Listen to Your Character…’s iPod

It may be cliché, but the first thing I do when I start a new writing project is make a playlist. Writing to music helps me in lots of little practical ways—it keeps me focused, and it drowns out some of whatever else is going on in my house that might otherwise be distracting. But more importantly, it helps me get into the mood of the piece I’m writing.

I have playlists for certain kinds of scenes. Thumping-bass alt-rock for action scenes, lilting love songs for happy moments, sultry numbers for…ahem…intimate encounters. I have playlists for certain characters, because my big strong alpha male certainly does not think to the same beat as my quirky heroine. Listening to these playlists immerses me in the scene and puts me in touch with the moods and feelings of the people I’m writing about.

But what I never really recognized until quite recently is that the act of making the playlist is an exercise is character-building, too.

I’m currently working on my first male/male romance in a while, and when I started, I assembled a collection of songs for my hard-working, by-the-book, too-school-for-cool hero. It was a mix of a bunch of different things, but a lot of it was earnest rock featuring male vocalists. Peter Gabriel, REM, Dire Straights, and Dispatch each showed up a few times. It was perfect, and it embodied the character I was writing. I was churning out the words.

And then it came time for a POV switch, and my typing-fingers stuttered to a halt.

I couldn’t write my disaffected, jaded jock to the same soundtrack. They would sound the same! I needed a way to help keep their voices distinct.

So I opened up a new playlist, and the half hour or so that ensued was not procrastination. It was really and truly an exercise in learning my character’s voice. As I selected songs, I had to think about whether or not each one fit this new guy’s vibe. They were also rocks songs performed by male vocalists, but they were different. Ben Folds, Frightened Rabbit, and Barenaked Ladies kept speaking to me. The more I thought about the common threads running through the songs, the more I picked up on notes of discontent, sarcasm, irreverence, and bone-deep hurt, pushed back and hidden beneath layers of chords and hipster chic.

Lightbulb moment

Just like that, I’d found my character. I’d found his voice and his heart. I took about two seconds to save that playlist, and then I was diving back into my document, head-first.

So the next time you’re not sure what your character sounds like, consider listening to him. And if that doesn’t work, try listening to his iPod instead. 🙂

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