One of the hardest things for any person to do is to explain how their mind works. For some, the difficulty is that they simply don’t know. This has its pros and cons. For others, they know exactly and could not, for the life of them, describe it in a coherent way. This too, has its pros and cons. As someone in the latter camp, I can tell you it’s a lot like walking in a garden. You know it’s your garden. You know you planted some things. You even laid some of the footpath yourself. But what comes up, what crawls up over the garden wall, what spreads faster than you can cut it back, what ugly thing finally blooms into loveliness—that you never know.
Even this analogy takes a bit of getting used to. Rather esoteric stuff, talking about one’s mind. I’m convinced that most writers have tackled (or at least approached) this problem, mostly due to the fact that successfully writing for other people involves a significant amount of getting a stranger to understand your mind. One of the ways that I’ve discovered that I process feelings and even file memories is through music. It’s not uncommon, but each person has a different way of using music to organize or guide thoughts. For me, music is a useful conductor that I rely on while I write.
Sometimes it takes me an hour to get started on a writing project while I hop from tune to tune, trying to find the right one to strike the right mood. I used to hate this about my process; I thought it was procrastination masquerading as something helpful. Then I learned how much easier it was to get started when the soundtrack was set with the right rhythm. Once I found a song to speak to the scene, I could roll up my sleeves and get down to work. After finding a good fit, I could use the song like a bookmark and open the story emotionally at that point, even if some time had passed since I wrote it.
My story Still Dreaming has an eclectic soundtrack, fitting with the theme of found objects, repurposing, and the blend of genres. A few months ago, I decided to try to pick a song or two for each of my characters. I had plenty of music that I’d accumulated as my story soundtrack, but sorting out which sounds or rhythms belonged to certain people was trickier than I thought. Some characters I didn’t have to think twice about. Done and done. Others took me quite a bit longer to ponder.
So here’s a musical sketch of the main protagonists from my story, in the effort of capturing some of the way that I think about each of them.
Ransom: The oldest of the three boys who live on the city floor of the stratified metropolis. He’s mainly concerned with staying alive, keeping out of reach of Nightmares, and making sure Cinder grows up to be sensible, though there’s small chance of that.
Impulsive, temperamental, but he hits his stride from time to time with an undeniable rhythm that couldn’t belong to anyone else. The melody is constantly moving, like him, but it’s hard to tell when it’s moving towards something new or going back to familiar ground. He can’t be intense all of the time, but moments of reflection are underpinned by the beat that goes on, that goes on.
Though on the outside Ransom appears confident and haphazard, internally he swirls with concurrent confusion, disbelief, and wonder. He continually returns to the same questions, each time building a little further, circling wider. At the center of it all is a pond where the water ripples with single drops that roll from glinting summer leaves, a garden he hasn’t found yet.
Frost: Ransom’s best friend. Man of few words, but full of thoughts.
A steady pulse compared to the crash and play of his best friend Ransom. Quiet, cool, intensely inward and reflective. His pattern is unmistakable but easy to miss in the constant roll onwards like watching ripples dance in a rainstorm. Moments of calm interrupt. Returning themes mark the ebb and flow of his feelings. But those both build until the melody is strong enough to sustain a dazzling improvisation that goes outside of expectation, beginning softly, carefully, then exploding in a tune that surprises itself. One last hesitation, and then he commits to the combination of the steady rhythm and the melody that leaps between rhythms like it’s alive.
Cinder: The youngest and self-declared weirdest. Big dreamer and habitual storyteller.
Cinder is a song, light on his feet and light in the darker passages of the others’ melodies. In him, there is the bounce of playfulness and the flutter of carelessness. He is not without moments of relative quiet that reach poignant spaces, but they do not last long. He spins and skips, taking but a few moments for gravity. And when that gravity pulls, he runs, and runs far. At times, there is both sadness and acceptance held together, but he cannot keep a smile from breaking through.
When I began this post, I did give you heads-up about how esoteric this kind of thing can be, but at the very least, I hope that you enjoyed my musical attempt to describe two impossible things: music and the heart of a fictional character.
If you have a moment, I’d love to hear from you. Writers, do you write with a soundtrack? For those who don’t write, how do you think about music?
Vinyl record picture by hvicentiu via deviantart.com