How ‘Peter and the Wolf’ can help your writing
Written by Prokofiev in 1936, “Peter and the Wolf” has been called a symphonic fairy tale for children. What fascinated me when I first heard this as a child was the fact that every character has a musical theme. In time, I could recognize these themes and know who was on the scene without having to puzzle it out.
Bird is represented by a flute, Duck by an oboe, Cat by a clarinet, Grandfather by a bassoon, the Wolf by french horns, the hunters by woodwinds and trumpets and percussion rimshots, and Peter by string instruments. I haven’t listened to this music for years, but if anyone were to play the theme from any of these characters today, I would know who it was.
In a sense, we are “programmed” by the symphony to place the characters’ themes into our subconscious so that when we hear them later, we know without having to think about it who is who. In the same way, good writing with three-dimensional characters is hypnotic in this way. We come to know what character is talking or moving about in the scene because the author has taken care to create a deft, memorable “theme” that signifies each major person in the story or novel.
As always, I think the better character themes–ways of speaking, clothes, facial expressions, references to the past, etc.–are the most realistic when they are created as the author tells the story rather than constructed by lists of traits in a story outline. Either way, when the character’s theme really fits, it gives the reader another way of “seeing” and understanding the character.
You can see this process at work in a great novel or in a series of novels where you–the reader–know what the character is likely to say or think or react to in any given situation–just as you would know that about a good friend. When reviewers and critics say a novel has three-dimensional characters, you can be fairly certain those characters have themes of one kind or another.
First novelists tend to make all their characters sound the same (other than giving them different physical characteristics). Put yourself in their shoes. How do they see the world? Why do they see it that way (parents, upbringing, key experiences)? How do they move around (clumsy, athletic, graceful)? Do they use the same expressions all the time? Do they have motives that some of the other characters know and others do not?
All of this coalesces into a real person on the page. Sometimes these real people on the page seem to be on the verge of escaping from the page and running loose in our consensus reality. That’s what you want as an author. When you create it, it makes for a much better story with a more believable plot.
Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of Conjure Woman’s Cat and Eulalie and Washerwoman.