September 12, 2011KR Blog

Wunderkammer: Character Development and 80s Music

Wunderkammer: Character Development in 80s Music

Whenever I struggle with character development, I turn to James Wood, then Sheila E.

That’s right. Sheila E.

Here’s what Wood has to say about character development, in his book How Fiction Works:

There is nothing harder than the creation of fictional character“The unpracticed novelist clings to the static, because it is much easier to describe than the mobile: it is getting these people out of the aspic of arrest and mobilized in a scene that is hard.

Wood goes on to give the example of a sentence he finds particularly effective in a Maupassant story, “La Reine Hortense”: “He was a gentleman with red whiskers who always went first through a doorway.”

Wood wants to see a character in action, making choices; he wants to see “how he talks, and whom he talks to ??? how he bumps up against the world.”

There are, strangely, three 80s songs which I think demonstrate this concept beautifully.


1. “The Glamorous Life” by Sheila E

This song, written by Prince, contains one of the most memorable “song characters” of my childhood. The materialistic woman Sheila E describes “wears a long fur coat of mink, even in the summertime” and “drives a big, brown Mercedes sedan.” The woman then spies a man in the “if-you-have-to-ask-you-can’t-afford-it-lingerie” section, throws money at him; they drive off to 55 Secret Street and do the deed. The money-grubbing cynic falls in love.

I know this woman. Well, I don’t know her (types like that don’t hang out in Shaftsbury, Vermont) but I know what she looks like, what she might say, and how, you know, she “bumps” up against the world.

2. “Eyes Without a Face” by Billy Idol

I like to think of the song’s “narrator” as Billy himself, which is why I’m always so fascinated by this song’s, um, protagonist. The character – let’s just make a leap and say Billy ??? is heartsick, far from home (tour bus?), and is taunted by a woman who calls just to tell him she’s alone. (Cue snarling lip, flaming pentagon shapes, fog machine, and Linn drum beat.)

How’s this for character-defining action: “I’m on a bus, on a psychedelic trip,
reading murder books, tryin’ to stay hip.”

Ever done that before? Me neither.

3. “All She Wants to Do is Dance,” by Don Henley

When I was four, two songs came out that made me believe that there were women in the world afflicted with a genuine sickness: the compulsion to dance and party 24/7. “All She Wants to Do is Dance” by Henley and “My Girl Wants to Party All the Time” by Eddie Murphy, at surface level, seem to spin a tale of similar women, but I’ll wager that only one of these characters has staying power.

The female antagonist of Murphy’s (ill-advised and Rick James-produced) song could be any woman, in any town. She just ??? well, Murphy makes it pretty clear ??? “wants to party all the time, party all the time, party all the ti-ime.”

Henley’s girl, on the other hand, wants to “dance” and “make romance” in the face of oppressive heat and dystopic conditions. She’s surrounded by prisoners, terrorists, Molotov cocktails, and “wild-eyed pistol wavers who ain’t afraid to die.” And this scenario, it appears, is a turn on.

Muse-worthy behavior, and a memorable character.


What examples do you have?