The Soundtrack to Your Characters’ Lives

As writers, we get to know our characters intimately, as well as we know ourselves or our best friends. We know their likes, dislikes, quirks, what makes their skin crawl and what motivates them to make off-color jokes when nervous. My characters aren’t just with me when I sit down at my computer, they whisper to me as I drive to work playing out scenes I’ve either just written or need to write, and in some cases, reveal scenes that I need to add to make the story more robust.

I’ve discovered another area where my characters come into play: my music choice.

I don’t hang my hat on one musical genre. Instead I listen to different artists or playlists based on my mood, what I’m doing or when I try to invoke a specific feeling or memory. I was writing a scene in my current WIP in which I could hear a Ryan Adams song playing as Amanda was driving, imagining her listening to it as well. And then it hit me, what would be some of my characters’ favorite artists? Let’s take a look, shall we?

Amanda Martin

There is a scene in Phoenix in which Mandy admits that she’s perfectly fine buying all the Grammy winners the morning after. In Phoenix, her demanding career had her making decisions throughout the day, and when it came to music, she was perfectly happy being told what to listen to. But after the fall of her career, the real Amanda Martin emerged and with that, her own musical taste.

She found herself listening to country more, but not Nashville country, Texas country. Lyle Lovett, Willie Nelson, Ryan Bingham and Jerry Jeff Walker country. As I mentioned, Mandy also found an appreciation for Ryan Adams, and as a native of Chicago, she remembered her fondness for Wilco.

But it’s Welsh artist Florence + The Machines’ newest album Ceremonials that she has on repeat during the second book, Pardon Falls. The power that Mandy regained after the tragic events at the start of Phoenix and the realization that her boyfriend used her for his own financial gain is found in Florence’s strong voice. The song “Shake it Out” would be Mandy’s theme song any time she needs to psych herself up for a difficult task, and “No Light, No Light” is her anthem for when she finally gets her hands on Josh, the ex. But, it’s the haunting song “What the Water Gave Me,” that seems to be written especially for her final scene (in Pardon Falls at least).

David Stephens

Native Texan David Stephens also listened to the Lone Star greats – Willie, Waylon and the boys (bonus point if you can name that tune). As a high school and college football star, he turned to the Arena Rock hits to pump him up before a game, some AC/DC, Metallica, Guns N Roses.

But now, in the slow-paced life in Phoenix, Texas he finds solace in the dusty tunes of fellow Texan Ryan Bingham. It’s Bingham’s first album, Mescalito that is on constant rotation in David’s truck, with songs of independence and loneliness in remote Texas.

Josh Williams

Josh is the ten-timing, money-stealing unscrupulous ex-boyfriend of Amanda Martin. We don’t get a chance to meet Josh in person in Phoenix, we only know him as a ghost to Amanda that must be excised. When we meet him in Pardon Falls, we realize that he’s struggling to hold on to a thread of his former self: the Chicago playboy that could (and did) have any woman but still managed to keep a tight enough hold on Mandy that kept her from asking questions.

It’s hard to be a lover boy when you’re held captive on a drug lord’s hacienda, but turning to Mayer Hawthorne’s new version of old-school R&B has his reliving his freer days. If drug lord Vargas was feeling generous, he might give Josh Mayer’s newest album, How do you Do. Songs like “No Strings” would be a bitter reminder of what was taken from him, but when his angry ex-girlfriend shows up eager to kick his butt into the next decade, “The Walk” describes his frame of mind perfectly.

This was fun! It’s the first time I really thought about why certain albums make me think of my characters. I realized this could be a much longer post, so thank you for bearing with me. I’ve also concluded that it might be fun to create a playlist for each character when I release Phoenix this fall – so stay tuned as I delve into what Mandy, Alex and Shiloh listen to while their stories unfold.

Do you think of songs when understanding your characters? Or, if not music, what form of art helps you get closer to those voices in your head?

About Kimberly Packard

Kimberly Packard is an award-winning author of womenโ€™s fiction. She began visiting her spot on the shelves at libraries and bookstores at a young age, gazing between the Os and the Qs. Kimberly received a degree in journalism from the University of North Texas, and has worked in public relations and communications for nearly 20 years. When she isnโ€™t writing, she can be found rollerblading, doing a poor imitation of yoga or curled up with a book. She resides in North Texas with her husband Colby, Oliver the cat and a 75-pound lap dog named Charlie. Her debut novel, Phoenix, was awarded as Best General Fiction of 2013 by the Texas Association of Authors.
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11 Responses to The Soundtrack to Your Characters’ Lives

  1. I wrote a blog about this topic and shared the bands that influenced my characters. How awesome to find out I’m not alone. ๐Ÿ™‚

  2. eamonmoroney says:

    Great post thanks for that. I think music is really important for writing and understanding your characters. Lots of the writers i like have music in a big part of their characters.

  3. Loved this post, Kimberly! Like you, I listen to whatever my mood dictates. I don’t think of characters in terms of songs, although admittedly, I’ve often wondered about playing with a sort of “Peter and the Wolf” idea by listening to only a certain artist or track as I write the major scenes in which these characters act. However, I seem to let the mood of the music infuse the story line. It’s very interesting, though, how one song can change the mood of the writer and add to a scene or generate a new scene altogether. Thanks again for this thought-provoking, introspective post, and thanks, too, for asking us our takes on the topic. Keep writing!

    • Thanks, Benjamin! I had to stop listening to music when I’m sitting there writing because I got stuck on a very depressing CD and realized that the chapters I’d written while listening were, well, depressing. So, now it’s like psyching myself up before a game in the locker room – listen while I’m preparing but when it’s showtime, I’m all focus. Thanks for dropping by! Hope all is well!

  4. lemwriting says:

    I’m not so great at getting to know my characters. I think what I need is a good old questionnaire for them. I’ve done this to some extent but never enough so that my characters begin speaking to me. I must change this at once!

    • Hi Lem, here’s a little trick I use when they are being stubborn. I “interview” them on paper. It’s kinda like a questionnaire, but a little more free form. It’s amazing what you can learn. Happy writing!

  5. Sara Flower says:

    What an awesome topic! Yes, I find certain songs fit perfectly with a character in my stories. Music helps me visualize more of the story, especially when a certain lyric or piece fits a character to a T. I think it goes hand in hand with writing. ๐Ÿ™‚ There is nothing more fun than getting to know your characters.

  6. Pat says:

    It’s a good job you are talking to writers. It’s a good job we get it. It’s a good job I hear the same kind of things you do.
    Little whispers of a personality, changing my day, changing how my voice sounds when I write their dialogue. Changing my taste in music? Yes, me too. You are so right.
    It’s a good job we all know that you are only as nutty as writers need to be.
    Otherwise, we might worry about you.

    • Haha! Thank you, Pat! I love your comment, especially the fact that you realize I’m a little checked in the head (which I’m sure you’re just a little nutty as well ๐Ÿ˜‰ Love it! Thank you!

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