How Nicki Minaj Deepens Characterization

Before I played it, you knew my hand… ~Nicki Minaj “Right Thru Me

Inspiration from music. We all get it, right? At least, all us music lovers do. We say, “Ooo, wouldn’t THAT make a great story? I could see how the relationship this song talks about could work well in a novel.” And it’s true. The best songs are themselves stories. That’s why we relate to them.

In the last few years, I’ve been taking this practice a step further than I have in the past. I already have a story I’m working on, so I don’t need songs to inspire whole story ideas. Instead, I use song lyrics to make my existing characters’ relationships to each other rounder, more complex, deeper. (Incidentally, this probably comes from the well documented tendency to relate every song on the radio to oneself during periods of heartbreak.)

For example, my current protagonist, Julep, is a complex character in her own right. Her best friend and sidekick is Sam, hacker extraordinaire. He helps her out with her schemes, taking on the computer side of things (when computer stuff is necessary). I didn’t really have a sense of Sam’s personal relationship to Julep until I was driving and heard Nicki Minaj’s song “Right Thru Me” on the radio for the first time. Immediately, I knew Julep felt similarly toward Sam–that he always had her back, but that he knew her almost too well, and it unnerved her. By the end of the song, I even realized what Julep’s big character wound was.

Now, I probably would have figured it out eventually on my own, but hearing Nicki’s words cemented the idea for me in a visceral way, and it made me love my story idea and my characters so much more.

I could cite thirty other songs that had a similar effect on my story (in fact, you can see them in my current playlist on my Catch My Grift page). For me, music is essential to my writing process. It engages my emotional side so that my intellectual side has a compass when it’s composing prose. In fact, I find it really difficult to write without music. But that’s a post for another time.

Other good blog posts about using music:
6 Techniques for Using Music to Help Our Muse
iTunes and Your Writing

Do you use music or other sources to inspire character development specifically? If so, what do you use and how do you use it?

About Mary Elizabeth Summer

Mary Elizabeth Summer is an instructional designer, a mom, a champion of the serial comma, and a pie junkie. Oh, and she sometimes writes books about teenage delinquents saving the day. She lives in Portland, Oregon with her daughter, her partner, and her evil overlor--er, cat. TRUST ME, I'M LYING, a YA mystery, will be released by Delacorte in Fall 2014.
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7 Responses to How Nicki Minaj Deepens Characterization

  1. Mallory Snow says:

    This is a great topic! I want all of my novels to read like a Taylor Swift song. Lol! I think “Sparks Fly” describes my current novel best. :)

  2. “I don’t need songs to inspire whole story ideas. Instead, I use song lyrics to make my existing characters’ relationships to each other rounder, more complex, deeper.”

    100% agree! I have about 30 songs on my novel’s playlist – one of which totally nailed my MC’s relationship with her best (guy) friend – I always refer back to it when I need some reminding of what the heck the two of them are doing and where they’re going lol.

    • mesummer says:

      Precisely! If I’m stuck on something, I can listen to the music and remind myself of the undercurrents of a relationship, which then informs how the character would react to what’s going on. I’d be lost without music. :-)

  3. I do the same thing. It takes me deep into the emotion of the story. The characters feelings on their past, their family, one another. It opens doors in my imagination I’d never be able to peek through on my own.

    • mesummer says:

      What is it about the music that allows this to happen? I don’t think it’s the lyrics alone. I think the music acts as a key to our subconscious minds or something. *ponders*

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