Finding the Internal Rhythm of a Character

The technique of using music to identify the speech and thought rhythms of characters.

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Have you ever thought of using music to help build a character?

For as long as I can remember, I’ve believed that each person has their own internal music or rhythms. As an actor and later as a writer I’ve found that the use of music and rhythm has helped me build and define my characters.

It can be difficult for an actor to create a full character from just the content of a script, so most experienced actors develop their own toolbox of things to help them with the process. Many create a detailed backstory for their character and subtext for their lines. They need to know who their character is and what prompts them to say or do something. These techniques can be very similar to those used by writers. Some actors also find that a physicalisation helps, others can be assisted by costumes or props—particularly in period plays where these can affect breathing and movement.

In addition to these tools, I developed another of my own. I would try to find a character’s internal rhythm. I’d start by voicing the character’s lines to hear if a natural and distinctive rhythm was apparent in the writing. If there wasn’t, I would search for recurrent ones. I found it was likely for a character to have more than one rhythm, dependent on the situation.

While at university, an independent study grant awarded me the opportunity to research the effect of sound and music on performers and its possible use in developing a character. Through my work with a number of performers in sound studios I found that an attempt to find a character’s internal rhythm provided new insights for some but not all performers. These findings were adopted and later used by faculty and students.

As a writer, I also search for a character’s internal rhythm. I don’t do it for every character—some seem to arrive fully formed—however it’s a tool I use to help understand and flesh out those problem characters.

It may be useful to start by identifying your own inner rhythm. For example, the music I’ve found that’s closest to my own internal rhythms would be a couple of jazz standards, a very fast version of ‘Bluesette’ morphing into a slow, smooth rendition of ‘So Nice (Summer Samba).’ These rhythms at these tempos work for me because when I’m nervous or excited I can sometimes appear scatty, my voice can become higher, my speech very quick with sentences running together. However, when I’m feeling confident or relaxed my speech slows, my voice lowers and my sentences may be more clearly defined. I don’t believe it’s a coincidence that my rhythms correlate with jazz as I was raised in a household where both parents were jazz lovers.

Think about your own internal rhythms. Can you identify any music that you feel captures you and your moods? It may be something from childhood that has stayed with you. It’s not about your favourite song, it’s about the rhythm, the way you speak, breath, move. It may be a waltz, bossa nova, a flamenco rhythm, blues, rap, reggae, even a dirge. There is no right or wrong, it’s personal.

Once you believe you have found your own rhythm—something you feel defines you (no one needs to agree with you, no one needs to know)—you’ll be able to use this exercise as a tool when you’re having difficulty building a particular character; one that doesn’t come off the page.

Then, do some research and listen to music that your character may have heard as a child or young adult as this may help identify their internal rhythm. If I’m writing a piece set in the modern day, I sometimes look up the top 100 hits in whatever country the character is based to see if there’s anything there that seems right for the character’s early years. These rhythms may be added to the character as they mature, particularly at key points in their life, such as first love, marriage or death of a loved one, as well as parenthood, divorce, serious illness, war, terrorist attacks, and natural disasters.

However, in some periods most of the top 100 tend to be pop songs with little variance in rhythm. I remember struggling to find the voice for one very troubled and angry young character. And then, I read an article about one of the young American high school killers that said he was a huge fan of a particular heavy rock band. When I heard the rhythm, anger and frustration in the chorus of one of this band’s songs, I knew I’d found the rhythm, voice and movement for my character at that particular point in his life.

This tool can also play a role when writing non-fiction. My nephew is a ghost writer who writes highly technical corporate pieces for chief executives of major international organisations. He often works for several at the same time. In order to keep the style of each CEO separate, he will identify a music or rhythm for each—one that he believes suits their personality and style. He’ll then listen to that style of music while he writes. It works for him.

The identification and use of music and internal rhythms to build characters may prove a helpful addition to your writer’s toolbox, so why not give it a go?

Patricia Mahoney started her writing career as a playwright with five professionally-produced plays and since released a book/CD of stories.

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