How Music Can Help You Write Better Characters

How does a great writer get inside a character’s head? What’s the secret to peeling back the layers to reveal the emotionally textured motive beneath?

I recently struggled with this while reading a long, epic poem by Goethe. There were so many characters, and each character had so much going on, that it was hard for me to keep track of all of them. It was even more difficult to see the bigger picture of how they all fit together.

I started thinking about the poem while driving in the car, listening to the radio.

Every time a different song came on, I made a game out of linking the song to something going on in the story I was reading. I pictured the characters dancing to the song as if they were in a musical and I was the audience. When one of the characters in the poem, Helen of Troy, showed me the hidden meaning behind her actions while performing a song by Beyonce, I was stunned.

I realized that meaning had been there all along and I just hadn’t seen it. And if my brain hadn’t been in the totally relaxed and playful space brought on by the music, I might never have seen it at all.

Music has magical creative properties. As a writer, you should be taking advantage of it.

If you’re working with a new character who you’ve just met, or if you’re at a stuck place with a character that you’ve been working with for a while, music has the power to help you unpack their layers.

You can use the method I outlined above by dialing through the radio and letting chance dictate which song speaks to you. The next step is to picture your character singing the song, or performing it in front of an audience with the purpose of getting a message across. What is that message? What emotion does the song contain that resonates with your character?

Another excellent strategy is to chill out and put on one of your favorite playlists or Pandora channels. As the music streams, let your imagination unfold into the scenes of your story. What do you see? What are your characters doing and how are they interacting?

Music triggers an emotional response in the human brain. Because of this involuntary response, it’s much easier to let down our guard and let our creativity do exactly what it wants.

When we relax into a curious, playful state of mind we are more likely to feel inspired and excited about our work, instead of getting blocked by doubts about possible plot holes, reader reaction, or characters showing up in a way we didn’t expect.

Music is like love, every human being can benefit from it.

And love always nourishes creativity.

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