add humor to any story by knowing my characters extremely well and allowing their natures to dictate their sense of humor.

Assigning the Correct Sense of Humor

In my YA mystery A Shadow on the Snow, my main character Rae is quiet, shy person. Most of her funny remarks are in her thoughts. Her uncle Hank is the family joker. He likes to tease relatives to show his affection, especially Rae’s father, his brother-in-law. This kind of humor seems appropriate for a laid-back, extroverted character. Rae’s father, on the other hand, uses sarcastic humor. That fits with his being a cop of fifteen years experience.

Rae jams in a band with two guys. Houston is from Texas. His sense of humor is exaggeration. When Rae asks him how he came to work in Ohio, he answers, “Like any good Texan, I was undone by a woman.” The other guy Chris is very reserve, and Rae finds it difficult to read his facial or body language. He has a very dry sense of humor that Rae only figures out when she sees an ornery glint in his eyes.

As I’m writing a scene, and a joke or humorous observation comes to me, I have to make sure I assign it to the appropriate character. Sometimes, I’ve had to discard something I think is funny because no character in the scene would make that kind of joke or comment. Writers don’t want to break the illusion of reality they create around their fiction. Jamming a joke in the mouth of a character just because I think it’s hilarious will shatter that illusion quicker than just about any other mistake.

My joker, Uncle Hank, can’t suddenly turn sarcastic because I want to dazzle readers with my wit. Or Rae’s father can’t tell a thigh-slapping joke when up until this point in the story he’s only used sarcasm. Readers won’t buy it, or even worse, feel cheated that a character has suddenly swerved from the personality they’ve come to understand.

For more on writing humor and comedy and what’s the difference, check out this very helpful article on “Almost an Author”.

What stories or shows do you think demonstrate how to add humor naturally?

Writing Tip — Writing in Time: Lonely Places as Writing Inspiration

fogw-3461096_1920Lonely places aren’t unique to October, but I wanted to write about them for this month’s theme, mysteries. I’m drawn to lonely places, whether it’s an abandoned house, an office building after hours, or an empty beach. The lack of people suggests some kind of story behind the emptiness. Or it allows me to project all kinds of ideas for stories.

In my short story, “A Rose from the Ashes”, an abandoned children’s home is a clue and a key setting for the mystery. Many, many years ago, when my dad would take me out into the country to practice driving, we would pass what looked like a large, two-story house. He told me that at one time it was a home for orphans. The building was made of stone or brick and had a simple, flat facade with the door centered on the bottom floor. As I drove by it in the evening, with the windows dark, the home sitting by itself in a field, I got an eerie feeling.

Below are four ways to use lonely places as writing inspiration.

Set the mood or foreshadow

If I want to make my readers uneasy, setting a scene in a lonely place is a great way to do it. It’s an experience all of us have had, so readers instantly relate to it. The lonely place hints at something awful to come. Or I can subvert that notion. I can have my characters worry about being in some dreadfully lonely place only to discover friends are waiting for them.

Aid character development

Having a character seek out lonely places can tell the reader something about their personality. Does she visit a local cemetery because she’s morbid? Or is it the closest place she can go to get away from violence in her home? If I create a character, who regularly visits the mountains to hike, I can signal to readers that he likes challenges, or he needs to relieve stress, or he’s chasing freedom that he can’t find in his usual routine. If my character is drawn to an old house with a spooky legend attached to it, I can show that she’s curious or a truth seeker or wants to see justice done.

Challenge the main character

At a conference I attended, author Steven James recommended isolating the main character (MC) to increase tension. Lonely places do that and also give me the opportunity to stress and test the MC. I’m a hug fan of the underdog story, and the best way to set that up is to force the MC to go it alone.

And I don’t use lonely places just for physical isolation. If I really want to get the MC to rely on her strengths, I need to isolate her from technology. That’s one of the reasons I love rural places and visit rural areas to see where I can realistically cut off the MC from the rest of the world.

I can also create tension in a lonely place by having my MC phone for help that will be a long time in arriving. But I prefer to cut him off completely. Then the readers can anticipate the MC will have to succeed on his own abilities.

Slow the pace for reflection while maintaining tension

When writing a chase or action sequences, the MC has no time to think. Surviving is all that matters. But if I need her to realize something during the pursuit, I can have her find a lonely place. She can hide, catch her breath, and be on the alert for her antagonist but also think about what’s happening. Maybe she suddenly realizes the identity of her mysterious pursuer. Or she figures out how to elude him. Or she reasons out the key to the mystery she’s been trying to solve and must escape to tell the police.

A lonely place works just as well if all I need it for is time for the MC to think, even if it’s as simple as having him taken a walk in the morning. But I must make sure when I slow the pace of my narrative not to bring it to halt by dumping information I haven’t worked into the storyline yet.

What stories have you read or movies you’ve seen that effectively use lonely places?

 

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