Wednesday, November 27, 2013

A Song for You

By Mandy Brown Houk

“How do you think up characters?”

“Do you write about real people, like your mom, or whatever?” (Hidden behind this inquiry, especially if asked by a close friend or relative: “Are you basing a character on me, and if so, am I going to learn that you secretly hate me?!”)

As a fellow-writer, you’ve all heard questions like these, and if you’re like me, they can be hard to answer.

I’ve been known to take note of an intriguing-looking person I’ve seen in public, and make up a mythology around her – like the woman at the DMV who was impeccably coiffed and dressed, except for the ratty old pocketbook.

And my characters sometimes share a habit with someone I love (the father in my first book sings his kids to sleep with morbid tunes like Tom Dooley – just like my own daddy did when I was young). But the similarities between my imaginary friends and my real ones end there.

I’ve never had a system that I can condense into a pithy answer to satisfy my curious non-writing friends—but over the last year or so, that’s begun to change.

Without consciously deciding to, I noticed that I was listening to songs in a different way. Thanks to the aforementioned troubadour daddy, I grew up with a deep love for song lyrics. My favorites, of course, are songs that either tell a story or hint at one (read: folk and bluegrass).

As I was revising my last book, working to add complexity to the inner lives of my characters, there were certain songs that would catch my attention. I noticed, for example, that when listening to Switchfoot’s This is Home, I would hear it in my main character’s voice, because it spoke so clearly to his longings for family and rest. In fact, it was this song that helped me see how the book had to end, at least for this character, and it showed me what obstacles needed to be in his path.

The song Safe, by Brit Nicole, could have been written by my secondary character, who is a selective mute. Every time I listen to it, I am reminded of what fears threaten her, what keeps her silent, and what makes her want to speak.

All of the primary characters in that book have at least one song. Even though the characters were born in my head before I associated them with songs, the songs have helped me see them more clearly, and to put more complexity on the page.

Now, as I’ve turned to a brand new manuscript, I’ve decided to intentionally seek out songs from the very beginning of the writing process (which, for me, consists of several months of thinking and daydreaming before I actually start crafting the story).

The song Barroom Girls, by Gillian Welch, gave me a vivid image of a sad young dime-a-dance girl from the 1930s. I have no idea if that’s what Ms. Welch was going for, but she’s my character now.

Barroom Girls hints at the objectification of the young woman, and her dissatisfaction and loneliness, but that’s not enough. It only gives me the character’s circumstance and general mood. The character is still cardboard and two-dimensional, and I have no idea what she wants, regrets, fears, loves, or despises.

And so, I keep listening to music (suffering for my art), seeking the songs that she would sing. Or the songs that, if she heard them, she’d cry. Or she’d cover her ears because the lyrics are too true to hear.

Just last week, I found one: Scarlet Tide, by Alison Krauss. I know now that my character has lost someone. It keeps her apart from others, detached, because she hasn’t decided if loving people is really worth the risk.

I’ve started a playlist for her, and as I add to it, I’m hoping to happen across a song for an as-yet-undiscovered character as well. It’s a new approach, but it feels promising, and I certainly don’t mind assigning myself hours of bluegrass, folk, and even jazz.

Maybe this is an odd idea to you, or maybe you’ve done something similar. I will say that I know my barroom girl better than I’ve known other characters this early in the process.

Give it a try and see what happens. Or post in the comments below, sharing your own methods for inventing and developing and learning about your imaginary friends.

Who are they, what do they want, and how do you know?

About the Writer:  Mandy Brown Houk is a freelance writer and editor, and she teaches at a small private high school in Old Colorado City. She's written for several magazines and anthologies, and has completed two novels--only one of which is worthy of the light of day. Mandy is currently seeking agent representation. Her web site is

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