Today, I want to talk about soundtracks and how they have influenced me as a writer and a reader.
I should tell you first of all that I love music. I’m not talented at playing any sort of instrument despite my mother’s faithful insistence that if I just practiced I would eventually get good at the piano. I like to think I was gifted in other ways, because I have been told that I have a decent voice. (Of course, all the terrible American Idol wanna-be’s insist everyone always tells them they sing beautifully, so I try to take that with a grain of salt.) In any case, whether my voice is any good or not, I do love to sing. Music touches me, as I think it does all of us. I love the words, I love the rhythm, I love the notes, I love the way they all interact with each other and give such a rich experience.
A couple years ago, when I went to see the play “The Scarlet Pimpernel” and cried as the actors sang their beautiful love songs to each other, I realized what I wanted. I wanted to be able to write a book where the characters were so developed that beautiful music could be written about them, and someone would cry. Yeah, okay. It’s a vague goal. And it probably will never happen.
But it’s a goal I’ve kept in mind. And I’ve asked myself on countless occasions since then, What makes characters in a romance so entrancing, so captivating, that songs can be written about their love? What can I do to even hope to approach that pinnacle of perfection?
Let’s look at just a few of my favorite soundtracks and some of the reasons I think their characters warrant music:
First of all, Les Miserables. All of the songs in this musical are spectacular and some of my favorites aren’t actually love songs, but the tragic lament Eponine sings as she pines for the love of Marius is one for the ages. At the first of the play, she is such a cruel beast to Cosette that it’s hard to imagine we would ever feel empathy for her, but by the middle of the play when she sacrifices herself to save him, we are completely in her corner. She has redeemed herself, become a better person. But it’s not enough. She’s not enough. Her love for Marius, though, gives her the strength to help him find his true love, even though it means she will live and die alone. What tragedy! What depth! What insight into the human soul Victor Hugo had. Eponine deserved music.
Second: The aforementioned Scarlet Pimpernel. This musical, set amidst the tragedy of the French Revolution, has a lot of stunning themes, but the love between Percy and Marguerite is such a human element against the overwhelming backdrop. They both love each other, but feel betrayed by the other’s choices. True, this could have been resolved by a long truthful conversation, but we see this is not possible in the chaos of the revolution because if either of them speaks about their true feelings, they could immediately be murdered. The love song where Marguerite is telling Percy about how her heart breaks every time she looks at him and remembers how he used to love her can reduce me to tears pretty quickly. So why does she deserve music? She aches for love that she cannot have anymore. Everyone of us can empathize with that and it touches the depths of those secret places we don’t like to examine too closely in case we find out that we brought on the loss through our own actions.
Third: Beauty and the Beast, the Musical. The songs from the movie are cute, but so much richer in the live theatrical version. Belle’s song of longing for home when she first takes her father’s place in the Beast’s castle is a stunner. Why does Belle deserve music? Because she knows she’s in a bad place; she’s frightened, lonely, and certain that she will never be happy again. But instead of crying about it, she is willing to face her present reality, acknowledge it’s not what she wants, but she will move forward. Belle is courageous, which is of course allows her to see the man inside the monster.
Fourth: Any of the Twilight soundtracks. You can let the mocking begin, but I love the Twilight books and although the movies have some good and bad features, the music is a big plus for me. The tragedy of Bella’s and Edward’s forced separation, whether or not they are actually together, is one that really speaks to my heart. Bella deserves music because she is so caring about all of the people around her and wanting their happiness much more than her own, but ironically that is what leads to her ultimate reward, being with the man she truly loves. I know a lot of critics say Bella is shallow, but I, for one, don’t believe that. I think her great depth and loving nature is what leads Edward to adore her as he does.
Fifth (and last): Tangled. Yes, it’s a Disney cartoon and most of the music is forgettable. But the song Rapunzel and Flynn sing in the boat as they watch the lanterns together is absolutely amazing. Their acknowledgment that everything in their world has changed because of the presence of each other is gorgeous. I have watched that cartoon countless times, studying how the characters show their developing love for each other and have learned a lot about my own writing. Rapunzel deserves music because she left the safety of tower. She wanted something more and wasn’t afraid to reach for it, even though it was literally life-changing.
As writers, are we writing heroes and heroines with enough depth to deserve music? Do they have love stories that would reduce a listener to tears? Or are they bubble-gum pop music that would be fun to hear once and then never listen to again? Reach for depth. Find the deep notes in your characters, and weave them together with struggles and challenges that make the culmination of their story a symphony rather than a tune best played on a kazoo.
As readers, are we insisting on characters that we could sing about in the books we buy? Even if their love stories never get set to music, we deserve characters that sing to us. Look for that in the books you read, don’t settle for anything less. There are books like that out there, and they’re not all classics. There are a lot of stunning love stories being written every day by both new and experienced authors. Reach for those books that will speak and sing to you long after you close them.