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The Frettie Journal
A collection of interviews, updates, tips and resources for songwriters.

Word Games 1: First Person Character Writing

All, Tips & Resources by The Frettie Team on March 24, 2014

Word Games will be a semi-regular feature meant to start you thinking about your lyric writing.

Do you feel your writing has gotten stale? Have you got writer’s block? Are you frustrated or even just bored by your own words? If so then the exercises and techniques explored in these posts could help you get out of a rut.

Even if you're coming out with lyrics that your happy with there’s always room for new forms and methods of expression; you never know what you might develop if you go outside your comfort zone.

By doing this hopefully you can find fresh ways to convey your ideas and emotions. It’s all a part of developing your own style.

Here’s one idea. Next time you sit down to write about a song, forget yourself. Put yourself in another person’s shoes.

Create a persona, another guise who lives and breathes, has their own loves and prejudices, their own positives and flaws. Don’t write “he” or “she”, make this person “I”. Make your song a first person narrative with someone else’s voice, written outside your own viewpoint.

This may initially appear to be quite an impersonal and even fake style of song writing. You may wonder what you have to express from someone else’s standpoint that you can’t express more clearly from your own.

An answer to this is that often this technique is all about a surface perspective and a depth that is true to the songwriter’s own point of view or experience.

On the surface the lyrics speak solely of the experience a character. However the personal opinions, ideas and emotions of the songwriter are buried, with greater or lesser subtlety depending on the approach, between the lines.

Lyrics don’t need to be written from your own personal point of view to clearly and cleverly express a personal feeling or observation. In other words your lyrics don’t have to be about you to be about you.

To give you an idea of what I am talking about let’s take an example.

Randy Newman was a songwriter who perfected this technique while making music in late 60’s and 1970’s L.A, writing from the perspective of a range of characters rather than from his own standpoint.

One advantage to this first-person character songwriting is that it can provide a fresh angle to view society, and to critique it. An understated approach to this can be found amidst the beautiful repeated piano melody and magnificent string arrangement on Newman’s “Sail Away”.

It took me a while to realize the full meaning of this song, for quite some time I thought it was a simple ode to the wonders of America. Then the line “climb aboard little wog sail away with me” stood out and jarred with that reading. Suddenly the details of African jungles and the crude, bluntly racist imagery of Black American life in plantation era U.S.A came into clear view.

The song is written from the perspective of a slave trader, enticing would be African slaves onto his ship direct to Charleston Bay. It’s a song that digs right to the heart of the darkest time in American history, and the hypocrisy at the heart of the supposedly “Free World”.

The effect is made all the more spine-chilling by the fact that the music and Newman’s persona never once crack. From his tone and the feeling of the arrangement the depth below the surface isn’t obvious, it is left to the listener to recognise in the words the horrors this character truly represents.
Aside from providing new voices with which you can critically assess the world around you this type of song writing can also provide a different view on human relationships.

“Old Man” is a song written from the point of view of a son saying his last goodbye to his father. The old man’s fear of impending death is palpable as is his loneliness. The son’s emotions are more complicated a mix of sadness, bitterness and indifference.

The song paints a quick, vivid portrait of the final scene of a complex relationship. We can only guess at their history but the characters are drawn clearly, difficult and sad human beings whose situation is made far more personable and emotionally gripping because Randy writes it from the first, rather than the third person.

So how can you try incorporate this approach into your own writing? Try starting from one of two different points.

Choose someone, anyone. It can be a close friend or family member, a local shop-owner, a famous personality, an historical figure or even just a stock stereotype.

Now try to think from their perspective. Think of their relationships, what they encounter in their daily life or their views on the world around them. Choose some aspect of their life and write about it. Remain in character and see where this takes you. Once you have developed the persona enough you can think about how to insert your own feelings into the details, if that is where you think the song should go.

Alternatively start with your own personal idea. It could be an idea you’ve had for a song, a personal opinion on something in society, a situation setup or an emotional thought.

Now try to either construct a character from scratch who you feel can give a voice to some aspect of this idea or simply adopt a person like those described above, someone you have some kind of knowledge of. Now, attempt to find the words to express the idea as this character would express it, as they experience it. Do this while bearing in mind your original idea and try voice this too, but without breaking the surface point of view.

To be honest this is a complex writing technique with many more approaches than the few discussed here so we might come back to this!

If you can think of other approaches, or uses for this technique please leave a comment and explain it to the rest of us.

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