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How To Introduce A Character Into Your Song
October 29, 2013

Tip for Songwriting: How To Introduce a Character Into Your Song

By Amanda Williams - October 29, 2013 - Published by Hillbilly Culture LLC




The following article was inspired by a question asked by SMB Member/Mom of Lily Nelsen, Jayne Nelsen: “Do you have any rules about introducing a character in a song...like mentioning someone, but not elaborating on who you're talking about or to?”


         At some point in your songwriting, you’re bound to want to talk about a character of some sort. 


         What are some general rules for introducing a character into your song?  How can you develop a character, or several characters, while still making sure your audience can follow your story line without getting confused about whom is who?


         The best way to answer this question is to look to a few examples of hit songs that successfully incorporate different characters into their story lines.


         Two great examples of story songs that develop multiple characters are the country songs “Ol’ Red” and “Three Wooden Crosses.”  Both songs introduce multiple characters, and still manage to keep track of the cohesive thread of the story line without confusing the listener.




         You probably recall from grammar class that pronouns are words used in place of nouns such as I, me, my, mine, you, yours, he, she, they, him, her, them, we, us, our, ours, his, hers, and their.  Basically, any word you use in place of someone’s name is a pronoun.


         We talk about pronouns first when we’re discussing character development in songwriting because pronouns are the number one cause for confusion for your listeners.


         This confusion happens as a result of a combination of things – most usually, a combination of point of view and lack of description mixed with complicated storylines is a sure recipe for listener confusion.


         It’s important when you’re writing story songs that you’re clear about naming or describing your characters so that your listener doesn’t get confused.


         Let’s take a closer look at what we’re getting at by examining these elements individually: point of view, description, and complicated storylines in your songwriting.




         One of the first things to consider is the use of the perspective or point of view the songwriters take to tell the narrative of the story.  As you may recall from composition classes in grade school or high school, points of view include: first person, second person, and third person.


         First person point of view is when the person telling the story from his own perspective using the words “I” or “me” or “mine.”  When the narrator is telling us about his own experience, that’s when we know he is using the first person point of view.


         Second person point of view is when the narrator is talking to us using the words “you” or “your.”  You’ll find this perspective used in a lot of love songs where the singer is singing to his or her sweetie.


         The third person point of view is when an outsider to the story is the one telling it.  In this point of view, the narrator will talk about the characters using the words “he” or “she,” “them” or “they.” 


         You’ll find examples of hit songs using all of these points of view.  There are even some songs that are told from the perspective of a dead person, or something that was never alive to start with.  A great example of this is Lisa Carver’s song “Bullet” which is told from the point of view of a bullet flying through the air.


         In our example “Ol’ Red,” we see in the first line that the songwriters are using the first person point of view to tell the story.  The line is, “Well, I caught my wife with another man.”


         When your narrator is using first person, you’ll know that every time you hear about “I” or “me” you’re learning information about that narrator as the main character in the song.  Any other pronouns used, such as “you” or “he/she” are going to refer to someone other than the narrator.


         In “Three Wooden Crosses,” the narrator is using first person also, though it kind of seems like third person because during most of the song, he is retelling a story he heard at church, and calling the characters of “farmer, teacher, hooker and preacher” by their generic names.


         To further confound our identification of the point of view used in this song is the fact that the narrator slips into second person in the chorus with the lines, “it’s not what you take when you leave this world behind you.”  This kind of technique helps to engage the listener because talking to them, calling them “you,” brings them closer into the story.


         As a general rule of thumb, you’ll want to stick with one point of view throughout the whole song.  You can see that our second example, the across the board song of the year (CMA, ACM, ASCAP, etc…) trounces all over this rule, and was very successful doing it.


         The bottom line is this: it’s best not to switch between second and third person narrative unless there’s a really good reason.  For example, you wouldn’t want to start out the first verse talking about “you” and “yours” and then start your second verse calling the same character “he” and “him.”


         If you really need to switch pronouns, be sure you do it on purpose, and not just because you slipped out of your primary point of view on accident.




         If you’re going to have a bunch of characters in your song, it’s best to name them or describe them in some way instead of using pronouns. 


         For example, in “Three Wooden Crosses,” you’ll notice that in almost every line, the name of the character is used instead of a pronoun.  The narrator calls the farmer “farmer,” the teacher “teacher” and so forth instead of using the pronouns “he” or “she” to replace their names.  That keeps the listener from getting confused about who is doing what in the story.


         In “Ol’ Red,” the writers were careful not to confuse the listener by using a ton of pronouns, too.  Despite the fact that we have multiple characters, there’s no question about who is doing what.


         Most of the time when the song mentions the warden, the narrator calls him by name.  The same applies to Ol’ Red, the dog.  Most times, the narrator calls him by name to keep us from getting confused.


         For an exercise, check out what a few lines of “Ol’ Red” would look like if you replaced all the names with pronouns.  Confusing city.  Don’t do that to your listener.  Give them at least a little description or a name to help keep the characters straight.




         You can see from our examples that hit songs don’t need to shy away from complicated story lines to be successful.  The writers of “Three Wooden Crosses” were concerned that listeners wouldn’t make it to the end to realize that the preacher at the end of the story was the son of the hooker… but they did.


         The idea is not to dumb down our story lines, but rather to make sure they make sense and fit into the framework of a single song.


         New writers will often be tempted to try to cram three of four stories into a single song. 


         You can eliminate most of that problem by making sure your song has a single point to be made, and that all the verses point back to the same chorus message.


         When your story takes longer than three verses to tell, you can bet something is not right.  You need to go back and focus your message to a single point, and then use several examples to illustrate that point instead of trying to cram tons of material into one epic long song.


         The biggest danger of doing this occurs when we write something that really happened to us in our lives.  As we know, truth is often stranger than fiction, and because of that, it can be really complicated when we try to tell a story in a song in exactly the way it happened in real life. 


         Just because something happened that way in real life to you doesn’t mean it’s meant to fit into just one song.  It might take five or six songs to tell your real life experience in song form.  That’s part of the beauty, and the challenge of being a songwriter. 


Yes, we want to use our songwriting as a tool for self-expression, but if our purpose is also to entertain an audience, we want to make our stories digestible, and understandable.  Otherwise, we’re just writing for ourselves, which is ok, but if you’re just writing for yourself, you won’t need to share your song with anyone else. Chances are, you’re aiming for a little bit of both.  So do yourself a favor and keep it simple, stupid like the old saying goes.




         If you’re still confused on how to introduce characters into your song, bear these key points in mind:


·      Keep it simple

·      Don’t use a lot of pronouns

·      Eliminate unnecessary words and story lines

·      Get an honest opinion


Do you have a story to share about how you successfully introduced characters into your song?  Tell us about it in the comments below.



Using descriptive language in your songs.


Tips for songwriting


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Lily Nelsen
Oct. 29, 2013, 9:27 p.m.
Thank you, Amanda! This really helps! I appreciate you taking the time to break it all down and share!!:)

Amanda Williams
Dec. 10, 2013, 8:39 p.m.
You got it, Lily. Let us know if you find any tips to share as you're developing the characters in your songs. It's cool to hear other perspectives, especially from a talented young writer such as yourself. :)

Cate Hogan
Feb. 17, 2016, 12:42 a.m.
Thank you for this great article! Setting up the story with intrigue and empathy is so important, something a lot of writers forget when they get swept up in the excitement of putting pen to paper. Here is an article I wrote called "Introducing a Character, Not a Bore" that I thought you might enjoy: http://catehogan.com/introducing_your_character/

Amanda Williams
March 16, 2016, 12:58 p.m.
Thanks, Cate!

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