The Canadian Writers' Collective

Writing, and writerly tangents

Monday, September 11, 2006

Spinning characters

by Tamara Lee

In a recent Salon article, Farhad Manjoo reviews the new book by neuroscientist Daniel Levitin, This is your Brain on Music, which explores “the connection between memory and music.” The book addresses a phenomenon we’re all familiar with: the previously inexplicable obsession or passion we all have for certain kinds of music, particularly the music of our youth.

With this in mind, I began considering how just choosing music to write to can be a telling and occasionally anxious exercise. Knowing that the final decision will set the mood and the pace of a piece, flavouring the characters’ personalities, histories, and interconnectedness, means I need to get it right. My relationship with the characters, thus the story, depends upon it.

Since music affects my world like weather patterns, why wouldn’t it affect my writing, too? And why wouldn’t that affect character-building? Surely a story written whilst listening to sizzling Brazilian superstar Seu Jorge will have a decidedly different atmosphere than the same one written whilst listening to something more murky, say, The Clash.

If I choose to bypass listening to music entirely that writing day (a choice often reached with the help of my chronic indecision), I can sometimes fool myself into thinking I am writing with a clean slate, unaffected by a bad musical selection. But even if I’m not writing in the company of iTunes, when developing a character I tend to consider his or her musical preferences, whether it comes up in the story or not. Sometimes, I know, things needn’t be so complicated. But this is my process, and so far it’s worked for me. Usually.

I have this one character I’ve been messing with for some time, in possession of a nice well-rounded and eclectic musical education. I don’t usually let my characters evolve into pretentious artists, but this just sort of happened and it fit the story. Anyway, he’s a pianist who grew up listening to his mother’s Tin Pan Alley records, was high schooled on rock, and is now obsessed with the classical pianist Satie. A lot of classical music research time was expended on this character, in fact, but still I don’t know enough about classical music, and so the story sits. Perhaps the music research is yet another diversion for me, or maybe it’s just an excuse to buy (and write off for tax purposes) more music. Anyway, I can’t seem to finish the story, and I really like this character. It’s frustrating, actually.

Of course there are loads of things to consider when conducting a character sketch, music just seems to cover a lot of ground for me. A teenaged girl who loves country music has a lot of story and character-defining potential: she could have grown up listening to Patsy Cline, and so it reminds her of her working-class parents, or she could be a middle-class cheerleader who heard Johnny Cash the first time she had sex with the bad boy in town. So with the choice of one musical genre, I’ve covered: class, age, emotional tendencies and personal philosophy, among other traits. But then, maybe I just felt like listening to Johnny Cash that day.

At any rate, this tendency to compile musical tastes for a character is akin to the sort of character assessment I tend to make on people when I meet them. Not potential pals, mind you, but potential mates. If a friend likes the Barenaked Ladies (and not just as a guilty pleasure), I can overlook this poor judgement, as there’s plenty else to discuss between friends. But if there’s going to be anything between us romantically, there had better be some common ground in that music collection. In Miriam Toews’ A Complicated Kindness, there’s a great scene where Nomi has this same experience with her future fella, sniffing the arse of potential love interest:

“And then we just started talking about music because that was sort of the test of potential. Even a Menno sheltered from the world knows not to stick her tongue into the mouth of a boy who owns an Air Supply record… Travis mentioned the name of Lou Reed without acting like a fawning dork about it and I knew then that I wanted to be his girlfriend…”

I mean, really, can you truly love someone whose musical tastes do not at least overlap with yours at some point? The same may apply to character building. Or does it?

I’ve never created a character whose musical tastes I completely despise, but that is a challenge I’d like to set for myself. Would he have to be a bad person or a lout, simply because his creator doesn’t like his musical preferences? Or could I really take the Pepsi-challenge and try to make him likeable in spite of his misguided musical tastes?

As I write this conclusion, the new tenants below are blaring their techno-annoyance music. The floorboards and walls are pumping with the rhythm of the bass. I’ve never been a big fan of techno music, so now I wonder what kind of stories I’d write while listening to music I hate. Not that I would want to put myself through that kind of hell, writing can be frustrating enough. It seems my writing future in this apartment will involve the regular use of headphones. Time to buy some new music.

10 Comments:

Blogger Andrew Tibbetts said...

The trouble for me, when I try to set my story mood by the music I'm playing when writing it, is that I think I've captured the feel but when I read it back later without the music playing it's not quite there. So lately, I've been writing in silence, but thinking a lot about the music of the prose itself. I have a story that I know should feel like an ecstatic Patti Smith song. So somehow the words have to contain both the grind in the background and the free-floating rhapsody over top.

Mon Sep 11, 05:47:00 am GMT-4  
Blogger J.A. McDougall said...

Writing to music, aha! this is what I'm missing. I'll trust your suggestion that it deepens the characters and give it a try. I can see myself having the same problem of indecision. Choosing the wrong music could be as detrimental as voicing a plot line before it is scratched onto paper; the first time through often flows the best.

Mon Sep 11, 08:47:00 am GMT-4  
Blogger Anne C. said...

I always choose the wrong music.

Mon Sep 11, 09:57:00 am GMT-4  
Blogger H.E.Eigler said...

Music is an amazing thing as far as invoking feeling, memories and mood. I tend to listen to the same music over and over until I don't really hear it anymore and then I write to it. I find that when I'm listening to new music or music I really like it takes my focus away and I end up singing or dancing with the cat instead of working.

Mon Sep 11, 11:25:00 am GMT-4  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Tamara, enjoyed the article and the pic. So music is your romantic glue - still chuckling. I think that probably applies to a lot of Maple Room writers. Has helped keep Randall and me together :) Diane

Mon Sep 11, 12:41:00 pm GMT-4  
Blogger Tricia Dower said...

I'm with h.e. If I had a cat I'd probably be dancing with it. I need as much quiet as possible. Just the sound of tapping keys and the gears of my brain churning out crap.

By the way, is the photo your LP collection? Impressive.

Mon Sep 11, 01:20:00 pm GMT-4  
Blogger tamara said...

Thanks for the comments, folks.

This is not my record collection :( I wish it were. Somehow I lost the credit when I was editing my post, but I think the photographer's name is El Mato, on flickr.

I should have mentioned that when I play music, it's not always for the whole writing session; it sometimes just revs my engine. And it's more likely I'll write full screenplays to music than fiction.

H.E., I agree with you; but if I play new stuff or stuff I really like, it's to invoke that feeling of enthusiasm. Once, I wrote a screenplay to the entire imagined soundtrack, once. What a blast. But, yes, one has to be careful about the music choice and the focus. I've also been known to get up and dance around with the cat ;)

Mon Sep 11, 02:01:00 pm GMT-4  
Blogger MelBell said...

I wish I could write with music playing, but it doesn't work out very well. I definitely use it for inspiration, however. I've gotten tons of ideas from songs/music and I need them for the thinking part of the process. But the real work gets done in silence.

Tue Sep 12, 10:51:00 am GMT-4  
Blogger tamara said...

Oh, yes, music as inspiration... Me, too. Funny how that works, eh? Could be a single word or phrasing that sets me off. Art can do that for me, too. I once started a story based on a single line in a Klee print.

Btw, one of my favourite films by Jim Jarmusch, Dead Man, was written entirely while listening to a Neil Young. That's why he asked Young to do the soundtrack. He had Young watch the film and respond to it with his guitar, whatever he felt is what was recorded. Like an echo in the canyon...

Tue Sep 12, 01:26:00 pm GMT-4  
Blogger Patricia said...

I hate, hate techno music!!! I have a hard time writing to music, I get very distracted and it seems to pull me away from the sound of the story. It has to be just the right thing, I need maybe some classical or...I don't know, I listen to the oldies, and yes, I agree, relationships should have a musical interest cross over to like them, I think it would be fun to write a character who liked music you don't, a great antagonist!!

Wed Sep 13, 01:04:00 pm GMT-4  

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