Write a song that shows a meaningful transformation of your song's main character. Here's how you can do that.
June 23, 2022 | 0 | Transcript of Episode 030
Write a song that shows a meaningful transformation of your song's main character. Here's how you can do that.Listen to the Episode
Transcript of Episode 030
[00:00:00] Hey, this is Melanie Naumann, and Willkommen - welcome to the Stories in Songs Podcast.
Would you like to write a song that shows a meaningful transformation of your song’s main character? Do you want to tell your audience about someone who had to change a part of who they are to get what they actually needed?
Does it interest you not only to write lyrics about external challenges but also to discover how those external challenges affect and change a person internally?
Are you fascinated by character arcs because you wanna see how a person has started out at one point in their life and what circumstances led to becoming a different person?
In today’s bite-sized episode, we’ll talk about three different areas that are at your disposal to show a meaningful change in how your song’s character thinks, acts, or is perceived by others and themselves.
We’ll do that by looking at internal content genres.
What that means?
Well, you’re about to find out.
[00:01:01] Before we dive into the internal world of a story’s character, let’s zoom out to the global picture.
As you know, stories are about change. But, more precisely, stories are about the shift of universal human values from the beginning of the story to its end.
And it’s easy to say that, right?
In all of those examples, something changes externally for those characters. So in one way, you can say they either win or lose. They either get what they want, or they don’t.
If we look at those things from the perspective of “Winning or Losing”, it’s quite easy to figure out how the story changes. If they win or get what they want, their external situation changes for the better. If they fail or do not achieve what they pursue, they are worse off than at the story's start.
The key to writing how a character gets what they want and overcomes all the challenges thrown at them is through having to make sacrifices. And those sacrifices also concern letting go of what they think is right and updating the way they see the world.
While all stories are about change, it’s pretty tricky to craft a believable character arc. That means a character changes from the beginning of the story to its end – either in their motives, beliefs, or their moral code. But that’s something intangible.
How can you actually pull that off?
Well, as we know, we need an internal change of the song’s main character. That means if your character doesn’t change in some way (either in fortune, thought, or character) over the course of the song’s story … well, they stay the same, and there’s no internal shift.
This may seem obvious, but the number one thing to remember when creating a character for your song is that your audience loves it when the external challenges also affect who that character is and provoke a change inside of your song’s character.
Remember that the external content genres concern outside forces aligned against the protagonist. This can be nature itself, another person, or society in general. These are represented by extra-personal and personal conflicts. They keep the protagonist from achieving what he consciously wants like saving a victim, marrying his friend, winning the final game of the season, whatever.
But what possibilities are there that affect a character’s internal state?
Well, let’s first take a look at what internal content genres are before we go through them.
Don't worry if you can't grab the whole concept of internal content genres just yet. We are going through each of those three internal content genres.
And once I explained to you each internal content genre I will also include story examples and song samples.
So you can see how that internal condoms genre. Is applied to writing lyrics.
[00:05:04] Let me start with a quote by Shawn Coyne, the creator of the Story Grid methodology, to define what internal content genres are:
“The internal genres concern forces inside the individual aligned against the protagonist’s pursuit of a subconscious object of desire. The subconscious object of desire is the ultimate need within a protagonist whereas the conscious object of desire is the want, his immediate, on-the-surface identifiable goal.”
So in a love song, the main character’s external conscious object of desire / his want will be to win the love of someone special to him. But at a deeper level, he may need to sacrifice himself for her in order to redeem himself from a past moral failing. Or he may need to finally learn the truth of who he is and why he does the things he does.
In the redemption plot, the lead character is conscious of his wanting to commit himself to that other person and be in a relationship with them. Beneath that consciousness, though, if the lead character were to sit down with a friend or a therapist and be asked why it was so important for him to be in a relationship beyond “being with someone,” he’d eventually come to understand that his desire is a need to recover from a previous trauma/moral failing in his past. That buried-beneath-the surface need is the character’s internal object of desire. The redemption plot is just one of a number of possible internal content plot devices.
Shawn Coyne also says:
“Like choosing the global external content genre, choosing the internal content genre is crucial to your story. A poor combination of external and internal will result in an unsatisfying Story experience. A perfect combination will be a work of art.”
[00:07:44] The Story Grid Internal Genres are adapted from the work of Norman Friedman, who was the first literary critic to make a distinction between internal and external genres.
Each of the main genre categories focuses on a particular element related to the protagonist.
These internal genre possibilities are not just labels and categories but are both the cause and effect of a protagonist’s inner change.
Now let’s look at the main differences between the three primary Internal Genres.
[00:08:53] Status stories connote a change in the social position of the song’s or story’s main character. That means they are about moving from one level of social standing to a higher or lower one, depending on whether they succeed or fail in their attempt to rise.
These stories are derived from the Esteem level of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. They revolve around the universal human values of Success and Failure.
Status is the most external of the Internal Genres. That means the main character does not change his moral character or thought, but his external fortune and circumstances change, either because of or in spite of his internal nature.
If we look at a movie example, then Gladiator with Russel Crowe is an amazing status story. Just think about Maximus, played by Russel Crowe. He used to be the leader of a legion and then he falls in his social standing as he becomes a Gladiator. But what makes the story so great is that even though Maximus experiences misfortune, he’s never selling out his values. He is true to his values, and that’s exactly what helps him to win the love of the common people, and in the end, rise in his social standing – which is beautifully portrayed in the last scene of the movie as his dead body is lifted up in the air by the common people.
When you want to include a change of fortune in your song’s character life, remember that it’s important to distinguish between social class and social status. Class refers to the large divisions of society by economic hierarchy.
Status is the rank an individual has within a social hierarchy.
Status is anchored in self-respect. It’s based on our behavior, determination, and self-esteem. It’s variable, but it’s also within our control.
A character in a song might try to get or maintain status in two ways.
Dominance is demanded by appearing or behaving physically dominant over others or intimidating others with threats or bullying. In Gladiator, that’s Commodus, the ruler, played by Joaquin Phoenix.
You can use status stories to give your audience a prescriptive or cautionary message.
So when it comes to developing your song’s character, and you want to use the internal genre of status, then consider the following things:
There are many possibilities.
If you want to look at some songs that have a built-in status story, here are some from Green Day:
Or if you like Placebo, their song “Burger Queen” is a status story, but also a cautionary tale, as well as their song “Special Needs”. Another status story song of theirs is “Bright Lights”.
Let’s quickly look at a song that uses a status story to create a three-dimensional character.
Here are the lyrics to the song “Stuck with me” by Green Day. Lyrics are under copyright by Warner Chappell Music, Inc, Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC
Stuck With Me lyrics © Warner Chappell Music, Inc, Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC
I'm not part of your elite
I'm just alright
Class structure waving colors
Bleeding from my throat
Not subservient to you I'm just alright
Down classed by the powers that be
Give me loss of hope
Cast out, buried in a hole
Struck down, forcing me to fall
Destroyed, giving up the fight
Well, I know I'm not alright
What's my price and will you pay it if it's alright?
Take it from my dignity
Waste it until it's dead
Throw me back into the gutter
'Cause it's alright
Find another pleasure fucker
Drag them down to hell
Cast out, buried in a hole
Struck down, forcing me to fall
Destroyed, giving up the fight
Well, I know I'm not alright
In Green Day’s song “Stuck with Me”, we have a main character who is a cast-out. He is offered to sell out to be able to join the elite. So he faces the crisis: Shall he sell out or stay true to his values? He decides to stay true to his values. And so we get a bittersweet ending because he has shown his personal power, but still, he is doomed to exile.
Now even though we can talk a lot more about status stories, the purpose of this episode is to introduce you to the three different kinds of internal genres. So at a later point, we’ll explore much more there is to know about status stories.
For now, let’s move on to another internal genre: the worldview story.
[00:15:19] These stories are derived from the Self-Actualization level of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. They are about coming to a new level of understanding about something, in other words uncovering a new layer of truth. A worldview story is driven by the character’s need for self-actualization. It’s about fulfilling one's talents and potential, making sense of the world, and understanding your role in it.
Unlike Status, the character’s life experience changes how they think but may or may not change their external choices. The universal human values are Understanding and Lack of Understanding, which encompasses Belief, Sophistication, and Knowledge.
A shift in a character’s worldview, which also refers to the way they see the world or themselves in it, is the most used internal genre for showing an internal change of the song’s character. Most of all, many love songs use how a character changes their thoughts for better or worse. Because you gotta move beyond black and white views to be able to commit to somebody and start a serious relationship with them. You have to grow up to understand what love truly means.
So let’s name some examples:
One of the most obvious and probably my most used example for a love song is “I’m A Believer” by The Monkees. We have a character who thinks that love is only true in fairy tales. And at the end of the song, and because he “saw her face”, he has changed his thought for the better and is now a “believer” in love.
Or what about the song: “Grenade” by Bruno Mars.
This song is all about what the song’s character would do for the one he loves. The most famous line is “I’d catch a grenade for you”, but he comes to the understanding that she wouldn’t do the same for him. That’s a hard revelation, but it’s the truth the song’s character has finally figured out. So his blind belief in his love has changed into disillusionment.
Or let’s look at the song “Hero of War” by Rise Against. We have talked about that song in episode 27 as we talked about using progressive complications to develop your verses. If you haven’t checked out that episode yet, I highly recommend you give it a listen.
Anyway, in the song “Hero of War”, we have a naive main character at the beginning of the song who believes that becoming a soldier is a great way to see the world. At the end of the song, he has lost his trust in the flag of his country. He’s disillusioned, but he has found new meaning by believing in the white flag. That’s a great song to study how a character’s worldview changes through experiencing external challenges that escalate more and more.
If you are looking for some more examples, check out these Green Day singles:
Lastly, let’s look at the third internal content genre.
[00:19:29] Morality stories are derived from the Self-Transcendence level of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. They are about testing the protagonist’s inner moral compass, leading to a change in their level of character. This is demonstrated in both thought and action, whether for good or ill.
The universal human value at stake in Morality stories can be put on a spectrum between Selfishness and Altruism.
One of the most famous morality stories is Charles Dickens' 1843 novella A Christmas Carol.
Ebenezer Scrooge is the main character of that story. In the beginning, Scrooge is a cold-hearted miser who despises Christmas. The tale of his redemption by three spirits (the Ghost of Christmas Past, the Ghost of Christmas Present, and the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come) has become a very popular tale.
Here’s an extract of how Dickens describes Scrooge early in the story: "The cold within him froze his old features, nipped his pointed nose, shriveled his cheek, stiffened his gait; made his eyes red, his thin lips blue, and spoke out shrewdly in his grating voice."
Towards the end of the story, the three spirits show Scrooge the error of his ways, and he becomes a better, more generous man. He changes from a selfish man to someone who puts the needs of others ahead of his own.
That’s a great redemption story.
Other great stories are, for example:
If you’re looking for morality stories in songs, you can check out:
You can also check out the song: “Live Like You Were Dying” by Tim McGraw.
In it, the song’s character hears someone else’s story of how they almost died. And how that moment can change a person.
Here’s an extract from the lyrics that show how the character has changed.
Lyrics are under copyright by Warner Chappell Music, Inc, Round Hill Music Big Loud Songs, BMG Rights Management.
"When it sank in
That this might really be the real end
How's it hit you
When you get that kind of news?
Man, what'd you do?"
And he said
"I went skydiving
I went Rocky Mountain climbing
I went 2.7 seconds on a bull named Fumanchu
And I loved deeper
And I spoke sweeter
And I gave forgiveness I'd been denying"
Someday I hope you get the chance
To live like you were dying
I was finally the husband
That most of the time I wasn't
And I became a friend, a friend would like to have
And all of a sudden going fishin'
Wasn't such an imposition
And I went three times that year I lost my dad
Well I finally read the Good Book, and I
Took a good, long, hard look
At what I'd do if I could do it all again
Someday I hope you get the chance
To live like you were dying
Like tomorrow was a gift
And you've got eternity
To think about
What you'd do with it
What could you do with it
What did I do with it?
What would I do with it?
You can clearly see how the character has changed from a person who didn’t think much about others, and who’s now forgiving, a great friend, a father who spends time with his kids … he’s now putting the needs of others ahead of his self.
A great takeaway of the song, right?
[00:24:28] Now we’ve already come to the end of today’s episode.
I hope your head’s not spinning right now. Just remember this: When you want to show how your song’s character changes internally, you can choose from one of three options.
Morality, Worldview, and Status – those are your three options when it comes to developing your song’s character.
If you got any questions about internal content genres, feel free to write a comment or send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I’ll see you next time when we’ll talk about what your character wants and what he actually needs and how those two things create conflict for your song’s story. Knowing how character wants and needs affect each other is a great way to engage your listeners and write a song with a meaningful message.
If that’s something you’d love to accomplish, I’ll see you next time.
Until then, bis bald und liebe Grüße, Melanie
© Stories in Songs, Melanie Naumann
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