Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Creating Complex Characters Using Country Songs

Angie, here. I've always been amazed by how much you can learn about a character in a two- to four-minute song. I think that's why music videos came into being: people wanted to know more about that character. Today I'm using some country songs to illustrate Jack Bickham's techniques from his book, Writing Novels that Sell.

As novelists, we're told over and over, "show, don't tell." But when you're writing about an unfamiliar situation, how can you know how your character will react? How can you show an intense feeling you've never felt?  In his book, Bickham shares that sometimes your characters may not always show their true feelings, simply because they can't -- they're too afraid, they don't know them, or can't face them. You can show this in your character and reveal more about them in the process by using one of the following four behaviors.

Projection
Have you ever known a man who doesn't trust anyone because he feels "there's a sucker born every minute?" Or, perhaps you know a woman who believes everything her no-good, cheating boyfriend says because she's so trustworthy. Those are examples of projection. They are projecting their own behavior onto those closest to them because they can't bear to believe anything else.

I know I promised you country music, so here's the first one: Cleopatra, Queen of Denial by Pam Tillis.  In this song, Pam Tillis' character can't bring herself to believe that her boyfriend is a creep.  He can't buy her a ring because he doesn't have any money. (But he does have enough to buy himself a new pickup truck.) He constantly flirts with other women, but she thinks that's no reason to throw away their love. The real reason she puts up with him is because she thinks he's misunderstood. She doesn't want to admit that she's the misunderstood one.

Denial
This device is a little different from projection. Instead of a woman refusing to believe that her man is cheating, a character in denial is more like The Coward of the County by Kenny Rogers. In this ballad, Tommy promises his father, who is dying in prison, that he will not fight. He represses (denies) his anger in order to keep that promise in spite of the fact that the rest of the county calls him a coward.

But the character arc in this song shows Tommy's change from cowardice to heroism when the woman he loves is attacked by the Gatlin boys. Twenty years of buried feelings explodes in Tommy as he defeats all three of Becky's attackers. When he watches the last one fall, he says, "Please don't think I'm weak, I didn't turn the other cheek ... [s]ometimes you have to fight when you're a man."

Reaction
Sometimes the pressures of life can be so great that it drives someone to do something out-of-character. For example, how many times have we seen wedding videos of a bride and groom standing before an altar, a solemn look on the pastor's face as the bride (or groom) giggles uncontrollably?

This is a wee bit of a stretch, but you could think of the basic Cinderella tale for this technique. Taylor Swift's You Belong to Me shows a shy young girl stuck on the sidelines, in love with the high school quarterback. She's miserable as she watches the head cheerleader break his heart over and over. In desperation, she makes herself over and goes to the prom solo, where they fall in love. Those around them are shocked.

This technique works because even though her actions are far different from her normal, there were hints that she was changing. Earlier in the video, they shared notes in their windows. He smiled when he peeked through the curtains as she was cavorting around in her room. He knew there's more to her than just a wallflower. These hints added layers to her character.

Displacement
Your character can go crazy with this last behavior. Sometimes you can protray your protagonist's agony by having them displace their emotions onto something or someone else.

Did Carrie Underwood's Before He Cheats come to mind? Carrie's character thoughts about her boyfriend out with another woman infuriates her. In her rage, she trashes up his most prized possession -- his "pretty little souped-up four-wheel drive." You can feel her righteous anger as she carves her name into his leather seats and you know she's done with him when she says,"I mighta saved a little trouble for the next girl ..."

Bickham says that when you illustrate your characters' emotion, those around them may be puzzled by their behavior, but you and your readers will sense that emotion on a more instinctual level. Showing great emotion can be difficult, so the next time you find yourself stuck in an intense scene, just find a country radio station and try one of these techniques.

What techniques do you use to show high drama? Have you ever used one of these? Share one of your scenes with us. ~ Angie


Image: FreeDigitalPhotos.net

2 comments:

  1. Thanks, Angie! This has given me some great things to think about. I've been trying to find ways to bring out more emotion in my own characters. It's important to make emotions believable and not overly dramatic. Very helpful article!

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  2. Oh, I'm so glad it helped a little. Chapter 11 in Bickham's book has a lot more detail on building emotion. It is hard to know where the line is.

    Thanks, Dawn!

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