Silent Music

David Corbett

Harold Pinter once remarked that all of his plays were in truth about silence. Whether the characters stood there mute or let loose with a blistering torrent of words, the real issue was their nakedness before each other, their silence.

That idea has been haunting me lately, especially since seeing Wim Wenders’s Pina, his 3D tribute to the choreographer Pina Bausch. I was especially moved by the sequences from Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps:


I left the theater once again feeling in the core of my soul that there is always something words cannot get to, cannot touch, cannot reach, no matter how elegant or clear or savage or right.

Not the best feeling for a writer.

The next day I met with Rebecca Hunt, my editor at Penguin for my book on character that will come out next year. And as we worked out the various strategies for the first rewrite, I kept trying to ignore this nasty itch in the back of my mind, this sense that despite all the work I’d put in, all the examples from novels and stories and films and TV shows I’d analyzed, all the elements I’d broken down, all the techniques I’d explained—not to mention having written four novels, each praised for its characterization—I was still dealing with something essentially elusive, as though I was trying to grab onto a quivery thread of mercury.

When is the line is crossed, between a fully realized character and one not so fully realized? The answer remains as enigmatic to me now as ever—perhaps more so.

Recently, I told a writer friend that I’ve come to use music more and more in my characterizations, sometimes thinking like an opera composer, taking the first impression of a character from a chord or sequence of chords, building from that a musical theme, a melody or sequence of melodies, and allowing the density of those chords, the beauty or discord of the melody, the timbre of the instruments I hear in my head playing the piece to inspire an insight into the character’s inner life.

The advantage of this, over a mere pictorial image of the character, is that music can change its quality so readily—through chord progressions, melodic inversions, tempo, timbre, dynamics—and it moves through time. An image can easily be a trap, locking in my conception of what the character can or can’t do. A character I see in my mind’s eye as handsome or sanguine too often becomes a slave to that impression, and can’t become slovenly or sickly or rude or vile.

I don’t know what it is about images, but they seem to define a thing, in the most limiting sense of the word. Images suggest a soul, some essential essence that cannot be violated or betrayed without the character becoming “inconsistent.” But a character who can’t contradict himself is a trope, a type, a construct, an idea. No matter how cleverly portrayed, such a character dances on the edge of cliché. Denis Diderot likened the human character to a swarm of bees—and it’s that sort of shapeless but still coherent vibrancy I consider crucial.

Ironically, by using music, I get to what Pinter was suggesting by discussing silence. I get at that ineffable, insubstantial trickiness, the ghost in the machine that defies definition, that remains dynamic and free and contradictory.

In my most recent novel, Do They Know I’m Running?, I used a piano piece by Faure to conjure for me the gentle inner life of an otherwise rough, rustic, uneducated (but not unintelligent) Salvadoran truck driver. It was the contrast I was after, the greasy muscular thoughtful man, and the unpredictability it created. I was gratified when a reader told me it was this character, especially his decency, that gave the book its core of hope despite its harrowing sequences.

The sly, sensitive protagonist, a budding guitar phenom named Roque, needed a blistering Santana solo to create a sense of the hunger within him, of which even he is unaware as the story begins.

His aunt, Tía Lucha, is a thin, sad, scrappy woman who I pictured as a clarinet, an instrument which, even at its most playful or aggressive, retains a certain lamenting wistfulness in its tone.

And Godo, the marine who returns from Iraq damaged both psychologically and physically, found partial inspiration in the jarring, grinding, mocking intro to Control Machete’s Sí Señor.

But I’m a musical bird, and such formulations suit me. The trick is to conjure an impression that stirs to life, and the willingness not to define it, explain it, figure it out, but to let it assume shape and form and sense on its own—even to the point of defying that sense and shape. There’s no small bit of magic involved—like a melody that rises up in the mind seemingly from nowhere. Or, again, like mercury, quivering at the touch: shimmering, slippery, but substantial all the same.

Do you have any tricks to keep your characters from becoming types or otherwise over-defined? Does a mental image of a character feel limiting to you? Or is it helpful, clarifying? When do you know you understand a character well enough to begin writing? Have you ever felt you knew your character perfectly, only to realize what you had was a stereotype, a plot puppet—not a character?

* * * * *

Jukebox Heroes of the Week: I’ve recently been turned on to a number of exceptional British acts by a friend from Manchester, Gordon Harries. One of the absolute standouts is Massive Attack, who create a kind of cinematic texture that would remind me of Pink Floyd if that band had ever been this good. (Caution: This is an eerie video):

24 thoughts on “Silent Music

  1. Gordon Harries

    Well, I’m currently working on what I hope will be my first (published) novel, so you can take my opinion with the weight or lack of that you feel it merits, but I like to leave space for a character to tell me things about themselves.

    By which I mean that there are certain things I knew about my protagonist when I started to write that became defined over time. (I knew what type of music he liked for example, now I know what his favourite albums are, what gigs he went to that he considers special, where he met his girlfriend. It’s not important that you know that, obviously, but I do feel that it informs the writing of his character.)

    I have a clear idea of what my protagonist looks like, but have been careful to not overly describe him within the novel. When it’s important, sure. If he’s somewhere where he needs present himself a certain way, then that will be described. But I did a survey of novels I admired before I began to write properly and almost none of them described the character to a t, rather they allow the reader the space to contribute something to the narrative.

    I feel that I understand a character enough to begin writing when scenes start to suggest themselves unbidden (I do a lot of walking, develop a lot of ideas when in motion.) and I can ‘hear’ dialogue colasing out of the research and thinking I’ve been doing. I’m frequently frustrated when not all the principal cast develop in concert (my protagonist’s girlfriend took forever to come together, for instance. Only becoming more than a plot device –which I fear is quite telling—once I’d figured out where she was from and what kind of music she liked and the way that interacted with the type of music that my hero liked. I wanted a sense that these two people were simpatico, but different.)

    It remains to be seen if, despite all that, these guys remain plot puppets and fail to become characters!

    (I'm obviously delighted that Massive Attack continue to do it for you.)

  2. Sarah W

    I don't know as I've ever visualized what staged choreography for Stravinsky might look like — not even Rite of Spring, that favorite of bassoonists — but I could feel every frantic, exhausted muscle after watching that clip. Diderot's bees are right there on the stage . . .

    I write with music, almost always, and am often hit with a song or a piece that defines something I didn't know was in a particular character — a motivation, a viewpoint, a mood, a not-always-accurate self-portrait. if dialogue doesn't open up a character (what s/he says, what s/he doesn't/can't/won't say) then music sometimes does the trick.

    If more than one character claims a particular song or two, I suspect I've found a theme. Doesn't always happen, but when it does, it's tremendous.

    (and now, I'm off to find more Massive Attack — thank you for the introduction!)

  3. David Corbett

    Gordon: I think you're right, it's wise not to overly describe a character, internally or externally. We're always after that sweet spot, just enough information to bring the reader forward so their imagination is engaged, not so much they're inundated, overwhelmed or bored. One of the great lessons of my career so far: Less really is more, unless it's not enough. Where that line is differs with every piece you write.

    I also agree that I'm ready to begin when the scenes begin to arise unbidden. The trick is to make sure they remain clear to me as I push them into conflict, tension, fear, angst, shame, guilt, joy, relief. There's always something unexpected, even shocking (hopefully) about the character in such moments. If not: plot puppet.

    I always remind myself that "out of character" is a very tricky term, and extreme challenges always transform a person and thus mystify even their own conception of themselves. But there remains an ineffable something, the accumulation of habit, the body, the name — they've not morphed into a new creature. Getting an intuitive handle on that is one of the real tests of a writer, imho, like a painter learning the interplay of his materials in the representation of solid objects and light.

    Sarah: You expressed that perfectly. "a motivation, a viewpoint, a mood, a not-always-accurate self-portrait" I find the more logical I am about characters the less convincing they are.

    I wonder, though, if more than one character claims a piece of music, whether you don't have to divvy it up somehow, make one of them a certain part of it — the rhythm section, let's say — the other the horns or whatever, to make sure they don't all mush together. I think it's great they serve the theme, but that's the problem with themes — they can sometimes infect everything with their similitude. And yet to have the whole piece gel like that is, indeed, a touch of magic.

    For more Massive Attack (courtesy of Gordon):

  4. Gar Haywood

    Much like Gordon, I like my characters to tell me who they are over time; they all start out as rough sketches that evolve into fully-formed people as the story moves forward. You're treated to such great surprises when you take this approach. I have never understood writers who can't (or won't) write Word One until they have a file folder bursting at the seams with data about each character. I think it's great to know your people that well, but having such preconceived notions about your characters almost certainly compels you to write to fit those notions, rather than organically.

  5. Alaina

    I could never describe my characters through music alone, or think of them that way. I use individual pieces of music to help me write scenes a lot– fast, slow, instrumental alone, opera, whatever works– but not individual characters, and /never/ certain instruments.

    But that's because music is a huge part of my background: Even before I joined choir at age 9 and started playing trombone at age 10, my mother was a high school band and choir director. I woke up to hearing her give private lessons, listened to marching music she was considering in the car on long trips, and was able to identify different instruments on sight or by sound by age ten, most of which I've found other people can't name. I got pocket change teaching lessons in high school and played with musicians of almost every level from nine states that I know of. There were probably more.

    When you think of your clarinet character, you think of the way the instrument sounds. I think of how I can name ten clarinetists and only one wasn't an overachiever or far too concerned with minute details. I can do similar things, with at least as many people (or more), for almost every instrument I can name. This isn't isolated among band people, either; we have jokes about clarinetists/flutists/trumpeters screwing in light bulbs that reflect those observations. If I associated a character with any instrument, it would say something about how I view them.

    And it would also mean I couldn't give them any names from band people I know, however distantly. Which… is quite a long list.

  6. David Corbett


    What's the difference between a coffin and a viola case?

    With a coffin, the corpse is on the inside.

    I get what you're saying, and too much detail about anything will only create noise like you've suggested. I wonder then: What do you do to make sure you're gaining an intuitive rather than a logical/informational grasp of your characters? How do you keep them from being mere constructs, types or ideas?

  7. Lisa Alber

    Hi David,

    I'm sitting here reading through the first 100 pages of a new story to see what I have, especially with the characters. I don't know if this story if worth telling in full. I can't tell yet. I'm sitting here thinking about your questions about characters, and, interestingly, my brain feels tired just thinking about it. 🙂

    I think, though, that I know I'm on the right track with a character when I know the character's inner story apart from the novel-story. The ache at the character's core, and also the strength at the character's core, both of which have nothing to do with the novel-story. Also, when I have a sense of what the after-novel life will entail for this character…Which is to say, what the character will always have to grapple with regardless of the outcome of the novel-story.

  8. David Corbett


    Those are some of the strongest keys to acharacter I've ver heard anyone describe:

    "The ache at the character's core, and also the strength at the character's core … Also, when I have a sense of what the after-novel life will entail for this character…Which is to say, what the character will always have to grapple with regardless of the outcome of the novel-story."

    I think that's incredibly insightful. I like it. I intend to steal it.

    I wonder though, wjhy you added this after core ache and strength: ", both of which have nothing to do with the novel-story."

    It's hard for me to imagine how these couldn't be relevant to the novel story. Am I missing something?

  9. Zoë Sharp

    Hi David

    Very interesting post. I'm another one who starts out with a light character sketch and the people introduce themselves to me as the story goes on, sometimes revealing a side to themselves that I wasn't expecting and may not have thought of if I'd had to describe them in detail before I started.

    I listen to music all the time when I write, too – instant atmosphere.

  10. David Corbett


    You once remarked that you can't know a character until you see how she responds under stress, and I think that's absolutely, utterly, unconditionally true — which is why too much pre-writing preparation is counter-productive, imho.

    I envy your ability to listen to music as you work. Too distracting for me, unless it's atonal or instrumental — and playing quietly in another room.

  11. Lisa Alber

    Wow, David, that's a compliment indeed!

    Let's see if I can explain what I meant by "both of which have nothing to do with the novel-story…" so that it makes sense…

    What I mean by that is that we all have core strengths and core aches (or weaknesses, if you prefer that word) that are who we are regardless of what we encounter in life. These are the aspects ourselves that don't change over time. For example, for myself: one of my core aches in life is a sense of isolation. This informs how I get along in life, react to things, and so on, but–no matter how much therapy I have or how surrounded I am by all the good stuff of life–I'll always have that sense of isolation to grapple with. Likewise, whatever shitty stuff happens to me in life, I'll always remain an honest person.

    By the same token, whatever happens to my main character, good and bad, some core essentials will always remain the same within him. These core essentials won't be the things that change about the character by the end of the novel. Some other aspect of the character will (of course), but not this stuff. This is the inviolable stuff. This is what I meant about "nothing to do with the novel-story."

    What I'm not saying is that these things don't inform a character's perceptions, worldview, reactions, and so on, which of course, informs how he gets along within his current conflict. What I am saying is that whatever happens in the story, these are his baselines and won't change.

    The core ache (weakness) and core strength are what the character comes to the story with and what he leaves the story with. It struck me that your truck driver's decency is an example of a core strength.

    Did that make sense? 🙂

  12. Lisa Alber

    Just thought of the perfect example! Saw "The King's Speech" last night for the second time. I love this movie. The king's conflct is his stuttering — no duh. But his core ache is (to put it simply) his sense of not being good enough–being inferior. This informs his behavior for sure…By the end of the movie, the thing that changes is that he can give a speech without stuttering and perform his kingly duties. HOWever, what's also amply apparent, and one of the reasons why I love this movie, is that we know he's always going to be grappling with his stuttering, and more importanty, with his inner inferiority demons.

  13. David Corbett


    Okay, got it. I always remind myself, though, of Winston in 1984, whose whole identity changes because of the horrible power of Big Brother. That was the lesson of the Holocaust and the totalitarian slave camps, the Stanford Prison Experiment and even the Patti Heart kidnapping — that under extreme situations people will become someone they barely recognize. I don't think this happens in most novels, the depredations aren't that extreme or shattering, but I always keep it in the back of my mind.

  14. PD Martin

    Great post – as always! Sounds like your character book will be a winner 🙂 And I love how you define/describe your characters by a piece of music (or instrument).

    I used to write with music on (carefully choosing the music to reflect the book's or character's mood) but I haven't done it much in recent times. It can be a great way to channel a character or POV more.

    In my first draft of my new book I've realised I don't give physical descriptions of my characters at all. I assume this will be a problem/issue the test readers pick up but I'll wait and see.


  15. Susan Shea

    Interesting note about 1984, a novel that has a hold on me ever since I first read it a million years ago – the taste of Victory Gin is as clear to me as if I'd had a glass of it for lunch.

    Music: I can't listen to it when writing because I become the music and it either distracts me from the story or leaks into it. I mean, Dani can't turn into a broken down country singer every time Ryan Bingham opens his mouth. But what you say about the best fictional characters not being completely predictable is good. This other work I'm writing has characters who slip away from expectations in ways I love. I believe in them and hope they'll be richer for not being always "in character."

  16. David Corbett

    First, let me correct my typo: Patti HEARST, not Patti Heart.

    Phillipa: I'll be interested in whether your test readers find a lack of description a problem or not. I won't be surprised if they don't.

    Susan: I have the same problem with music when I'm writing, I'm too susceptible to it. And I'll be interested in seeing how "out of character" your characters become. It's a fascinating exercise. And one too few writers risk.

  17. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Good God, David! I love the way your mind works. I love what you fucking dream up, you crazy, beautiful, brilliant bastard!

  18. Reine

    Hi David,

    I used to construct characters, but this never worked for me. Now I allow them to yell at me and whisper in my ear, stand on my feet and point, kiss and spit up. They like Pinter very much, but that I try to contain, although I can hear them banging on the walls of the shed. They sometimes go to THE BIRTHDAY PARTY. Their "… eyes are full of muck." Their "… feet stink." They crave definition, but it eludes them, yet at the same time they are reliable in substance, if not incidentally.

  19. Allison Davis

    I know when I see it? It wasn't until I was way into the third manuscript that I had a protogonist I could stick with. In the other books, side characters always seemed to take over the book. It's like going into a bar and looking around to see who's interesting. Not always in my mind's eye but more of a chemistry, like when you meet someone and they feel like an old soul to you. I do get to know my characters over time, just like meeting someone…and not reviewing their dossier. But I'm organic that way.

    I wrote thousands of words to three Bill Evans CD's…they were like my space to write in when I had to turn off the world quickly and didn't have much time. So I played them over and over again…not about listening but about creating a space. So I don't really "listen" to music writing, but there is music playing.

    (Just got back from New Orleans so finally have a chance to get caught up on Muderati)

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