Case study – Creating a character to base a song around

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In the last couple of posts I’ve provided some tips around how to create a character for a song lyric. In part 1 I provided some examples of well known song characters from famous artists. And, in part 2, I reinforced this by including some examples from my own lyrics.

I was going to leave it there but then had an idea to include a case study. So, instead of reflecting back on a lyric that I wrote months or years ago, I will talk about a lyric that I’ve only just started to pull together.

Red O’Hare – initial start

Red haired woman
Red O’Hare

The way I tend to write lyrics is that I initially come up with an idea for a line or a few lines and jot them down. In practical terms what this means is that I type the words into an Inkpad note app that I have on my phone. My inspiration may come at any time but, interestingly, I quite often find that it hits whilst I’m walking. However, on this occasion, the starting words came to me as I was making breakfast for my kids on the morning of Sunday 8th April.

The initial line was

‘She had red hair tied up in a bun’

I pondered what should follow and hit upon:

‘A hawkish nose and a razor sharp tongue’

That was all I had. At this very early stage in writing a lyric there is quite a high chance that the lyric may not progress as far as a fully formed lyric that is capable of being considered for a song. For starters I had no idea what the song was going to be about or who this red-headed protagonist was! So I wrote a note below the fledgling lyric that read:

‘Who is she? What is the story?’

The lines I had did provide me with a steer on how I saw her. Red hair tied up in a bun. Hawkish nose and a razor sharp tongue. She sounded like someone with a bit of attitude and strength about her.

The 1st line ended with the word ‘bun’ and the 2nd line with ‘tongue’. These are classed as near rhymes and I did consider the notion of also having lines three and four as rhymes or near rhymes of those words. However, maybe that would have imposed too much of a straightjacket on the song, especially when you consider that the rhyming scheme introduced in the first verse usually must then be matched by subsequent verses.

So I ended up going down a different route of having lines three and four rhyme with each other but not with the first two lines. In Rhyming Scheme this is referred to as an AABB rhyming structure and is called a Clerihew.

I decided that lines 3 to 4 needed to introduce something about her setting. I’m not sure exactly why but I decided that her setting should be that she was living on her grandad’s farm and so I ended up with the following lines

‘Lived out west on her Grandad’s farm / A placid place so far from harm’

I would go back and tweak the second part of that later but the lines helped to shape the direction the story would take. To begin with, these lines made me wonder why she was living on a farm with her grandad rather than with her parents or on her own? And why was there a reference to ‘harm’?

There were other word choices that I could have used to end the lines but the ones I went with, especially ‘harm’, would prove influential in terms of the ‘story’ that I would eventually tease out. So, to re-cap, my initial few minutes of working on this lyric had given me:

She had red hair tied up in a bun

A hawkish nose and a razor sharp tongue

Lived out west on her Grandad’s farm

A placid place so far from harm

Red O’Hare – unearthing the story

Typewriter
Unearthing the story

I commented that my initial notes around this lyric were about who my character was and what the surrounding story was? Having decided that she lived on her grandad’s farm, I chose to end the 4th line of my initial verse with the word ‘harm’. So this pushed me in the direction of there being a harm element to the accompanying story.

One useful technique to use in writing is to contrast things. So line 4 talked about a placid place far from harm. How about if I contrasted that with something that wasn’t placid and wasn’t far from harm? That thought I think underpinned the next 4 line section that I wrote that was certainly a firm departure from the initial lines. Here’s what I wrote:

But she took Gramp’s shotgun

And she took his shells

And she blew Fat Frank all the way to Hell

All the way-ay to Hell!

Okay, I wasn’t expecting another character to jump off the page but who is this Fat Frank that’s suddenly appeared and been shot up?! When I sat back and inspected what I’d written the thought hit me that a listener might think that Fat Frank was her Grandad? That was not what I had in mind. He’s a third distinct character and clearly the tension that brought my red-haired protagonist to shoot him was now going to be key to the story.

The potential confusion around whether Gramp and Frank are the same person led me to another decision. The two sections that I had written needed to be preceded by something that would help the listener to make sense of the subsequent narrative.

So I scrolled up above my first words and started to think what my new start to the song should be. Whilst the gears slowly cranked up in my brain I wrote down a special effects note as follows:

F/X: Sound of crickets in a field

Special effects will probably only occasionally be used in songs but I thought that it might add something in this instance. You’d have the soothing sounds of crickets in a field to denote somewhere that I peaceful and slow moving and then, wham, a storyline would come in that involves shotguns and murder …

Now, I didn’t have a name for my lead character at this point but that was to change. Or at least I got a surname. That’s because the following came to me as the way to introduce the story:

Bull O’Hare had a daughter and ya know I’m told

She was his spit but ol’ Bull and his wife died when she was just three years old

With hindsight, I think I probably was influenced in choosing the name Bull by the Irish play, ‘The Field’, written by John B. Keane. In the play (and subsequent film), Bull McCabe is a strong character who tries to assert his claim to a field that he has rented and tended to for years, only to be outbid by an outsider when the field comes up for auction. My Bull O’Hare is the son of a farmer. I guess I got the O’Hare name because it’s an Irish name and I’d already established that red hair was a key part of my lead protagonist’s persona. (By the way, if you’re not familiar with The Field in its film format, then check out this clip where Bull is responding to the news that outsiders might bid for ‘his’ field!)

Anyway, the new lines that I’d written gave me a bit more story. The phrasing of the lines felt a bit clunky but that was something I could go back and revisit.

I quickly added some more lines which were:

She grew and grew and grew

Worked hard in the fields

Had a way with numbers

Breakeven points and yields

Again, more story emerging there. As well as having red hair and a hawkish nose we see that she’s tall. And a hard worker. And is good with numbers. Maybe she has helps Gramps by doing his accounts and has helped him make the farm more profitable?

I reckoned this section would lead in fairly well to the initial lines that I had written so suddenly I had these bones of a lyric to work from:

F/X: Sound of crickets in a field

Bull O’Hare had a daughter and ya know I’m told

She was his spit but ol’ Bull and his wife died when she was just three years old

 

She grew and grew and grew

Worked hard in the fields

Had a way with numbers

Breakeven points and yields

 

She had red hair tied up in a bun

A hawkish nose and a razor sharp tongue

Lived out west on her Grandad’s farm

A placid place so surely far from harm

 

But she took Gramp’s shotgun

And she took his shells

And she blew Fat Frank all the way to Hell

All the way-ay to Hell!

You’ll see that I’d made a word adjustment in the 4th line of the 3rd section, which I felt made it fit better with the emerging story.

So we have this young woman who’s become orphaned at the age of three and has gone to live on a farm with her Grandad. And she’s proven herself hard working and capable but somehow we then go from that to her having blasted some bloke called Fat Frank with a shotgun! That murderous change of direction clearly needed to be brought into the story so that was my next focus.

Adding and Chorus and a Bridge

Music Notes
Music Notes

Having constructed the first four sections of the song, some words popped into my head for a chorus that I hoped would be catchy. What I wrote down was

And they said dig, dig

Digging up her pain

Sorry for her troubles

But they put her in chains

So, in my head, the story has moved on and she is now in court as a result of having killed Fat Frank. Hopefully that’s not too big a leap for the listener to take when they hear the chorus come in. And the ‘dig, dig’ bit feels like it fits well as we’ve been talking about her working on a farm , but then it also ties in with her being forced to dig up her past metaphorically during the trial.

Next, I added a bridge. It came pretty quickly and would need some subsequent tweaks but I was fairly happy that it served its purpose of furthering the story.

Now the tales she told were of Frank’s fat hands

That kept wandering beyond the boundaries of his land

And Gramps didn’t know

What his neighbour had been sowing

Just thought he’d been being friendly

With his to’ing and his fro’ing

Completing the story

Story in typewriter
Completing the story

After the bridge, I brought the chorus in again. I then wanted to have a 2nd verse but this required me to stop and consider what direction the story was going to go in? What was the outcome of the trial going to be? It seemed pretty certain that she would be convicted so how could I stop the story from just fizzling out?

So here’s what I came out with. A second verse (mirroring the structure and meter of verse 1) to explain Gramps’ reaction to his granddaughter being on trial, followed by a section that details Red’s response to her grandfather’s noble but misguided actions. Followed by a slightly alternative version of the chorus to take the song to an end.

Gramps had had red hair but now he had none

Turned up in court with a loaded gun

Said to the Judge if you don’t free my girl

I’ll repaint the walls of your world

 

But Red took Gramp’s shotgun

And she took his shells

Said there’s been enough of sending folks to Hell

All the way-ay to Hell!

 

Dig, dig

Exhuming all the pain

Sorry for her troubles

But they sent her down in chains

In chains ….

Revisions to create a final version

Gavel
Courtroom gavel

Having created a full first draft, I posted it on the MuseSongWriters website and asked for comments. When I post lyrics for comments, I find that it’s a bit hit and miss as to whether you get any feedback that’s really insightful and useful. However, I struck gold on this occasion. A poster going by the username of Jonie made three suggestions, all of which I really liked.

She commented:

‘1) Is it necessary to tell us that Gramps has red hair that is now gone in V2, L1? How about, to make clear that Gramps now knows what Fat Frank did,

When Gramp’s found out what Frank had done

Turned up in court with a loaded gun

Said to the Judge if you don’t free my girl

I’ll repaint the walls of your world

2)  In the intro, I think the 1st line could be better, and I also think it could introduce her nickname “Red” before we hear it for the first time the last pre-chorus (well, and the title but not all songs are introduced by a title)

Red grew like a weed

Worked hard in the fields

Had a way with numbers

Break even points and yields

3) Finally, the 5th line of the bridge sounds like it would be hard to sing by all but the most clever of linguists. How about:

Now the tales she told were of Frank’s fat hands

That kept wandering beyond the boundaries of his land

And Gramps didn’t know

What his neighbour had been sowing

Just thought Frank was being friendly

With his to’ing and his fro’ing’

The 2nd and 3rd points were about things that I had thought were problematic so it was good to get that confirmed and great that Jonie had taken the time to make some great suggestions. The first point was something that I hadn’t really seen as a problem but I liked the suggested alternative.

I decided to go with these proposed changes and that led to a final lyric of:

Red O’Hare

(Intro)

F/x: Sound of crickets in a field

Bull O’Hare had a daughter and ya know I’m told

She was his spit but ol’ Bull died when she was three years old

 

Red grew like a weed

Worked hard in the fields

Had a way with numbers

Breakeven points and yields

 

(Verse 1)

She had red hair tied back in a bun

A hawkish nose and a razor sharp tongue

Lived out west on her Grandad’s farm

A placid place surely far from harm

 

(Pre Chorus)

But she took Gramp’s shotgun

And she took his shells

And she blew Fat Frank all the way to Hell

All the way-ay to Hell!

 

And

(Chorus)

They said dig, dig

Digging up her pain

Sorry for her troubles

But they put her in chains

 

(Bridge)

Now the tales she told were of Frank’s fat hands

That kept wandering beyond the boundaries of his land

And Gramps didn’t know

What his neighbour had been sowing

Just thought Frank was being friendly

With his to’ing and his fro’ing

 

But

(Chorus)

They said dig, dig

Digging up her pain

Sorry for her troubles

But they put her in chains

 

(Verse 2)

When Gramps found out what Frank had done

He turned up in court with a loaded gun

Said to the Judge if you don’t free my girl

I’ll repaint the walls of your world

 

(Pre Chorus)

But Red took Gramp’s shotgun

And she took his shells

Said there’s been enough of sending folks to Hell

All the way-ay to Hell!

 

(Chorus/Outro)

Dig, dig

Exhuming all the pain

Sorry for her troubles

But they sent her down in chains

In chains ….

 

Written by Simon Wright

(April 2018)

With special thanks to Jonie for her contributions. 🙂

Insights?

Insights
Insights

I said at the start that I intended to use this post as a case study to illustrate a way that I went about creating a new character. Hopefully it’s helped provide useful insights into that and also into the process through which the song came about.

Some things that I’d call out are:

  • The lyric didn’t occur in a linear fashion. The first section that I wrote ended up being preceded by an intro that I wrote subsequently
  • Word choices that I made in the initial few lines that I wrote turned out to be influential in teasing out the story. And in giving me a sense for my character.
  • Writing notes as I worked through the lyric, about my character and the story, helped me to work out where I wanted to take this lyric
  • I set out to create one character but I ended up with a story that referenced three characters!
  • Taking on board reasoned feedback from others can be really helpful in enhancing a lyric

I hope that maybe you’re inspired to try creating a lyric that is story based and character based. Keep working on your ideas and refining your craft and hopefully you’ll be rewarded with some excellent lyrics! 🙂

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