How to create a character to base a song around – part 1

In my last post I recommended re-using main protagonists from your lyrics in other songs. I talked about how artists such as Pink Floyd, Alice Cooper, and David Bowie have employed this approach when creating concept albums, and I also provided examples of how I have returned to explore characters and storylines. However, in order to be able to re-use characters you first need to create them. In this post I’m going to spend a bit of time suggesting some ways in which you can create compelling protagonists for your songs.

Eleanor Rigby, Billie Jean, Stan, and Stagger Lee – Examples of famous song characters

Song characters
Song characters

At the start of this post I’d like to call out some examples of famous fictitious song characters.

Eleanor Rigby was the first name that came to me when I tried to think of song protagonists to reference. The song ‘Eleanor Rigby’ was released in 1966 by The Beatles on their Revolver album. It and The Beatles are so famous that there’s a good chance that you will already be familiar with it. However, if you’re not then I would strongly recommend checking it out. The Beatles are rightly recognised for the quality of their songwriting. Songwriting duties were shared but Eleanor Rigby was written mainly by Paul McCartney.

The song tells the story of a woman who was lonely and has now died. In the 2nd verse we hear how Father McKenzie is writing the words for her funeral that no-one will hear. Verse 1 and the chorus though have already set the scene and mood for the listener:

Eleanor Rigby, picks up the rice
In the church where a wedding has been
Lives in a dream
Waits at the window, wearing the face
That she keeps in a jar by the door
Who is it for

All the lonely people
Where do they all come from?
All the lonely people
Where do they all belong?

(Eleanor Rigby, by The Beatles)

To be honest the song doesn’t tell us much about Eleanor Rigby’s life except that she was sad and lonely and that she is one of a legion of people who could fit that description. However, the lyrics are skilfully crafted and leave us feeling sorry for her and wondering about her life. In this case the absence of detailed backstory just enables the listeners’ minds to create their own interpretations of what her life may have been.

It’s interesting though to reflect for a moment on how McCartney came up with this character. It’s very difficult to get inside a songwriter’s head and know exactly what their motivations and inspirations were but I did find a BBC article that sheds some interesting information on this particular song. 

The BBC article states that ‘It was at a church fete in 1957 that John Lennon and Paul McCartney first met. Just yards away lay the grave of scullery maid Eleanor Rigby, who had died, aged 44, in 1939. Nine years later, McCartney would pen the lyrics for what became one of the band’s most celebrated songs.’

It goes on to say that Paul McCartney has actually denied that the gravestone was the inspiration for the song but it’s certainly a strange coincidence and maybe he had seen it and the name had somehow floated around at the back of his subconscious?

Billie Jean is another example that I’m going to highlight. In selecting it, I want to show that pop songs as well as rock songs can enjoy great success by creating a named protagonist. Again, it’s a pretty simple lyric with the focus mainly on delivering a really catchy song. However, we are left wondering about Billie Jean, this woman who has seemingly had a passionate encounter with the singer and who believes that he is the father of her child. Michael Jackson wrote and composed Bill Jean and he is stated as having said that it was ‘based on girls who had made the same claim about his older brothers, when he toured with them as part of The Jackson 5. (Source: Billie Jean Wikipedia page).

Stan (Warning: Contains swear words). by Eminem is a really interesting representation of a fictitious song character. Stan Mitchell is a crazy fan who writes letters to Eminem telling him how he is his biggest fan but then berating the star for not writing back. After a sample from Dido’s song ‘Thank You’, Eminem’s vocal comes in with these opening lines:

Dear Slim, I wrote you but still ain’t callin’
I left my cell, my pager, and my home phone at the bottom
I sent two letters back in autumn, you must not-a got ’em
There probably was a problem at the post office or somethin’

(Stan, by Eminem)

As the lyric progresses we see Stan become progressively more unhinged and he’s directing the pain and anger in his life towards the rap star who he feels has let him down by not getting in contact. Here’s another great section from the lyrics that reveals Stan’s growing anger.

Dear Slim, you still ain’t called or wrote, I hope you have a chance
I ain’t mad, I just think it’s fucked up you don’t answer fans
If you didn’t wanna talk to me outside your concert
You didn’t have to, but you coulda signed an autograph for Matthew
That’s my little brother man, he’s only six years old
We waited in the blistering cold for you,
For four hours and you just said, “No.”

(Stan, by Eminem)

I think it’s a great portrayal of a stalker fan whose life is falling to bits whilst engaging in a one sided monologue with the object of his obsession. And the reference to six year old brother Matthew turns out to be pertinent as years later Eminem would write a follow up, called ‘Bad Guy(Warning: Contains swear words) where Matthew proves that he’s every bit as crazy as his older brother. I’ll not reveal more around the context and outcome – just listen to the 2 songs. (P.S. I wasn’t aware of this example of a story being developed from an initial fictitious character or I would have featured it in my previous post. Doh!)

Stagger Lee. (Warning: Contains swear words). Okay, my final highlighted protagonist is stretching the definition of ‘fictitious’ just a little. That’s because when Nick Cave wrote the song Stagger Lee for his 1996 Murder Ballads album, he was following a long tradition of writing about ‘Stag’ Lee Shelton a pimp and gambler who killed Billy Lyons in a saloon on Christmas night in 1895!

However, Cave seems to have taken the Stagger Lee legend and employed a lot of creative licence in his storytelling. For starters, he has Stagger kill the barman and then engage with a prostitute called Nellie Brown before her man ‘Billy’ arrives and also gets killed.

The song is about extreme violence and contains swear words so probably not for the faint-hearted. However, it possesses such swagger and dollops of over the top dark humour that I think the listener comes away smiling rather than feeling bleak about the story being told. Or maybe that’s just me …

I love some of the descriptive words and phrases used by Cave in the song. Here are the opening lines:

It was back in ’32 when times were hard
He had a Colt forty-five and a deck of cards
Stagger Lee

He wore rat-drawn shoes and an old stetson hat
Had a ’28 Ford, had payments on that
Stagger Lee

(Stagger Lee, by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds)

Stagger Lee and Stan probably represent quite a departure from the gentler characters of Eleanor Rigby and Billie Jean but in all these songs the listener is left with a name on their lips and can go away and contemplate those characters, their characteristics, motivations and life stories. And they have largely been conjured out of their songwriter’s minds … which is very cool.

Other famous song characters

Jukebox
Jukebox

I’ve picked out four characters from songs that help highlight how creating fictitious song characters can be very powerful and can lead to a longevity of popularity. Clearly though there are so many other examples that I could have mentioned.

Indeed, I found a link to an NME article entitled ’50 Great Fictional Characters In Music – Chosen By You’. It’s a good read so I would recommend checking it out.

What other cool fictitious characters would you put forward as warranting inclusion?

Ideas to create song characters

Music ideas
Music ideas for characters

Having explored some famous examples where songwriters have created compelling song characters, let’s now look at ways in which all of us can create our own characters.

Obviously inspiration for lyrics will vary greatly. We are all unique individuals with our own experiences, perspectives and interests. However, there are some approaches that we can consider that may help us to conjure up our interesting protagonists.

Tip 1 – Create a Character Profile

My first tip is to create a character profile. You can either do this in your head or on paper but I would recommend writing down at least some notes as you start to tease out the key things about your protagonist that you want to weave into your lyric.

Creating a character profile or pen portrait is something that novelists and sketch writers commonly do but I feel it’s a good approach for lyric writers to take as well. And there are 3 components to it that I would recommend:

1 – write down some physical characteristics.

Is your protagonist tall or short? Handsome or ugly? What colour of hair and eyes do they have? Imagine you are a novelist or a sketch writer and come up with a one page portrait of your character. Their physical characteristics will only be one part of that profile. Try to go beyond obvious or vague descriptions to create a more interesting picture.

Here’s a fun example. It’s the opening description of the unnamed protagonist in ‘Come Together’ by The Beatles.

Here come old flat-top, he come grooving slowly
He got ju-ju eyeballs, he’s one holy roller
He got hair down to his knees
Got to be a joker, he just do what he please

(Come Together, by The Beatles)

Okay, the lyrics are eccentric but we get from these lines that he’s old, has ju-ju eyeballs (which I think means they are wild staring eyes) and hair down to his knees! I think the lyric does a great job of creating a sense of intrigue right from the start!

2 – write down personality traits

A logical extension from stating your protagonist’s physical features is to think about their personality traits. Are they grumpy or happy-go-lucky? Are they superstitious or do they possess a Spock-like sense of rationality? Are they introverted or extroverted? Intelligent or not? You don’t need to focus in on hundreds of characteristics but noting down a few will help you to craft lyrics that properly reflect the essence of the person you’ve chosen to focus on in your song.

3 – write down their context

Your character isn’t existing in a vacuum so think about their setting and what is happening around them. Are they outside or inside? Are they alone or in a crowd? Are there any tensions present around them that may influence their emotional state and actions?

Here’s a famous example of a setting forming an important part of a song lyric

‘For here
Am I sitting in a tin can
Far above the world’

(Space Oddity, by David Bowie)

Most people will be familiar with this great Bowie song and the spaceman’s setting is obviously central to the song. It’s not just that he’s in a spaceship far above the world but that he is in a confined space that makes him feel like he’s in a tin can.

Tip 2 – Write some prose that your character would say

In his book ‘Writing better lyrics’, Pat Pattison recommends that songwriters spend some time writing prose for a set time, on whatever comes to their mind, and then sifting through the thoughts and ideas that emerge to see if it can inspire a song lyric. I’m going to suggest a slight twist on that.

Having come up with the bones of an idea for a character, why not spend 5 to 10 minutes writing down things that they would say or a letter that they would write. The benefit of this is that it will help to draw out the voice of your protagonist. And the words and sentences that your character utters may also provide nuggets of gold that you can incorporate into your lyric.

So, let’s say that you want to write a lyric that has a cowboy as the main character. We all have a stereotype around how cowboys were and the danger is that your lyric just ends up regurgitating such stereotypes without providing anything that feels genuine or interesting. However, if you’ve spent some time writing through your character’s eyes hopefully you may find that there are quirks and depths that you can then use to really give some edge to your lyric.

Coming up next on LyricSlinger

Coming next
Coming next on LyricSlinger

Okay, I think I’ll draw this post to an end. In it, I’ve looked at some examples of famous song characters from a diverse line-up of musical artists, and I’ve started introducing tips for creating your own compelling characters to insert into your songs. Central to this is the idea of creating a character profile so that you flesh out your protagonists physical characteristics, their personality traits and their setting.

In part 2, I’ll provide some other thoughts on how to create interesting characters for your songs and I’ll also illustrate these approaches through some of the lyrics that I have written. I hope you have enjoyed this post and that you check back again to read part 2.

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