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Richard Skinner on how to use music to write characters

This month we publish Writing a Novel  by Richard Skinner, an essential writer’s companion packed with tips and different approaches to crafting your own story. In the book, the novelist and director of the Fiction Programme at Faber Academy draws from his twenty years of teaching experience to cover areas such as narrators, plot, setting and more.

We asked Richard to explain a technique he uses to aid with character development, that of compiling playlists, and share some tips for creating a character playlist yourself.

The key is to seek out tracks which are deeply connected to your character’s ‘existential situation’. They have to be the soundtrack of their lives. For Oliva in The Mirror, the track I played, again and again, to get inside her head was the Plaid remix of Björk’s ‘All Is Full of Love’. Such a clean, slow, techno track might seem anachronistic for a young novice nun living in a convent in Renaissance Venice, but there is something holy about the remix and Björk’s voice that fitted perfectly with my central character.

Four tips for making your own character playlists

1. Choose those songs that best describe the inner life of your character. They must say something about the roots of where they come from and the core of who they are.

2. Imagine those songs as the soundtrack to their lives. The songs will describe your characters responses to any given situation in your novel.

3. The words of the songs are the voices in your characters head. They are your character speaking to themselves, and us. 

4. Choose only a handful of songs, no more than 10. Listen to them on headphones on repeat shuffle and write through your character.

An example of a character development playlist:

Here is the playlist I compiled for the leading character, Jeziah, in my forthcoming novel, The Darks. The songs I chose all said something about his life and state of mind. For example, in the novel, Jeziah feels an acute sense of disorientation and dislocation in London and many of the songs reflect this mental stress of living in the city. One track, in particular, the Kruder & Dorfmeister remix of the Rockers Hi-Fi track ‘Going Under’, could be the voice of Jeziah himself as he talks to us about his desperate life. 

Writing a Novel by Richard Skinner is available now in paperback.