How to Write Character Songs

Recently I asked Sunshine Coast songwriter, Reuben Cosgrove to share some of his insights from writing a character-driven concept album. He's been working on the album for 2.5 years and was drawn to the idea of a concept album because he was finding the depth and complexity of the stories he wanted to tell too big for just one song. I hope you find the following tips and ideas useful! You can check out Reuben's concept album, Jade in demo form on YouTube here - Mira

I’ve been asked to tell you all about my process for writing songs about fictional characters, and I ‘m very flattered that you [Mira] like my writing enough to want to hear how I do it, so hopefully I can explain myself properly here and give some decent advice.

Let’s start at the beginning: Why write songs about fictional characters? For me, I think the main reason is the amount of freedom it affords. If I were to only write about things that have actually happened to me without making anything up, I’d find it difficult to get my point across because the range of ideas I can introduce and framing devices I can use is limited, and I sometimes have trouble translating the real world into a strict rhyming structure without losing a lot of details.

That would also mean needing to have a solid plan for the song’s direction from the beginning, since I’d be writing about real-life situations that can’t be changed. That’s something that I often struggle with - I prefer to go with the flow, so I find it much easier to set all these stories in a fictional landscape where I can just make details up as I go along, and choose the setting for the story that I think suits the mood best. Of course, the longer you stay in one fictional continuity the more rules you have to set for yourself about what can happen, but I’ll get to that later.

Then there’s my process: How do I come up with these characters and worlds in the first place? To be honest, I’m not exactly sure most of the time. What I do know is that the vast majority of these stories start as something based in reality. I’ll have a concept that I want to explain my thoughts on, or a situation or event or cultural phenomenon I’d like to talk about, and as I mentioned before, it’s easier for me to articulate those thoughts from the perspective of a fictional character.

In a lot of cases, the character is basically an artist proxy, the only difference between them and me being that their personality and characteristics can be changed as I see fit to make it more interesting. The one important caveat to this being that the longer the story goes on, and the more characters there are in it, the more distinct from me and unique they have to be. In my experience, the undeveloped artist proxy only really works for the duration of a single song.

Take, for example, the story I’m currently working on. The main character, who is the narrator of the majority of the story, is very similar to me, at least on the inside. They share most of my personality, my values and my views about the world, allowing me to say what I want without having to think too much about what this specific character would think or say in any given situation. However, they don’t share much with me outside of their mind; for instance, they’re Canadian and female. (Another thing that keeps me returning to writing fiction is that it allows me to ramble on about North America as much as I want, which is a lot. I just think it provides a nice physical setting.)

And as this story lasts for eleven songs and contains three characters, I have to start adding more variation. It’s fair to say that there’s still a lot of me in all these characters, but I do my best to make it so that you can always tell who’s narrating even when it’s not explicitly stated. These two characters have different ideas about how growing up works. This one is much more extroverted. This one has a proclivity to view her own life through the lens of a fictional narrative, leading to a misguided obsession with poetic justice. You get the idea.

So there’s my method of character creation in its essence: Start with me, focus on whatever aspects are most relevant to the story, then change stuff until it’s not me anymore. Once you’re acquainted with the new people you’ve invented, they can sometimes develop lives of their own, and you’re just there to write down what they’re doing. Don’t worry if you have to go back and change a lot of stuff, though. Sometimes not everything makes sense the first time around. Which leads nicely into the challenges I face with character writing.

Generally, these issues are the same ones you would face writing in any other medium - They’re not at all music-specific.

The first thing that springs to mind is consistency. My main concern is always whether each thing a character does feels like something they would do. It’s always best to have a clear idea in your head of who they should be, what they want, how they work toward it and so on. My best advice would be to not overthink before you’ve even put anything on paper; it will probably be easier to tell if a line looks right when it’s right there in front of you.

If, like me, you’re working on a longer story that spans multiple songs, and you write something that doesn’t quite fit, but you really really like it, then you can always just go back to the earlier songs and change stuff around until your new detail does make sense in the broader context. This is probably easiest to do if you write in a freeform fashion like I tend to (Start with song one and make the rest up as I go, in whatever order the story ideas come to me) but you may prefer to have a basic story structure laid out (possibly even how many songs there will be) before you begin with actual lyrics.

Having a basic structure before you start is also a good way to ensure your story’s pacing is consistent, since you can plan out the main arc and all the events within it. Again, I haven’t done this, but have wished I did at some points. This method does also have its drawbacks, though - You may find it more difficult to make major changes later on. My process is to let the story run its course and take as long as it needs to reach the end, which is good for the freedom it gives you, but has left me with a lot of pacing worries at the end. It all comes down to which method you prefer; both are totally valid, so just go with whatever suits your writing style.

Possibly the biggest obstacle, though, is just having enough ideas to sustain the whole story. Sometimes I’ll get started with big ideas and then realise that if this was going to be as long as I wanted it to be, it would be mostly filler. So sometimes I change the story, or sometimes I just work on a different part until the ideas start to come. I scrapped 3 or so songs from the story I mentioned earlier because they took me to a dead end. Once I figured out the story I really wanted to tell, I wrote the songs in the following order: 1, 2, 3, 7, 6, 11, 4, 5, 8, 9, 10. Because that’s the order in which I figured out what was going to happen in those songs. There’s really no rules at all.

So there you have it. Character writing is a vehicle to express what I want to say exactly how I want to say it without having to worry about pesky things like reality. The characters are modified versions of me, and I just write whatever I come up with as it comes to me and worry about the editing later. And that’s about all I know about writing character songs. I don’t know if anyone else’s method is remotely similar to mine, if the way I do it is effective over longer stretches of songs, or if any of this makes sense outside my head, but there it is. I hope these little insights have been helpful.

- Reuben Cosgrove