Crafting Character through Music

Four women and one man dance in a living room. The characters are from the BBC TV series Orphan Black.

A Playlist of Personalities

Orphan Black is a sci-fi drama about young single-mom Sarah, who one night sees a woman jump in front of a commuter train. As if that weren’t shocking enough, the woman who took her own life looks exactly like herself.

So begins my favorite TV series of all time, the tale of Orphan Black unraveling until we discover that Sarah is but one of many genetically identical humans, or in layman’s terms, clones. Such a storyline required lead actress Tatiana Maslany to play five distinct main characters. Although they looked alike, each had a distinguishing personality, down to their quirks, personal tastes and mannerisms.

Fun Fact: According to Screen Rant, there were “276 Leda clones created in total, and Maslany played 14 of them on-screen.”

In the final moments of season 4, four of these clone sisters – Sarah, Cosima, Alison, and Helena – have a now iconic living room dance party, leaving the fans with something sweet to savor while they waited for the fifth and final season. (The series aired from 2013-2017).

As you watch the clip, you’ll see that each character has their own style of dancing, with rebellious Sarah bobbing her head, wild Helena flailing her limbs, buttoned-up Alison clapping her hands while stiff-spined, and free-spirited Cosima doing the butterfly all the way to the flo’ and back.

Throughout the show’s five seasons, no matter which clone Maslany was portraying on-screen, I was always able to forget that I was watching the same, non-cloned human over and over, and instead became lost in whichever character she embodied at the moment. Apart from the technological aspect of “How did they pull that off?” (echoes of Eddie Murphy’s The Nutty Professor come to mind), I was more so left with the question, “How did Tatiana pull that off?”

In an interview with Vice, Maslany shared a gem of her acting technique: “Music is a key component in the structure of the clones,” she said. Before filming, she would queue up a playlist she created that best reflected each character, getting her into the mindset of that individual. For Tatiana Maslany’s full playlists, see the original article from Vice here.

Could song inspire character?

When I approached my novel, IN THE POISON GARDEN, I only had the main character Roxanne in mind, though I ultimately felt that a whole cast of characters would be best to fulfill my creative vision. This felt like an intimidating, and nearly impossible task. While writers hew personas from shapeless marble all the time, to date I had mainly focused on one or at most two main characters. I asked myself, could I use music and song to alter my perspective and get into the right headspace to create more and different characters?

Songs Define an Era

When I started working on In the Poison Garden, I only had main character Roxanne in mind. I knew that she was a child of the 1980’s who came of age in the early 1990’s, so this immediately gave me an idea of which songs she would have heard playing on the radio as she grew up.

Before I developed my own musical tastes, I would (be forced to) listen to whichever cassette tapes my mom had on hand in the car. Played on repeat were Anita Baker, Earth, Wind & Fire, Steely Dan, and The Beatles. (True Story: My mother only had the album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, so for the longest time I thought that was the name of the band. )

I decided that the same parental influence would apply to young Roxanne, whose mother Renata had a penchant for Madonna. From these seeds, the character Roxanne began to grow.

What is the Main Character like?

When we meet Roxanne, she is a forty-two-year-old widow who is so busy managing her own company that she doesn’t even bother owning a home, since she’s always traveling. The truth is, she’s hiding an important part of her identity from her dad, Alonso, and her college-aged son, Noah.

As the song by (what’s the name of that band again?) The Beatles goes, “I get by with a little help from my friends.” To protect her secret, I decided Roxanne needed to have the help of several dear friends. How would I define these other characters? Would it be possible to give each a distinct voice, even though they would all spring from the mind of one person? I turned to songs for help.

Roxanne Petersen – Papa Don’t Preach by Vitamin String Quartet

Years before our story begins, young Roxanne Petersen (née Addario) finds herself unexpectedly pregnant. As the song goes, she’s keeping her baby – but is she truly in love?

I adore Vitamin String Quartet, a group that plays popular hits with a classical twist. Their tribute to Madonna’s original captures the visceral emotion that Roxanne feels, so I reached for this instrumental version to allow myself to get lost in the feeling without the potential distraction of words.

Eden Lin – 我又不是女超人 (Not a Superwoman) by Shi Shi and Waa Wei

Eden’s optimism outshines the sun on a summer day, but she still carries doubt within. As the only child of Taiwanese immigrants to America, she has a keen appreciation for the differences that can bring people together.

When I discovered the Mandopop song “Not a Superwoman” (pronounced in Mandarin: wǒ yòu bùshì nǚ chāorén) from Taiwanese-Korean singer-songwriter Shi Shi, I found that its jazzy vibe reflected Eden’s attitude towards life, and her unresolved conflict with longtime boyfriend Everett.

“Lost in love again and it’s not even Valentine’s Day … Why should I change?” The chorus repeats again and again, “I’m not a superwoman,” and while Eden understands this, in her heart of hearts, she always strives to do what she believes is best.  

Jonagold – I Know a Place by Petula Clark

John Aaron Gold, or ‘Jonagold’ to his friends, used to rely on alcohol to relax. Petula’s anthem begins with joyful anticipation, “Every day when the work is behind you, And the shop and the store put the lock on the door, Just get away where your worries won’t find you.”

Who wouldn’t be psyched up to go out and have a good time after listening to this song?

I imagined the tune follows Jonagold as he walks from his gray office to his favorite corner bar for happy hour. The scene is bright, blazing with Technicolor as Petula describes “a swingin’ place, a cellar full of noise.”

But as the song swells and the chorus repeats, I pictured something sinister, with the scene ending in a stark contrast of black and white as his relationship with alcohol becomes ever more unhealthy.

Aqila Nazeem –  حلوة (Helwa) by UTN1

As a teenager, Aqila left Iraq prior to the invasion of Kuwait, and in the present she is a cardiologist and best friends with the main character. Throughout the novel, Aqila calls her dear friend Roxanne habibti, especially when she’s trying to soften the blow of a harsh truth she’s about to expound on.

Wherever you go, there is a universality with certain terms of endearment. Growing up among native speakers of Arabic, I often heard the words habibi (حبيبي) and habibti (حبيبتي) spoken lovingly to friends. Literally, “my love,” it can also be understood as “my darling” or “my beloved,” with the former (habibi) spoken to males and the latter (habibti) spoken to females, regardless of the speaker’s gender.

Helwa (حلوة) is another such term. Translated literally as “sweet” or “sweetie,” it can reference both your favorite candy and your main squeeze.

I imagine that after Aqila arrived in Brooklyn in 1990 from Basra, Iraq, she would listen to favorite songs in her native language whenever she missed home. While the song “Helwa” wasn’t released until 2021, I felt that this poppy tune was the perfect song to get Aqila dancing.

If you’ve never listened to Arabic pop music, I think you’ll enjoy the band UTN1. Also known as Unknown to No One, this boy band was formed during the regime of Saddam Hussein and endures today, singing in both Arabic and English.  

Jaelen Quinn – Blinding Lights by The Weeknd

A potential love-interest for Roxanne, Jaelen is immediately passionate, mysterious … and hot as hell.

I’m drowning in the night … I’m running out of time … Will never let you go this time – the lyrics are dreamy, intense, and steamy. The entirety of “Blinding Lights” captures Jaelen’s dizzying sense of urgency and the outsized heart-on-his-sleeve, which guides everything he does.  

Roxanne’s Fight Song – Dig Down by Muse

In addition to crafting characters, other songs helped me visualize key moments in the story, such as the climactic battle between Roxanne and – well, you’ll just have to wait to find out. (Okay, okay. It’s a supernatural monster who attacks Roxanne in the dream realm of the titular Poison Garden).

Lead singer Matt Bellamy of Muse sings,

When hope and love has been lost
And you fall to the ground
You must find a way
When the darkness descends
And you’re told it’s the end
You must find a way … Dig down, Dig down, And find faith.

While multiple powers are at work in the novel, many of which Roxanne has yet to understand, what ultimately pulls her and all the characters through is an overwhelming sense of faith.

I can’t tell you how many times I listened to “Dig Down” while writing the battle scene, and it was this powerful anthem that got me in the mood to fight back with faith. I still can’t decide if I prefer the original version or the gospel version – listen for yourself and let me know which speaks to you.

Bonus: Background Music in a Book? Haruki Murakami’s IQ84

“The taxi’s radio was tuned to a classical FM broadcast. Janáček’s Sinfonietta—probably not the ideal music to hear in a taxi caught in traffic.” Thus opens Haruki Murakami’s IQ84.

With a fanfare at once bold and festive, and at times cacophonous, Janáček’s composition of brass and percussion send tremors through the listener. In the act of reading these first few words of IQ84, one has no choice but to put the tome down (even though they have quite literally just opened it) and queue up the song, or recall the tune from memory. For that rare reader that forges onward without doing any of the above, what are you doing?! You’re missing out.

I would argue that the clever reader should read the chapter, then reread with the music playing in the background. Try this, and all at once the words on the page unfold in a way that is cinematic, immersive, and living. (Murakami employs this technique yet again in The Wind-up Bird Chronicles, using Gioachino Rossini’s The Thieving Magpie as the main character makes spaghetti at ten a.m. I dare you to play this overture next time you’re waiting for your pasta water to boil.)

It was the above few words from Murakami that inspired me to write the following scene with music as a key component. Through the use of Handel’s Passacaglia in G Minor, I attempted to express the tension between the characters in a way that could reach the reader beyond the written word.

I invite you to listen to Itzhak Perlman and Pinchas Zukerman perform this masterpiece as you read this excerpt from In the Poison Garden. Let me know how you feel after both reading and listening.

Excerpt from IN THE POISON GARDEN featuring a scene with song – Passacaglia in G Minor by George Frideric Handel, performed by Itzhak Perlman and Pinchas Zukerman

Just as the hidden lock inside the door began to give way, Oakes blurted, “I think we should get married.” Roxanne released her grasp on the handle to meet his gaze, but he was looking down, staring at the slight bulge in her belly as if seeing through it. She suddenly felt winded, unable to speak, and he, breathless at his own proclamation. Music from the car stereo filled the gaping silence between them – a dialog of strings, violin and cello. It was a piece that Roxanne didn’t know, though Oakes did – Handel-Halvorsen’s Passacaglia in G Minor. Neither realized how much the composition reflected this moment, and their entire relationship, so perfectly; a duet, all at once silken and swift, lamenting and opposing, slipping past, always just out of reach of the other. Each note clung to them like wet cement, engulfing them, freezing them in place.

“When?” was all she could think to say. He looked down again, this time at his phone.

“As soon as the semester’s over, I suppose,” he said, scrolling through his calendar. “I’ll have more time then.”

She thought about finals. She hoped she wouldn’t have morning sickness during her exams. She hoped she was doing the right thing. “That sounds okay,” she said.

“Good. It’s settled then.” He put his phone down and placed his hand behind her head, cradling it as he urged her head closer and pressed his plush lips to her forehead. When he was done, her forehead was wet, and he reached his long arm across her and opened the door.

She stepped out of the car, the melting moonlight watching her as she passed through the darkness and into her apartment. She flicked on the light to an empty room, sparsely furnished.

She wondered what had just happened.

[End of Excerpt]

IN THE POISON GARDEN – currently on submission

Here’s the part where I wish you could read the novel IN THE POISON GARDEN in its entirety. My agent at The Seymour Agency is currently seeking a publisher, and I hope you can wait until then to join Roxanne and company on her journey. Until then, here’s more tunes to tide you over.

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