In the first part of this topic I highlighted some examples of characters from famous songs. That included Stan from Eminem, Eleanor Rigby from The Beatles and Stagger Lee from Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. I then went on to provide some suggestions for ways to flesh out ideas for characters that you have which hopefully will help you to then weave them into your lyrics in a way that will be impactful.
In this post, I will provide some additional suggestions on how to create your own interesting song characters but, additionally, I’ve referenced a few of my own and provided supporting commentary to explain how they came about.
Tips for creating impactful characters in songs (continued)
There were 2 tips that I shared in the first part of this topic. I explained how it may be useful to create a character profile (or pen portrait) to flesh out a character that you’ve had an initial idea for. As part of this I suggested writing down some thoughts around their physical characteristics, personality traits and the setting in which they find themselves.
Then, my second tip was to write down some prose that your character might say if they were writing a letter or speaking to someone. The idea is that this will bring through a flavour of their unique voice and then you can hopefully be true to that when writing your lyric. You may also find that there are words or phrases from that writing that you can put into your song lyric.
I’m now going to add three additional tips that I hope you will find useful.
Tip 3 – Focus on a physical item and connect it to your character
Sometimes an idea for a song emerges from something that has made an impact on our senses. Maybe you see that a beat up old car has dents and scratches and paintwork that looks like it’s been spray painted on. Imagine who would own that car? What might the car say about their personality and outlook on life? What stories do those dents and scratches hold?
Or go into a pawn shop and check out items that people have hawked due to a need to raise quick cash. Maybe there’s a guitar that has obviously been kept in beautiful condition. It’s been loved and cherished by someone but they’ve now had to give it up. Again, consider who you think the owner could be and why have they had to put it in a pawn shop?
Tip 4 – Think back to a time when you’ve experienced an intense emotion
When creating a main protagonist in a song you want there to be some passion, some emotion, to the story that you’re telling. It’s certainly possible to generate that entirely through imagining the emotions that your fictitious character would be going through. (And doing this will become easier the more you practice). However, a great place to start is often to think back on an emotion that you have experienced. The first hand proximity you had to that emotional experience may well help you to create a lyric that feels sincere even if you are talking about a story and setting that is far removed from your initial experience.
The emotion could be a positive one – joy, elation, exhilaration, pride, etc. Or it could be a negative one – anger, jealousy, fear, etc. The important thing is to reflect back on how you experienced the emotion and think about how your character may have gone through a similar range of emotions.
So if your protagonist is deliriously happy about unearthing a buried treasure, then think about a time when you were similarly deliriously happy. Note that it doesn’t have to have come from the same situation. You’re probably unlikely to have unearthed a buried treasure (unless you’re an archaeologist or a pirate!) but you will have been overcome with happiness at various points of your life. You can think about that moment you had your first kiss, passed an important exam, got a job promotion, got married – you get the picture. You can then hopefully transfer the feeling of happiness into your protagonist’s specific setting.
Tip 5 – use mind maps to help you brainstorm ideas for your character
My final suggestion is to use mind maps to help you maximise your creativity as you flesh out your song character. This is a technique that I’ve used from my sketch writing days as a way of coming up with diverse ideas from an initial starting theme. And it’s also commonly used in commercial settings as a great way of fully exploring an idea or topic and ensuring that the best options are teased out.
So what is mind mapping? Well, in essence is a visual way of working through a brainstorm. You start with a central theme which is presented either as a single word or at most a few words. You write down those words and circle them. Then you let your mind make associations with that theme. And you write down the ideas that come to you and circle them. And then go to each of them in turn and repeat the same process, seeing if further ideas and connections emerge.
So let’s say that your central idea is that you want a character who is a cowboy. You then try to free your mind of linear thinking and just jot down all the associated words that come to you when you think of the word cowboy. Maybe it might include ‘Wild West’, ‘Sheriff’, ‘Outlaw’, ‘Modern Cowboy’, ‘Cowgirl’, etc.
Now you have some ways in which your character could go. Are they going to be set in the Wild West? If so, will they be a sheriff or an outlaw? Or are you going to have them as a modern cowboy? The ‘cowgirl’ entry is a good example of turning around a theme to explore alternative possibilities. Maybe you started out thinking your character was going to be a John Wayne type of rugged cowboy and then suddenly you’ve turned that idea on its head and your character is going to be a sassy cowgirl making her way in that ultra macho world?
You can find out more about mind mapping at the mindmapping.com website.
Some examples of song characters I have created
Six Foot Six Jimi (Technique used: Character profile and mind mapping)
Six Foot Six Jimi is a song about a homeless person who is picking through a scrapyard trying to find anything that will help him to survive in the tough world that he finds himself in.
The first part of verse 1 and the chorus pretty much came to me intact whilst I was waiting for a train on my way home from work. So, through that, I had already created my character’s name and a notable physical characteristic. That was a promising start but those things alone didn’t create a character with any particular depth.
Six Foot Six Jimi
Down in the boneyard
Pickin’ through the ol’ cars,
Searching for a nickel
In a world of steel.
Six foot six Jimi
Begs for sticks,
So he can make a fire
For its warm glow.
So I spent some time writing down a few words that could apply to Six Foot Six Jimi in terms of his physical characteristics, personality traits and setting. And then extrapolating from them to come up with fresh ideas. And it was the setting element that was probably the most important in this case. Whilst the very fact that he is destitute and homeless automatically generates some empathy, I wanted more backstory. And I think the bridge section brings this in as it reveals that his life had not always been bad. He had started being held in the warm embrace of parents who loved him dearly.
Six pound six Jimi
A new-born baby,
held so warmly
In his parents’ arms.
Love, love, loved you so
Won’t ever let you go,
The happiest moments
That he would ever know.
I probably wouldn’t have come up with that angle if I hadn’t paused to brainstorm his background.
You can check out the full lyric and the finished song below.
Simon Wright – Lyrics
Markus Lammarsch – All music, Production
Rakan Ayyoub – Vocals
Smoke (Technique used: Writing prose)
The lyrics for Smoke emerged from a challenge that I set myself of writing prose for a set amount of time – I think it was 10 minutes. Here’s part of what I wrote.
‘The smoke from the bonfire blew thickly in our direction, bringing with it its unmistakeable pungent bonfire smell. We didn’t care that the woody charcoal scent would cling to our clothes and hair. We were kids, just intent on enjoying the heat and the glow of the flames, the crackle as tree branches burnt and the occasional pop as chestnuts exploded. These weren’t horse chestnuts being readied to be eaten but rather conkers, collected from nearby trees.’
As a standalone piece, what I had written was okay but it was really just a person’s reflections back on a childhood bonfire memory. However, it then gave me something to work with in a song. I imagined that my protagonist was now much older. As an adult his life had taken on some of the complexities and challenges that growing up often entails and he is looking back upon that more innocent time.
Here are some of the lyrics from the resultant song:
Smoke gusts towards us
Thick with the aroma of fire blackened branches,
Evergreens and deciduous
That we’d thrust like bones into the jaws of ravenous hounds.
Smoke gusts around us
Acrid in its bite as it claws our eyes to tears,
Potatoes in foil and sausages singed
Retrieved from the fire as we become the ravenous.
And we watched as the core of the flames danced a tune
And I know that I saw something different from you,
But we stood as the smoke wrapped its way round our hearts
And ghost vines rose up and tied us tightly in knots.
The past and the present, they blur in that thick haze
Pulled under and over like drowning souls in the waves,
As embers and ashes emerge from our soft words
Whispered in tendrils that dissipate once heard.
Final Song: http://www.soundblend.com/store/release/750070
Simon Wright – Lyrics
James Fraser – Vocals, Guitar, Musical composition, Engineering
Larry Magee – Upright bass
Murder Mile (Technique used: Previous intense emotion)
The context to this song is that I used to live in a second floor flat that overlooked a very busy street in Edinburgh. Frequently at night, I would hear the sounds of drunken revellers spilling out of pubs and navigating their way to their abodes.
And, as a night owl and a writer, I would often be up attempting to write poems, song lyrics, short stories, etc. My thought processes would get interrupted, leaving me thinking uncharitable thoughts towards the revellers. But I got the last laugh by turning those emotions into a song lyric. J
Here are some of the lyrics. And below them, you’ll find 2 different versions of the song that I was lucky enough to see musicians pull together.
Words drip off the page
Their bloody splatter drives me insane,
The only person dyin’ here is me
As words drip off the page.
Bastards serenade me
with their shouting and cursin’,
Kicking bottles on a noisy street
And It’s my ears they’re hurtin’.
Livin’ on the Murder Mile
Tryin’ to write
Tryin’ to raise a smile,
First drafts scrunched up
Lie in a pile,
Cos I’m livin’ on the Murder Mile.
Final Song (George Schiessl version): http://www.soundblend.com/store/release/700132
Simon Wright – Lyrics
George Schiessl – Musical composition, Bass, Drums, Piano, Trombone
Ben Ciardi – Vocals
Final Song (James Fraser version): http://www.soundblend.com/store/release/699551
Simon Wright – Lyrics
James Fraser – Music, Guitars, Bass, Vocals, Production
Nigel Robinson – Drums, Organ
Ilona Maki – Backing Vocals
Evie Jean’s Place (Technique used: Physical object)
This is one of the most striking examples that I can recall of seeing a physical object and immediately having it conjure up an idea for a song lyric. I was on holiday on the Isle of Skye in Scotland and had gone for a late evening walk. I went a bit off the beaten track and found myself looking at an old, slightly dishevelled, house that was down by a river and framed by a mountain in the background.
I felt like the windows looked like eyes and, for some reason, got a story in my head about there being a dark history to the house. The words to the song started to form immediately and I found a bench down by the seafront and penned out a rough first draft.
I transported the story to Ireland and see it as being a celtic-tinged song.
Here are some of the lyrics:
Evie Jean’s Place
It is Ramshackle
Down by the water
Gets flooded every year,
But the bulldozers don’t come
For Evie Jean’s place
For Evie Jean’s place.
She was born in eighteen hundred
And Seventy one
In a house with three eyes
And a gaping maw for a door.
And they said if you listened
Very hard in a storm
You could hear her poor mother
Crying out from the pain.
Yet the birth was applauded
As custom accorded
With whiskeys to toast the child’s health.
Over to you now
I hope that you have got some value from the tips and examples that I have provided. I’d love it if some of you will now go and use some of these approaches to flesh out ideas for characters that you’ve been mulling over. I’m sure there are some amazing characters and stories waiting to be told!