One of the oddest things about my blog is that I rarely utilize it for what it was originally intended- namely, sharing my writing. Since I’m nearly finished with REAPERS TWO, I decided I would share some of the writing techniques I used in the conception of that novella, and hopefully get new ideas from other writers about their character-building habits and techniques.
Today I thought I’d share a specific technique I use for conceiving characters: I assign them a song.
On the surface this may seem counter-intuitive since music is capable of conveying emotion without words, but I find that the perfect song will reveal emotions or behaviors in the characters I create long before I construct a single sentence. The right song can encapsulate a single moment or an entire lifetime of a person’s emotional experience (recent birthday boy ElGuapo knows what I’m talking about). With that in mind, I’ll describe two different ways I use music to build characters.
The first way I do this is to create a generic version of a character in my head, and then find a song that suits him/her after the rough draft is written. I find this works best for when I really want to “flesh out” a character by layering dimension over the bare bones of the initial conception. One of the characters that benefited most from this technique was the character of Raphael in THE GODS OF ASPHALT. Because his character was the most like me, I found that he was the hardest to flesh out. You’d think he’d be the easiest since I ought to know him so well, right? He wasn’t. I suppose that is because it is always easiest to hide our truest selves from ourselves. Well that, and the fact that I had never planned for him to resemble me in the first place. By the time I did my first run-though edit it was painfully obvious that I had captured myself in print.
I struggled for what seemed like forever to find something, anything, about myself in Raphael that I could use to turn him from an angry, closed-off parent into a character with true dimension. Finally I discovered that what made his character and myself alike was our inner struggle with our ethnicity. Being raised as an American in a household filled with Old-World ideals made it hard for me to know who I really was and where my loyalties lay. I was constantly conflicted and to this day struggle for a sense of equilibrium. Without realizing it I had passed that same internal struggle onto Raphael.
Once his (our) internal conflict had been revealed, I searched for music that would tell the story of a compelling character- one who grew from a disgruntled Midwestern teen into a man struggling to find peace as a proud Spanish father. Rodrigo y Gabriela’s cover of the Metallica classic ORION instantly became that song for me.
From that moment on, every time I wrote Raphael I would listen to that song. The music brought him to life for me; from the timbre of his voice to picturing the way he walked. ORION became the soundtrack to every scene Raphael was in and helped me navigate his character through the story.
Rodrigo y Gabriela – ORION
This next example illustrates the same technique, although switched-up a bit. That example is the character of Lucifer in THE REAPERS WITH ISSUES Series.
Unlike the example above where I conceived of a character before assigning him/her a song, with REAPERS I was faced with the challenge of re-characterizing established characters. The one that gave me the most trouble was Lucifer. The difficulty lie in the fact that Lucifer is more than established; he is downright iconic. There isn’t a culture on the planet that doesn’t have a vision of evil-incarnate, so how was I to reinvent him?
I knew that within the context of the story I would have to humanize him to some degree, so I decided to portray my version of Lucifer not as purely evil, but simply as…a dick. I also knew that to “flesh” him out would not be to layer dimension onto him, but to reveal him; to strip away his skin and discover what makes him tick.
I failed epically.
Every version of Lucifer that sprung to mind was a stereotypical construct from the deepest, most generic part of my brain. I had nearly lost all hope when I came up with a solution: I’d do it all backwards and let Lucifer pick his own music. Sounds crazy, right? Well it worked. I turned on my music, closed my eyes and listened to every song I could think of that wasn’t evil, dark or brooding until Lucifer revealed his song. That song, believe it or not, was CLINT EASTWOOD by the Gorillaz.
Why that song? I have no idea (I let Lucifer pick, remember?). But I will tell you that things became instantly clearer for me whenever I listened to it. I easily pictured the way he walked [slightly slouching] to the way he spoke [slightly spoiled] and imagined a dozen tiny little habits [folding origami] the instant that song became a part of his character. But as great as that song was, it wasn’t exactly right. I needed a version of that near-perfect song to do more than just bring Lucifer to life. I needed Lucifer to be reborn.
Words + Music = Art
I enlisted the help of a musician to remix CLINT EASTWOOD into something that sounded slightly more sinister, slightly more spoiled, and slightly more modern. Below is that song: Lucifer’s Remix conceived of by production musician extraordinaire, DJ Casper. Believe me when I tell you that to my mind, this song IS Lucifer.
DJ Casper – LUCIFER’S REMIX
I imagine the idea of using music to inspire or create words on a page may seem unconventional or downright bizarre, but to me it is the most natural thing in the world. I chalk it up to spending too much time on the road as a kid with nothing by my father’s music and my imagination to keep me company. I firmly blame my inability to finish GOA2 on the fact that I can’t figure out what kind of music River listens to. Like Lucifer, I’ve decided to let River choose. I am praying he’s not into Rap.
I am officially traumatized.
I promised myself when I started this blog that I would never post pictures of myself, simply because I absolutely LOVE the fact that most people wonder if I am really a dude. The problem is that now even I am not so sure, because something has happened that has shaken me to my core.
People, I have found my twin.
It all started innocently enough this morning, with me at my computer putting the stories together for F*CKED UP FAIRY TALES. I had a tab open with YouTube as I always do, listening to music in the background. My Glee-obsessed daughter suggested I listen to a channel that featured songs the show had covered. One of the featured bands was Journey. Sounds innocent enough, right?
Call it fate or irony or twisted divine intervention, but for some reason I decided to pull up the background tab just as a video loaded on the cue; a video that will haunt me for the rest of my days. I stared in horror at what I thought was my reflection, the truth slowly dawning on me one terrifying, note-filled moment at a time. For you see ladies and gentlemen, I look incredibly, unbelievably, motherfuckingungodly similar to Steve Perry. Give him big boobs and a small nose and it’s me, in all of my sad, stuck-in-the-80’s glory. I even have that same top, I shit you not.
So for those of you who may have wondered what I look like, look no further. I look like Steve Perry. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to cash some cleverly forged royalty checks, right after I show this to HR Nightmare and do some REAL damage.
Welcome to day four of BLOGSHORTS: a ten day, ten story, 110 word writing extravaganza.
Each participating blogger chooses a pooch a day from a list of dogs, thunk-up by our fearless leader BLOGDRAMEDY, and then writes a short story featuring their dog of choice.
Each story is 110 words in length and can feature as much or as little of our canine friend as we like.
Today we travel beyond the land of Muggles to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry to meet with our favorite three-headed dog, FLUFFY!
FLUFFY’S FATEFUL FAUX PAS
Fluffy tucked El Guapo’s speakers into his ears and for one blessed moment let the smooth, mellow sounds of Coltrane drown out the incessant bickering between his two ex-wives.
Fluffy often used his stolen quiet time to reflect on the course his life had taken. He dissected every decision and evaluated every consequence. He ran scenarios over and over again in his mind, asking himself what he might have done differently to have avoided the fate that had so tragically befallen him.
But no matter how many times he replayed that fateful day, Fluffy always came to the one sad, inevitable conclusion:
He should have never called He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named, “Lord Moldywart.”
Revisit these soon to be canine classics:
BLOGSHORTS DAY ONE: Tea Cup Cujo
BLOGSHORTS DAY TWO: Toto’s Ruby Red Booty
BLOGSHORTS DAY THREE: Lassie Learns the Truth
TAKE YOUR BLOG FOR A WALK AND THROW THESE GUYS A BONE:
RETURN TOMORROW FOR A VISIT FROM EVERYONE’S FAVORITE PROPER POOCH, EDDIE!
The advent of Mtv was both a blessing and a curse for me as a kid. Once musicians had the ability to act in their videos, they somehow felt the need to put on a show as opposed to simply performing their songs. Sometimes, as was the case with Billy Idol, it turned out to be a good thing. I remember as a kid sitting transfixed in front of the television whenever REBEL YELL came on, staring at the screen and thinking some very, very grown-up thoughts about this bleach-blonde wonder. And who can forget THRILLER? I remember exactly where I was the first time I watched that video. I can do the dance to this day.
Sadly, not all my experiences were as positive as the ones I’ve mentioned. Not every singer is a star, as music video history has shown us. I’ve dredged up some memories (and hit the YouTube) for a sample of some of the worst offenders. It’s time to buckle in folks, because this is going to be painful. We start our list of bad videos that happened to good musicians with:
KISS – LICK IT UP
I brought a KISS lunch box to the first day of kindergarten, that’s how big a fan I was as a kid. You can appreciate my shock and horror the first time I was subjected to…well, whatever the hell this is. I still haven’t forgiven them.
Damn Yankees – HIGH ENOUGH
The next video is every bit as tragic as the previous one because it features the cataclysmic crash and burn of one of rock’s best guitar legends: Ted Nugent. That’s right, Mr. Cat Scratch Fever himself joined a band who called themselves Damn Yankees- a band that can only be described as having all the raw sex appeal of the Traveling Wilburys, minus the badassery. Click play and see for yourself. The only thing in a Stranglehold in this video are Ted’s balls, clenched tightly in the fist of whomever he sold them out to.
David Bowie – CHINA GIRL
I imagine Bowie fans will come down on me for the next offering, but I will stand my ground. Yes, David Bowie is known for being unconventional and avante guarde, so the oddness of this video should come as no surprise. I contend that it is the utter lack of Bowiesque influence that bothers me most. It’s as if he’s trying to reinvent himself as a lounge singer. Not what I expected from Major Tom. And don’t get me started on the creepy pedophilic vibe running throughout this epic disaster.
David Bowie & Mick Jagger – DANCING IN THE STREET
It seems that whatever Bowie touched in the 80’s turned to musical “Meh,” as demonstrated in this technicolor nightmare featuring the once great Mick Jagger. This video is what I imagine homely girls do for fun at sleepovers. And…now I have no more followers.
Van Halen – TATTOO
This next one may be a bit controversial, since I am not entirely sure this song was good to begin with. It’s the rocking out on the down beat that does it in for me. On the flip side, it’s good to see Carol Channing getting steady work again.
Journey – SEPARATE WAYS
Even the most die-hard metalhead will admit to the powerhouse talent that is Steve Perry and to the awesomeness of this song, no matter how lame and sad this video portrays them all. Journey should have issued a fatwā on the dude who put this crap together.
We have finally reached the top of the crap heap, to the musical spooge floating to the top of the bad video barrel. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the shiniest turd of them all:
Billy Squier – ROCK ME TONIGHT
Poor, poor Billy Squier. No musical career has been harmed by a video performance more than Richard Simm- uh, I mean, Billy Squier’s. ROCK ME TONIGHT was Billy’s biggest hit before this video came out, which makes me wonder who fell asleep at the wheel and hit “go” on this piece of musical holocaust. DISCLAIMER: Pregnant women and people with heart conditions should refrain from watching the following video:
There you have it, folks. My personal list of bad videos that ruined good musicians. If you can think of any I missed, feel free to leave them in the comments. On that note I will leave you with a palate cleanser from my youth. Please to enjoy, WINGER. Feel free to listen with the sound off.
Hellis here, taking a quick break from the grind to remind you it’s almost time for the release of the Blogger Compilation Project, F*CKED UP FAIRY TALES! If you’ve signed on to contribute please submit your story as soon as possible. The moment I have all contributions in I’ll release your book! All contributions should be sent to heellisgoa (at) gmail (dot) com
For more of the Blogger Compilation Project read the novella,
– The world’s most beloved holiday icons presented in a collection of irreverent interviews that take on the backstory of their imagined existences.
Every so often there comes a moment when we see ourselves through another person’s eyes. Determining whether that’s good or bad depends entirely on what we see. Most of my epiphanies are delivered in the form of my sister telling me my ass looks fat in my jeans, whether I ask for her opinion or not.
Commentary on my fat ass or bad breath I can handle, but what I wasn’t prepared for was the reality of personal feedback in the form of reviews for my novella, Reapers With Issues.
Before I begin I’d like to state that every reader who reviewed my work negatively did not condemn me personally for what I’d written, despite not particularly enjoying the book. I’ve read reviews of other books where the reviewer took the author to task, and I am happy to say I’ve been blessed with a classy group of readers who didn’t feel the need to blast me.
I guess what confounds me most is that I expected there to be more blow back for subject matter. Portraying Jesus as a closet homosexual and writing a scene where Genghis Khan violates a shi-tzu wasn’t going to win me an audience with the Pope, and I knew that going in. I also prepared myself for a critique of the quality of the writing itself, which as it turns out I didn’t receive much of. What I did get was essentially the same question, asked in so many words, of what kind of person could conceive of the Reapers idea at all. Again, good or bad depends entirely on what we see.
[enter the dreaded introspection process]
The first thing I did was try to answer the question of what kind of person I am. Despite an obscene amount of navel-gazing I am no closer to that answer now than I was when I began. My motivation to write Reapers With Issues was just as strong and the subject matter just as easy to conceptualize as Gods of Asphalt’s was, so identifying a specific default in thinking didn’t pan out. The truth is that I’ve got a hundred different stories buzzing around in my head; everything from harmless children’s stories to British comedies to even more Reapers sequels (oddly there’s nothing milling around in there that remotely smacks of Erotica, but that’s a post for another day after an hour on a couch).
So after an even more shameless bought of self-contemplation I began to ask myself a different question, “Why do any of us write what we write?”
Do we choose our genre or subject matter because of who we are, or because of what we make of the world around us? I imagine it’s no coincidence that Reapers With Issues was written during the darkest hours of a friend’s battle with cancer, or that Gods of Asphalt was written while stuck in bed, listening to my two teenaged sons bicker amongst themselves and argue with their father.
It is also not lost on me that I wrote Reapers With Issues from a third-person point-of-view, allowing me to observe at a distance the story of a Reaper whose best efforts to gather souls are thwarted by a Savior, or that the overall theme of Gods of Asphalt is how brothers cope when their mother isn’t around.
I suppose in the end what we choose to write comes from the harmony of both who we are and what we see. I’ve learned that whether my writing is received as harmony or dischord depends entirely on who’s doing the reading, and no amount of alteration of my “music” will accommodate everyone.
For the record, I’m fine with that. I am a Jazz fan, after all.