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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  • Reply G. S. Jennsen 21 November, 2013 at 9:25 am

    I totally agree. I make a point to always have music playing while I’m writing, targeted toward the mood of the scene I’m working on.

    I get some of my best ideas/insights/inspiration when driving in the car, which I think is a combination of the relaxed mental state you referenced and the fact that I play music disturbingly loud in the car 😉

    • Reply Lauren Sapala 21 November, 2013 at 9:48 am

      Me too! Driving in the car seems to be the number one place that inspiration visits me. I think you’re right, it’s combination of the music and the relaxed mental state.

      • Reply Margit Sage 21 November, 2013 at 5:01 pm

        Ditto for me! That and in the shower (relaxed mental state), but I’m the only one singing there… 🙂

        • Reply Lauren Sapala 22 November, 2013 at 9:32 am

          Yup, the shower is one of the best places for me too!

          • G. S. Jennsen 22 November, 2013 at 9:37 am

            Lol, I didn’t want to mention the shower, but absolutely YES! I have music playing then too – and now I have a waterproof writing pad to jot down the ideas that love to intrude on my shower 😉

          • Lauren Sapala 22 November, 2013 at 11:25 am

            That’s so cool! I had no idea waterproof writing pads even existed.

          • G. S. Jennsen 22 November, 2013 at 12:09 pm

            Yup! Someone else pointed me to them, they’re called AquaNotes:

  • Reply Richard Lalchan 21 November, 2013 at 11:17 am

    Nice post Lauren. I agree music and writing are intrinsically linked.

    A good place to get an understanding of the link is listening to some classical composers like Prokofiev. His Peter and the Wolf piece is a fantastic example as each character in the story has their own theme played on a different musical instrument.

    I’ve seen the animation played with a live orchestra and its fascinating to see each character come alive. Every time you read the story after that you can’t help but hear the characters theme played in your head!

    • Reply Lauren Sapala 21 November, 2013 at 1:01 pm

      That sounds amazing. I’m going to check out that Peter and the Wolf piece. Thanks for the recommendation!

  • Reply Wesley Allison 21 November, 2013 at 2:44 pm

    Great post. I love writing to music. It can really help with action scenes and love scenes.

  • Reply David G Shrock 21 November, 2013 at 7:40 pm

    Same here, I often play music fitting the character or scene. I have my vampire playlist for scary scenes, my epic playlist, Bach for sophisticated characters. Playing the appropriate music really helps me get into the correct mood for character or writing style. It seems to make the words flow easier, too.

    Love your final line.

    • Reply Lauren Sapala 22 November, 2013 at 9:31 am

      Thank you so much for saying you loved my final line David! I actually kind of agonized about it and thought “Are people going to think I’m being too vulnerable by saying that?” But I do believe it, so I went with it. Thanks so much for noticing that line and telling me you appreciated it.

  • Reply Catherine North 22 November, 2013 at 1:01 am

    That’s a really interesting article on the link between music and creativity. I’m obsessed with David Bowie and listen to him every day, and he has a song for pretty much everything my characters do or feel.

    But I will also try listening to the radio at random and see if that inspires something new!

  • Reply Phillip McCollum 22 November, 2013 at 8:06 am

    I’ve learned writing to most music for me is totally distracting, BUT I love listening to it for inspiration, especially before I start writing. It definitely puts me in a certain frame of mind and gets the creative juices flowing.

    • Reply Lauren Sapala 22 November, 2013 at 9:31 am

      Me too. I can’t actually listen to music while I write. Instead, I play it beforehand for inspiration.

  • Reply Setsu 22 November, 2013 at 3:43 pm

    David Bowie Narrates Peter and the Wolf:

    Shower-safe notepad:

    All my characters have theme songs. A long time ago, (maybe this still happens?) anime characters would have “Image Songs,” and music videos that center on them. Different characters have theme songs or playlists… I should start coming up with music for different worlds/locations.

    • Reply Catherine North 24 November, 2013 at 12:34 pm

      How brilliant to find a link between David Bowie and Peter and the Wolf! And I think of ideas in the shower too, but on the bus is where most of my best thinking is done. I usually end up with at least one scene set on a bus too. 😉

  • Reply Loretta 23 November, 2013 at 7:39 pm

    I find that listening to certain music can transport me back years to a character I wrote about back then that I’ve completely forgotten. Powerful connection, for sure!

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