The character in a story is one of the most essential elements. Because stories are about change, they offer prescriptive or cautionary guidance. But we can only experience a certain situation if we follow a main character through it.
In this article, I explore some examples of Westlife’s original love songs that show what kind of character works best to create a captivating love story in a love song. I also point out which personality traits you should avoid if you want to create a likable character.
You'll find all the links to the Westlife songs, lyrics, the spreadsheet and the infographic here.
What about character in songwriting?
The most important criteria for the success of an album is having a strong and determined protagonist because the type of person your character is, influences how well a song is received.
Let's find out why:
If we look at unforgettable love stories, the two lovers always have a change in their worldview.
Love stories only lead to a happy ending if the two lovers overcome their cognitive dissonance that was upsetting their lives and reach a better understanding of the world. They need to mature in order to commit to each other or finally break up.
But the process of getting to that point doesn’t just happen. The character moves through stages.
In the Story Grid, we use a spectrum to show the global values of a given genre. Here are the spectrums of two subgenres of the worldview genre that lead to a positive ending (left to right):
The Story Grid is a methodology developed by editor Shawn Coyne to analyze stories and provide helpful editorial comments. It’s a diagnostic that tells the editor or writer what is working in the story, what is not, and what must be done to make what works better and fix what’s not.
If you want your listeners to walk away with a good feeling from your song, it’s very important for the song to have a protagonist who’s at the positive end of the worldview value spectrum.
That means he has changed his black and white view of the world to see the world as multi-layered and imperfect and through that, he has reached sophistication/maturation to embrace better-suited goals and decisions.
It could also be that the protagonist experienced an opportunity or challenge that enlightened them to a broader understanding so that they find new meaning in their existing actions.
Note: Your character doesn’t have to start that way. Your protagonist can be flawed in the beginning in order to be able to change. But when he/she does change and your listener likes the person they’ve become, then this supports the big controlling idea of why love triumphs: because we become better people. No longer naive, but sophisticated. And wise enough to know what’s meaningful.
Only by having gone through that change (call it character development) the protagonist is able to make the best choice in his dilemma after he came to a crossroad.
The purpose of telling a story in a song is to give the listener a quick recipe or warning (what to do or not to do in love).
If we look for guidance we especially need a sophisticated protagonist. That means we don’t want to listen to anyone who’s whining, weak, obsessed, full of himself, depressed or sad. Those types of protagonists were mostly on Westlife’s B-side tracks (singles had likable protagonists with 71%, B-sides only 35%).
Because how can we trust their advice when we dislike them or when they do not have the strength to stand up and fight, or even know what they want? We need the type of character who is strong, confident, sophisticated, amiable, sympathetic, or wise.
Now let’s look at the graph to see how much we liked the protagonist on the different Westlife albums:
We clearly see that Face to Face and Gravity have the types of protagonists that are either naive and/or have negative personality traits. Those two records are overall the ones with the least captivating original Westlife songs if you consider the storytelling as the main criteria.
Gravity mostly has a weak and unsympathetic character who’s naive. There are hardly any songs on that album that actually tell stories. I guess that’s why the number of album sales was very low.
Or look at the single Lighthouse. No story, no specificity, and a pathetic and weak protagonist. No wonder that single only hit #32 in the UK singles chart.
I am from Germany. Germans love Schlager music (You might know it as 'entertainer music' or 'German hit mix'). Udo Jürgens was a famous German Schlager musician. His most successful love song was called: Ich weiß, was ich will. (engl. ‘I know what I want.’ - read the lyrics here)
And that’s exactly what makes a love song stand out. It’s the most important criteria for the success of a love song: A protagonist who knows what he wants.
He/She is so strong, sophisticated, and wise that there isn’t even a crisis question in those songs. There is no dilemma nor any doubt for a person who knows exactly what he/she wants. That’s why a likable protagonist who is at the positive end of the worldview value spectrum is the person we want to have in our lives. It’s the one person we look up to. That’s why we look to those characters for guidance and why we dream about meeting a person like that who we know will fight for us no matter what. That’s the type of person that we see in Nothing else Matters, I’d do anything for love or in Swear It Again or Flying Without Wings. And it’s the kind of person we’d like our protagonist to turn into.
If you want proof of my theory, let’s answer the question: Why What makes a Man (spreadsheet #26) was the first single that didn’t make number one in the UK singles chart upending Westlife’s consecutive streak of number-one singles?
I think the reason is that we have a weak protagonist who relies on his lost love to help him get over the breakup. He is desperate and was naive to think that she was the one. Furthermore, the song does not provide an answer to the problem of how to get over a breakup. Therefore the song does not help the listener get over someone.
The next single released in the UK was Bop Bop Baby (spreadsheet #44). It only made number 5 in the UK singles chart.
In his book: 'My Side of Live' Shane Filan says he should have been chuffed that a song he had co-written was chosen to be a single, but he didn't even like the song that much.
Now why is the song Bop Bop Baby not that great? The protagonist is afraid of losing the one he loves. And all he does is worry. He’s not fighting or taking action. The song is a cautionary tale: Don’t behave like this guy or you will lose the one who is important to you.
(Side note: to make the storytelling of the song stronger, they filmed a video in a medieval musketeer style saving the princess, but that video had absolutely nothing to do with the song. No wonder no one got the video or the song. It’s too confusing.)
I recently talked with a love coach who helps men find the perfect woman. He told me that in order for a man to get a woman he must first change how he perceives himself and those around him. He needs to gain confidence and believe in being able to attain the things he wants. That’s also stated in the song Loneliness knows me by name (spreadsheet #44). Even though we don't really know what tipped off the protagonist to change his worldview, we're glad he did. It's a good message to the listener to say: You have to change what you believe or things will always stay the same.
It’s important for a man not to guess or ask what his love interest wants, but instead, make a decision and act on it. Women don’t want to tell the man what he has to do. It’s the same for love songs. Only a weak protagonist asks his love interest to guide him on how he can find her / get her back / fight her / please her, etc. That’s not attractive.
Songs with weak protagonists are i.e. Love Crime (spreadsheet #57), Turn Around (spreadsheet #76) or Tell me it’s love (spreadsheet #116) – the weakness is already in the title because it says the protagonist needs to rely on someone else to tell them if it’s love.
As already said, there is no crisis question if we have a strong and sophisticated protagonist who does not doubt, but knows what he wants. The song Unbreakable (spreadsheet #64) has a mature protagonist who knows exactly what he wants and he says it. He's strong and he's willing to fight for the one he loves. And he tells them how special they are. And that's why fans love this song because that protagonist is the kind of person we want to fall in love with. He tells us about all the troubles they've faced and how they are still together because their love is unbreakable.
Even if a song ends with a breakup that doesn’t mean that it’s a tragic ending or even a cautionary tale. The protagonist of the number-one single Fool Again (spreadsheet #8) is likable and sympathetic even though we know he was not a very good boyfriend. But he understands that he is a fool and that he is to blame. That makes him amiable. He has reached sophistication. He lost his love but won a better understanding of the world. That’s valuable!
The same is true for the song How to break a heart (spreadsheet #103). The protagonist gets his heart broken but he remains hopeful. He does not let her break his spirits because he is sophisticated enough to see if she breaks his heart she’s never been the one. That's why he is confident to fall in love again and risk being hurt because he still believes in the one.
The single When you’re looking like that (spreadsheet #28) ends negatively on the love story spectrum (he can’t win her back), but the protagonist is wiser at the end of the song. And that’s why the negative ending of that love story does not pull us down because the protagonist has understood something far more valuable: He moved from ignorance to cognitive dissonance. That's a big step up in understanding that he has to change how he sees the world in order to make better decisions or to be able to act differently in his next relationship.
In If your heart’s not in it (spreadsheet #52) the protagonist is scared that his love interest doesn’t love him anymore, but he does not have the guts to ask her about her feelings for him. This song reminded me of My Chemical Romance's song: I don't love you. But in MCR’s song, the protagonist is at least courageous enough of confronting his love interest to find out what’s going on. It’s not about guessing or doubting. It’s one simple question: “Would you have the guts to say ‘I don't love you like I loved you yesterday’?”
Character is revealed by the decision they make in a crisis situation. As readers and listeners, we don’t want to hear an exposition of who someone is because we only know who a person truly is by seeing them act.
If there’s only talk without proof, we won’t trust it.
I like the second single of Westlife’s latest record Spectrum. In Better Man (spreadsheet #128) the protagonist wants to save his relationship and is willing to do everything for it. He wants to become a better person so that he won’t lose the person he cares about. The song is addressed to the lovesick as well as to the ones on long-term relationships. But the protagonist is just talking. Actions speak louder than words. The last verse should have been some details of what actions he’s undertaking to win her back. He needs to show how he becomes a better man. And in the last refrain, he could say: ‘I’ve become a better man’ or ‘I am a better man now.’ That would have shown his personal development and would have led to a more satisfying ending.
In Maybe tomorrow (spreadsheet #87) the protagonist thinks about changing, even though he doesn't want to. He says he might try to put her first in the future. But really? That's not the strong sophisticated boyfriend we’d like to have. We want someone who knows exactly what he wants and tells us so with the utmost confidence in his heart. Not just some lame promise that something might change in the future that he himself doesn’t even believe.
Some more examples of songs where the protagonist himself should take actions are i.e. Take me there (spreadsheet #133), Don’t let me go (spreadsheet #55) or Home (spreadsheet #79). In Home the protagonist was the one who left his girl. On his journey he found out what's important to him: She's home waiting for him. But he doesn’t try to find his way back to her by himself to prove to her that he wants to be with her again. He left her and now he’s asking her to show him the way how he can win her back and apologize. She has to help him even though he was the one who left. Now that's not what a person wants, is it? We want someone to fight for our love and not take the easy way.
Songs are chosen to be released as singles for a reason. Those should be the songs that represent the global theme of the album and that are the ones with the strongest message to the listener.
And as we know, we only trust the message of a song if we like the character.
By having a character who knows what he wants, has found meaning, has matured enough to recognize his own mistakes or to know what’s worth fighting for, we see someone we would like to have in our lives. Someone who would fight for us no matter what. That’s the kind of person singles of Westlife’s original love songs portray more than just the album or B-side tracks. And it’s what makes them successful.
Having a character with only good personality traits in the song makes the listener like that person. And the more we like someone the more we tend to trust their advice. Since we look to love stories for guidance, I recommend creating a character who not only understands his mistakes and is able to make better decisions or who knows what’s meaningful and fights for it, but also one that the listener will like by making them sympathetic, strong, mature, funny, amiable, humble, honest or good.
If the spreadsheet is too much to look at (I understand, it's huge!), you can also look at the first part of the infographic that includes all the infographics of this article and more. Open the Westlife Infographic Part 3 here.
If you’re a fiction writer and you wonder how you can write better romance novels by studying love songs, read my blog post on the Story Grid website: “What Romance Writers Can Learn From Studying Love Songs”.
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© Stories in Songs, Melanie Naumann
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