When It Comes to Understanding People or Characters Is Music the Key? Thoughts on Novels and Playlists

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When you are reading a story and the characters within are people you can relate to or commiserate with, do you ever stop to wonder why these fictional people seem so authentic?  How has the author made them so real to you that you cry over their pain and  or laugh in shared joy when they do? For me an author accomplishes this goal by giving their creations the same mental and emotional makeup (for the most part) that every person is born with. The fictional characters must come complete with a backstory as well as the same emotions, thoughts and behavior that we would be able to relate to as well as understand.  If they lose someone or fall in love with someone, it should be in a manner that we not only recognize and empathize with. Another way is with descriptions of  the items the character keeps around them.  It might be many things such as clothing, cars or even pets but I think music is a huge component. Music is a shortcut to helping a reader understand who this character is in much the same manner as it would when looking through a collection of CD’s of someone we just met.

There you are with someone new in your life and you are at their place for the first time. You are checking them out either as a potential friend or romantic partner.  Do you remember what the first, ok second thing, you looked at?  Either surreptitiously or blatantly?  For most people, it’s their music (and then maybe their movies).  Maybe you take a sneak peak and flip through their albums as they are pouring some wine,  or scope out their cassettes (don’t give me that look) when they are warming up the fondue? Who hasn’t quickly perused someone’s CDs on the sly?  Yep, done all those and more.  Perhaps you casually ask if you can put some music on while the appetizers/dinner/breakfast (you slut!) is being prepared and ask where they keep their music?  Another popular and subtle approach.

It didn’t matter what method you employed, the goal was the same.  Checking out the songs they liked and the bands they followed to see if you meshed with each others tastes. It was and remains an instant glimpse into what makes a person tick.  And god forbid you find that Tiny Tim album, Chumbawumba, or more recently Whip My Hair by Willow Smith.  Because, once found, never forgotten.  And that chance of romance? Dead and gone.  Because while you might forgive a friend’s lapse in judgement, the same can’t be said when first contemplating a romp in bed with someone who has questionable taste in music, for god’s sake. I mean what other secrets are they hiding? Clown shoes?

It was so much easier in the past to excuse that odd Tiny Bubbles cassette or Leonard Nimoy’s sings Bilbo Baggins album.  They could always say a past roommate or old boyfriend/girlfriend left it when they moved out or even the dreaded “it was given to me as a gift” workhorse.  There was always the possibility that it might be true and you could, maybe, give them the benefit of the doubt until later.  Didn’t matter whether it was albums, 8 tracks, cassettes or CD’s, those excuses were valid.  These days how do you explain away the fact they exist on your iPod or MP3 player? Hmmm, yeah, that’s what I thought. Can’t.

So I was thrilled/intrigued to find some of the books I was reading this year had playlists attached to them.  And the more I investigated and the more I listened to the songs and bands the authors included, the brighter the wattage of the light bulb that clicked on above my head.  What a wonderful (and underused) avenue to flesh out your characters, to give them a human dimension or layer that would otherwise be missing!

One of your characters is lost in memory as he listens to a Bach Violin Sonata 2 in A minor and it brings him to tears (Shira Anthony’s Blue Notes).  How much richer is that scene if the music is available to the reader to listen to as the scene unfolds?  Then the meaning behind the described emotions jumps into clarity, and truly you are literally in tune with the person on the page.  Or maybe, if you are like me, when I started reading  Andrea Speed’s Infected series, I was clueless as to who These Arms Are Snakes were and what they sounded like.  How could I possibly get a grip on an important part of Roan’s internal makeup if I don’t understand his music? And boy is his music a definitive facet of who he is.  The chance of Hootie and the Blowfish on his iPod? Zero. Because that is not Roan. Whether Roan was listening to Ritualz’ Baba Vanga or The Twilight Sad’s A Million Ignorants, if I know the songs, the bands and the lyrics, then I can access more of the character’s thoughts and headspace, in this case Roan’s. Both Andrea Speed and Shira Anthony produce playlists for their novels, but so does Katey Hawthorne (Riot Boy, By The River among others) and Josh Lanyon (Fair Game, etc) to name a few.

To be sappy about it, music is the rhythm of our lives. We access important memories by it, people and places are associated with songs as are significant milestones in our lives. Feeling sad? We have go to songs for that.  Want to dance about the kitchen as you bake brownies or making a roadtrip to the beach?  We have songs for that too.  They leap to mind with all the familiarity of old friends and lovers, and yes, we have music we associate with them as well.  I know just reading this has brought some of yours out before you realized it. So why not the same for the characters they write about in stories we love to read?  In Sarah Black’s latest story The Legend of the Apache Kid, Johnny asks Raine McGrath if  “You know anybody who sings like a bird with broken wings?”  And Raine replies “Gram Parsons….You can hear his heart weeping in his voice.” Then you listen to Gram Parsons’ singing Wild Horses and you understand, not just the reference but also the men in the story (and author) who appreciates it.

And that brings me to my final point about music, playlists and characters, the authors and their appreciation of the music they use to enrich their characters.  The authors I have referenced here all have a deep connectivity to the music in their stories that reaches beyond their characters.  While I don’t know most of these authors personally, I can tell you that Shira Anthony comes from a musical family and background as a opera singer from reading her blog and author notes.  Andrea Speed often tweets the bands she is listening to with links so we can hear the new indie group that has snared her attention. Music is all over Josh Lanyon’s website and Katey Hawthorne sent me a CD of the music that snarled like a sentient ribbon through Riot Boy.  And Sarah Black? Well, just read a paragraph or two and you can feel the love of old cowboys, the dry heat of the American Southwest and the refrains of old country songs to be heard from pickups as they head down the highway.  And without ever having met them, I can tell you how central to their lives is the music that sings to them and through their stories, to us as well.

All of us have a soundtrack of our lives, a list that is perpetually being added to.  From the earliest of childhood lullabies to a song we may have listened to and connected with as late as five minutes ago.  So why not have your characters have the same, feel the same way as we do about our music?  How much more relatable or realistic is Roan, or Johnny or Jules when we can hear the music that accompanies their actions and thoughts?  How much easier is it to empathize with them if we can understand their songs? To me it’s the difference between Technicolor and watercolor.  There is a rhythm, a song to everything we do and are.  The crucial beat of our hearts or the frivolous flip flopping of sandals hitting the sidewalk, that’s us. So let us hear the soundtracks of the characters we love and love to read about.  We are richer for sharing their music and they are more memorable for having it.

Do you have favorite novels and characters who have music associated with them?   Drop me a comment, or link.  I am compiling a list and am sure I am missing authors and titles.

To listen to some of my favorite playlists by authors, see below:

Shira Anthony’s website.  Look under books extras for the playlists for each novel (and Youtubes links)

Andrea Speed’s Playlists for all of her novels, not just Infected series.

Andrea Speed Infected:Lesser Evils

Katey Hawthorne’s Superpowered Love website. Link for By The River playlist.

Josh Lanyon’s Fair Game  playlist,  Dead Run playlist