Thursday, May 6, 2010

Songwriting Part 3: Characterization

It's been a while since I posted one of these. To refresh your memory, I started with

Today's post isn't mine, but a YouTube vid by Mike Lombardo. (buy his album)

Amen. A novel would be pretty damned boring if all of the characters were based on the author, wouldn't it?

Mike touches on a lot of the same points I'm making in Part 1. The only thing I'd add to what he's saying here is to simply stress that, when you do write about fictitious situations, make sure you write with sympathy. By that I mean find the hook -- find the commonality -- that lets you make that character believable. The trick in writing from somebody else's viewpoint is to find the universal themes that all people understand. So, just as we can write about a death row inmate in Like Norman, we can write about a frustrated gay groom in Marry Me without being a murderer or gay. If you don't sympathize, your song (or story, or book) won't be believable.

BTW, it's nice to know that Mike's songs are mostly non-autobiographical and fictitious. I wonder if this means that pianos really do get you chicks... :)


Russ Rogers said...

On the whole, I agree. But I think of Randy Newman's songwriting, where he regularly writes from an ironic perspective of an unsympathetic and unreliable narator, like "Sail Away," or "Short People."

Spin said...

Piano gets at least one girl since he's got a girlfriend.

Dave Leigh said...

Russ, I think you're misunderstanding the use of 'sympathetic'. For the one thing, it doesn't mean agreement, it means understanding, commonality of feeling.

In the case of Randy Newman's songs, he's writing with sarcasm, and neither example is a counterpoint. For instance:

"Sail Away" is told from the viewpoint of a newly-made slave, through the filter of lies he was told by his captors. The message -- and the accompanying guilt -- is for US, the audience, cursed with the foreknowledge of his fate.

"Short People" came out when I was in High School. Being "economically en-heightened" myself (I didn't get my growth spurt until after my 17th birthday) I was shocked at the number of my friends who didn't get it, and were offended.

"Short People" isn't even about short people. It's a metaphor for racism and bigotry, in which Randy is quite cleverly berating people with the message that hating people for arbitrary differences... is as plainly stupid as if you were hating because they were short. If the satire alone weren't clear enough, he spells it out in the bridge:

"Short people are just the same as you and I;
All men are brothers until the day they die."

Sadly, most people never got that far before denouncing the song and turning their brains and radios off. I disagree that Newman was anything but sympathetic to the subject matter.

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