Being a Better Writer: Giving Characters a Leitmotif

Okay, first of all, I need to apologize for this post coming so late in the day. I know that yesterday I said I would have it up this morning, but as some of you likely noticed … that didn’t happen. What did happen was that last night, as I sat down to put together what would have been this morning’s post, it … Well, it wouldn’t go together. I was nursing a headache, tired, and after a frustrating time spent slapping together a less-than-subpar BaBW post, I canned the whole thing and decided to do it today after work (and after I’d gotten a little more sleep).

So far, this seems to have worked. With the one problem being that I missed the scheduled posting this morning and for that, I apologize. I should be more regular in getting these posts up (especially with the sudden surge in Monday work shifts at my second job).

Right, so with that done and said, what are we talking about today? After all, I’m sure a few of you who have had more than a few music classes or shared a passing interest in music may know what a leitmotif is, and with that knowledge, you’re surely wondering how that applies to writing. After all, despite experimentation to the contrary, a majority of books do not release with a soundtrack, nor any form of ambient accompaniment (and there’s a small subset of people who want to keep it that way, no less). So then, what might I mean by giving characters a leitmotif?

Well, perhaps I should start out explaining what a leitmotif is, for those of you who don’t know, just so that we’re all on the same page. A leitmotif is, essentially, a recurring musical theme in a piece of music that is associated with an idea, emotion, or—more often—a character or a situation. Which to some of you probably sounds like nonsense unless I point out some of the more well-known leitmotifs out there: Those in film. Specifically, leitmotifs found in films like Indiana JonesStar Wars, or The Lord of the Rings. Sit back for a moment, if you will, and picture one of those films. Now picture a character or a scene from them and see if your mind calls a bit of fanfare forward.

Actually, let’s go one step further. I’m going to link two video clips here—both from the famous Raiders of the Lost Ark—and I’m going to ask you to watch them (it’s not like you’ll mind). But as you watch them, pay attention to the musical cues, fanfares, or instruments that pop up, particularly when certain characters perform certain actions or certain situations (such as peril) arise. So, here’s clip one, the flying wing fight (which I’ve actually used before to discuss writing tricks, go figure), and clip two, the truck chase from a bit later in the film. I’ll assume you’re watching and listening to them now.

Right, now that you’re done (and hopefully grinning a little), a further explanation. The reason I chose to use scenes from such a famous film is because it was scored by John Williams, a composer who is well known for including heavy elements of leitmotif in his work. He’s also the mind behind the instantly recognizable Star Wars theme, or Jurassic Park. Anyway, point is, he’s an excellent example to pull from.

So, did you notice the heavy use of leitmotif in those two clips? I certainly did. The most obvious to many was probably the brass fanfare that tended to rise whenever Indy did something heroic or impressive, but there were other themes as well. Like the use of the heavy, low, urgent tune whenever the nazis Indy was battling started to get the upper hand. Or—though it was only played once or twice during the second clip—the eerie trill that was associated with the longer shots of the box containing the ark.

The point is, every moment in that film is steeped in a  musical cue that lets the listener know exactly what’s happening or who is the current focus. A listener with a good ear could, after watching the first scene, likely only listen to the second scene and still have a rough idea of what was going on simply based off of the leitmotifs they were hearing.

Which is pretty cool, to be honest. But it probably doesn’t answer the question most of you have on your minds now that we’ve discussed all this; likely some form of “What does this have to do with writing?” Again, as I already said, we don’t have musical cues in literature. At least, not yet. Outside of a few experimental online pieces, music does not feature prominently (or really, at all) inside fiction. So, what am I talking about?

Actually, I’m talking about cues that make your character recognizable.

See, in the clips we watched there were clear moments of “this is Indy doing something,” moments when the classic, brassy fanfare took over, and the viewer subconsciously but immediately knows what to look for (Indy is in danger, Indy is doing something heroic, etc). And we actually can do similar in our writing with the words we write; what phrasing we choose or words we select to inform our reader of what’s going on can, in fact, tell the reader unconsciously about our story, everything from who is speaking to what emotion a character a feeling at the moment.

Now, to some of you long-time readers, this may sound somewhat familiar. After all, we’ve spoken before of ways to show a reader character through dialogue choice or body language. Here and now, however, I’m sort of pulling all of this together into a single, overarching idea: What leitmotif have you given your character? What element of their personality, attribute of their view of the world, are you going to weave into their parts (or perhaps point of view) in order to let the reader know exactly who they’re following even before you give them a name?

No joke. With strong enough characterization to a character’s perspective, it’s entirely possible to write a piece that, without ever mentioning a character’s name, is identifiable wholly as that character’s own. Through use of specific dialogue ticks, phrasing, complexity of language, or even things like catch phrases, general attitudes, or body language, you can inform a reader exactly who your character is.

Better yet, such an action will, if varied (we’ll talk about that in a moment) bring the character to life. Because let’s be honest here: We all have a “leitmotif.” Each of us has very recognizable traits that allow others to see who we are quite quickly(an old friend of mine once—no joke—identified me in the dark, only from my silhouette, on the explained logic of “no one else walks with that much casual swagger” … and come to think of it, that’s happened more than once).

Likewise, as you sit down to create—and then write—a character, what “leitmotifs” are you going to give them? What verbal cues, what methods of thought, or what reactions will they have. Will they be fight or flight? Will they be brusque to those they don’t know? Courteous? Do they think of themselves in first or second person when thinking?

Now, I know this all sounds like character design and development stuff—and it is! But what I’m bringing to the front here is not just the act of deciding all this stuff, but of picking the ones that you’ll weave into everything about the character. More than just designing a character and giving a summary dump to the reader, be thinking about how you’re going to get aspects of their character across to the reader in the everyday, plain and simple text of your creation. How to infuse that character’s attitudes, quirks, and the like into the rest of the story, weaving them into the narrative so that the reader recognizes them, but perhaps only subconsciously, as traits of that character.

Now, one final word, one of warning that I mentioned I’d be getting to earlier. Think back on the two clips I posted near the start of this post. Remember Indy’s fanfare? That classic horn bit that we all know and love? Well, ask yourself this for a moment: How many notes went into that little riff? Was it more that one?

Of course it was. Likewise, your character’s “leitmotif” should be more than just one or two notes. It needs to be a range. With chords (several notes in harmony at once). Make your character’s leitmotifs more than just one or two pieces … try to let them grow (and, continuing the analogy, consider the types of soundtracks certain genres employ with regard to leitmotifs if you’re versed in such things; some are sparse, others are deep).

The point is, don’t let your character be a one note character. Give them plenty for the reader to pick up on. Make them multifaceted, with interlocking elements that combine to form the whole.

Give them a “music” that the reader will remember and “hum” later.

So, in summation: Leitmotifs are reoccurring musical themes that are ascribed to characters, scenes, events, or emotions in musical pieces. They serve as an unconscious, unseen explanation of sorts of the events going on in the “story” the music tells. Often in cinema, these leitmotifs will be associated with characters, allowing a viewer to immediately know who should be at the center of their focus, and even what action they should expect.

Likewise, we can give each of our characters a “leitmotif” of sorts in our writing through choices such as phrasing, reactions, assumptions, dialogue … or, to be fair, many other forms of expression, narrative and otherwise, that will aide our reader in understanding and identifying that character, as well as helping them see them as a more real individual. We should look at what “leitmotifs” such as this we plan to give our characters and how we’re going to weave them into our work as we write to bring each character to life in the fullest way possible; not as one-note hits, but as complex, multifaceted characters.

Good luck. Now get writing.

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2 thoughts on “Being a Better Writer: Giving Characters a Leitmotif

  1. Brilliant. This makes perfect sense. I’m trying to think of good examples of character leitmotifs/quirks/identifying words or behaviors in fiction. One that comes to mind in a book I recently read is how Etienne chews on his fingernails in Anna and the French Kiss.

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  2. […] Giving Characters a Leitmotif— Well, perhaps I should start out explaining what a leitmotif is, for those of you who don’t know, just so that we’re all on the same page. A leitmotif is, essentially, a recurring musical theme in a piece of music that is associated with an idea, emotion, or—more often—a character or a situation. Which to some of you probably sounds like nonsense unless I point out some of the more well-known leitmotifs out there: Those in film. Specifically, leitmotifs found in films like Indiana Jones, Star Wars, or The Lord of the Rings. Sit back for a moment, if you will, and picture one of those films. Now picture a character or a scene from them and see if your mind calls a bit of fanfare forward. […]

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