Writing Characters: Music Edition

I’m constantly thinking about characterization. Characters are at the heart of all my stories, and anything I can do to bring them to life benefits the story. Readers might think a plot is clever or a world is fascination, but they love a good character. One of the tools I like to use to bring characters to life is music.

I’m not talking about Darth Vader’s theme song. I’m talking about the music he listens to when nobody’s around. Is it different from the tunes he plays when someone’s watching? When he knew Luke was coming to visit for the first time, what jams did he slot in because he thought they would make the best impression?

The gif above is funny not just because it’s a sharp contrast to the Vader character, but also because I don’t think Vader listens to music at all. (I’m not a Star Wars scholar, though, so please correct me in the comments if I’m wrong) In fact, a lot of characters in our fiction are missing musical preferences.

And that’s too bad, because music is a great shorthand for character. Hey short story writers, music is a great way to quickly build character (and throw in some worldbuilding, too). Check out the Glen Miller in Once Upon a Time at the Oakmont.

I walk over to the record player and apologize to Lady Day as I lift the needle off her record and replace it with a different one. This one bends The Oakmont rules a little, since it’s technically from my time, and the song I’m choosing won’t be released for a few years yet in Roger’s time. But this isn’t the first rule Roger and I have bent during our time together. I find the correct groove, knowing it by heart by now, and carefully place the needle down. Glenn Miller and His Orchestra play our song, “Moonlight Serenade.”

Once Upon a Time at the Oakmont – P.A. Cornell

An apology to Lady Day. Glen Miller and “Moonlight Serenade”. It’s a fantastic character moment, and does so many wonderful things in just that short paragraph. Knowing a character’s music can tell us a ton without much effort. Is it punk? Jazz? Classical?

Oh, That’s All I Need to Know

Some characters are defined by their taste in music. Other times, the character is a little more complex, but our introduction to them is heavily music-based. Whether it’s their first moment on screen or their iconic moment a bit later, the music and how its presented tells us who that character is. It’s all we need to know.

In the Peanuts comic, Schroeder’s whole personality is his obsession with Beethoven. You don’t really need to know anything else. Most jokes centering around this character are aimed at that obsession.

But we can probably do better. One of my favorite scenes in a superhero film is the Quicksilver one:

Quicksilver doing his quicksilver thing

Quicksilver, in the beginning of this scene, takes a moment to put on his music. This isn’t a theme song playing behind our view of what’s happening. This is him. Time in a Bottle is the song that Quicksilver is listening to as he does his Quicksilver thing, and that tells us a ton about who he is.

And it’s great. This is a song about regret and lost time. It’s also a story about love and how there’s never enough time to spend with the ones you care about most. There are plenty of other time-themed songs he might have picked, but he picked this one. Why? Because this is the one that gets to the heart of his character. He’s there because his life is missing something. Deep down, he wants to treasure all the time he has with someone important to him, even if on the surface he’s denying it.

And, of course, Peter Quill’s taste in music in the Guardians of the Galaxy movies are integral to the character. It even changes through the films as he grows as a character. It’s rooted in his past relationships, in the pain of the loss of his mother, and in his inability to grow up. Through the films the characters and their taste in music is actually a measure of their relationships, specifically to Peter. Particularly in Volume 2, we get Gamora warming to Quill’s music and therefore to Quill. We also get to see that in the beginning of that volume, Groot is already fitting in.

Baby Groot takes a moment to put some tunes on.

Baby Driver had a similar treatment. The music isn’t just background for a great car chase. It’s everything we need to know about the character.

Sometimes putting on music is a good way to tune out the world.

More Subtle Uses

Those examples above are pretty obvious, but I’m also interested in the subtle music choices that pop up. They’re also harder for me to research because they’re not the main show. They’re music playing on the radio in the background while the character studies or they’re the music on the car radio when they travel.

I’m also not a true Trek scholar, but I remember Picard liking his classical music. I don’t remember what Kirk listens to.

Miles’ intro in Into the Spider-Verse is a fantastic piece of character-building in music. From the music selection of Sunflower to the way Miles is mumble-singing it. I mean, who hasn’t done that, right? It’s super-relatable and shows him as a passionate kid connected to his culture.

But, honestly, a lot of times music is underplayed or just missing. The soundtrack in Across the Spider-Verse is still a big deal, but I can’t think of an iconic tune that really resonates with Miles. I remember plenty of takes on the original score. Maybe I’m wrong here. I’m going to need to rewatch.

It amazes me that so many characters ignore music entirely. Just because your characters are driving around in spaceships and infiltrating enemy lines doesn’t mean they shouldn’t find some time for a tune or two. It’s our chance to learn a little about who they are as people and listen to something that resonates with the deepest parts of their soul.

Stories About Music

There are, of course, stories where music is fully integrated into the central theme. In Emma Bull’s story War for the Oaks, the Minnesota music scene is integral not only to the character, but to the bones of the story itself. The magic around that music is really the main thing, so when Eddi picks songs to play or listen to, they’re meaningful.

By the way, when is someone going to make a tv series or a movie out of that book? Come on, we deserve it.

You see the same thing in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World and Scott Pilgrim Takes Off. All the music is so integrated into the characters and the world that they really are the main show. Same deal with Soul. These are shows about music.

These are… an entirely different thing. They go deeper than just characterization, though that is a huge piece of what they do. Let’s talk about that another time.

I post this as I finish the second book in my All Things Found series. Music is something I’ve thought of a lot in my sci-fi noir. Jude Demarco is a fan of the blues, but his emotional connection to the music is also part of what connects him to the city and to his past. This comes up a lot in The Devil in the Gravity Lounge. Even more so than in The Man Who Walked in the Dark. I’ve had a great time researching both classic and modern blues.

Everybody listens to music. Even those of us with cold, dead souls will find a tune that makes our spines tingle and our toes tap. What is it that makes music such an amazing litmus test for the soul? I don’t know.

But as a writer, I will always exploit the power in a well-placed tune, and you should, too.

2 thoughts on “Writing Characters: Music Edition”

  1. Loved this. I hadn’t seen the Quicksilver scene–what fun!
    Yes–when ARE we going to get a screen version of War for the Oaks???


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