A couple of years ago, the tutor on my writing course suggested selecting theme tunes for characters as a way of getting into the character. Since then, I have compiled playlists for major writing projects, adding songs that share the tone I am aiming to create or whose lyrics say something that I feel my characters would respond to. I’ve found it a great way of inhabiting the world of my story, getting to know my characters. Some have even come alive enough to demand songs I wouldn’t normally bother listening to.
I have even gone so far as to link songs to key scenes, in an effort to have my writing match the tone or emotion generated by the track. I suppose it’s a bit like selecting music for a soundtrack, as the film of my prose plays out in my head, which is basically how I write. I picture a scene, somewhere along the line it gets linked to music and then I write it. For example, a car crash plays a small but important part in the novel. Those of you who have read my recent #fridayflash Barrel Roll will know from the comments that I saw the dramatic after effects of some mysterious collision. That experience has provided the substance for a key scene I was struggling with in planning. Then, while listening to Elbow, I realised that ‘One Day Like This’ fits the scene both tonally and lyrically, providing the tone and the feel for that scene and what happens later. It works in counterpoint to the action and as a literal explanation of something else that kind of happens later that links back to the crash. If I’m being coy then it’s because I can’t say anymore without giving up my ending – which I am refusing to speak out loud (or blog about) until I write it. So, I slap the track in my playlist and put a note in the comments for the track info that this is for the collision scene. It is what I will be listening to when I write it.
In preparation for my ECA (end of course assessment) I have a playlist of songs that relate in one way or another to my main characters. The novel opening I am planning for this assessment (a story I have been itching to tell for about two years now but was waiting to be able to tell it) is an emotional story, dealing with the relationship of my main character with his father. Ben is a man haunted by the secrets his father kept who struggles to come to terms with them as he raises his own children.
The songs selected so far are largely emotional, slow burning pieces, like the first track that hit me as saying something about where Ben finds himself by the end of the story – No Occasion by the excellent J. Tillman (you might know him as the drummer in Fleet Foxes) from the album Vacilando Territory Blues.
The refrain of this song is key to the state of mind my character finds himself in regarding the importance of his family at the end of the story. Another Josh Tillman song ‘There Is No Good In Me’ also reflects some of Ben’s confusion about his father and their relationship. A song I heard on Radio 6 music the other day – Beggar’s Prayer by Emiliana Torrini – has fast become the theme tune for Ben’s wife, Clare, as she struggles to deal with Ben’s confusion and waywardness.
What is unusual, in the midst of the more reserved tracks that have presented themselves as ways of getting into the characters is that bands like The Strokes, Ned’s Atomic Dustbin and even Metallica are slipping into my writing process. The Monks’ ‘I Hate You’ is on the list. Music that would previously have been too loud or busy for me to listen to as I work. It’s also started showing me sides of characters that haven’t emerged before. For example, who knew that Ben’s wife, Clare would have a thing for The Dead Weather’s ‘Hang You From The Heavens.’
And like all writing, it’s easy to fall into cliche. I’ve removed tracks, like David Bowie’s ‘Always Crashing In the Same Car’ and Bessie Bank’s ‘Go Now’ from the list for being too obvious for certain scenes. Not that those tracks aren’t classics or favourites of mine, but linking them to the scenes I was thinking of would certainly be overstating a point. I reckon if I avoid creating cliche connections then I am one step closer to avoiding cliched writing. Or something like that.
Music has always been an important part of my everyday life so it’s no surprise that it has infiltrated my writing life. And just as it lifts me up in my day to day comings and goings, it helps lift my writing whether its giving me a starting point for a piece, providing the emotional hook of a scene or just some suitable backing music as I write.
How about you? Do you give your characters a theme tune? Does music play a part in your writing? Does it play a part in your reading?