Leitmotifs For My Characters

Vas.Surikov. Bronze Horseman on the Senate Square. Rusian MuseumFeeling a bit of cabin fever? Try coming up with a theme song for each major character in your novel. Fellow incubee Anjali Mathur gave me this idea last spring when she said she put on certain songs when she was writing about her character, and I was glad to remember it when the snow started piling up.

Right away though I had trouble with finding a theme for Sonia, the protagonist. She goes to Russia to translate a Russian poet but also to find an aunt who didn’t leave with the rest of the family after the revolution. I’d think her theme song should show her independence and energy, but her father dies shortly before she leaves for Russia, so I had to choose music that included mourning. I thought of the Beatles’ Black Bird Singing In The Dead of Night, but it didn’t take account her desire and her drive to go to Russia. I found the answer by listening to more Beatles and their song, Once There Was A Way To Get Back Homeward.

It took me some time to get the theme song for Sonia’s friend Mimi, who is on the way to Russia too. She’s the renegade of the group, the talented multi-lingual character who is returning to Russia to seek out black-market dealers. At first I thought of the Platters, The Great Pretender, but the song didn’t get to the heart of her character. I wanted to know why she had to pretend and why adrenaline driven activities were so important to her. When I thought of Mac The Knife, I thought I had her nailed. Mimi would speak German, and she would have that dark sensibility. The more I played Lotte Lenya’s version, though, the more I felt I wasn’t quite there. It wasn’t until Janis Joplin came to me, with her version of Get It While You Can, that I thought I was close enough. Not only did I have my song for Mimi, but I saw that she and Sonia, so seemingly different, shared a similar internal ache. They wanted to be at home.

As they pass through the deep forests of Finland, Sonia thinks of Leningrad, the city her grandparents fled after the revolution broke out. She’s heard Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony, but when she thinks of Leningrad, she’d rather remember the sounds of bells of old Russian churches that she heard on a record, Bells Of Russia that her father gave when she was in high school. The train arrives in Leningrad, at the very station where Lenin sneaked in under cover in 1917 to begin the revolution. The leader of their group waves to a thin woman with red hair out of the crowd and introduces her to them. Proud revolutionary that she is, she’s taken Lenin’s name, adding the final ‘a’ to make it feminine. It’s then Sonia hears the voice of Lotte Lenya singing Mack the Knife. It surprises her, but looking at the guide, she can’t get rid of the tune. It puts her on her guard.

It is dark when they arrive, but Mimi persuades Sonia to go out walking. Mimi (the great pretender) had set up a meeting with Kolya and Andrei, and when they get to the Fortress of Peter and Paul, they meet the two Russians. Kolya’s leitmotif was the easier for me to hear. He was orphaned during the siege of Leningrad, and though he was adopted by Andrei’s family, he has never felt at home in Russia, and as the novel opens, he is more anxious about leaving. He is a Jew, and permits to emigrate are just beginning to be issued. The Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia has made him more anxious, as he fears the new permits might be stopped or revoked. Kolya’s theme is from the Russian balladeer, Okudzhava, The Last Trolley, a song about melancholy Leningraders who jump on the last trolley as it makes its way through town, comforted by the others who are there too. His love of ballads connects him to Sonia in a way I hadn’t before realized.

Though Andre is in anguish over the Soviet invasion, he’s chosen to stay in Russia to work on reform from within. He takes his strength from 18th century choral music of Bortnyansky. He believes in the goals of Communism, but you won’t find him listening to the Soviet national anthem in his free time.

Andrei and Sonia are drawn to each other and fall in love. Their leitmotif is from Romeo and Juliet.

Drawing up this list enabled me to get to know the characters in a way I hadn’t before The playlist is included. All selections are thanks to YouTube. Some are very long, but you don’t have to listen too much to get the sense of these characters and their leitmotifs.

Russian Bells

Once There Was A Way To Get Back Home

Get It While You Can

Mack The Knife

The Last Trolley

Bortnyansky: Concerto 16 I Will Extol Thee

Tchaikovsky: Love Theme from Romeo and Juliet

3 comments

  1. Cynthia Johnson

    Brilliant, Payat! There is something melodic about the way character takes form. You’ve nailed it and, it just so happens, to have brought you deeper into both the story and characters. Mysterious neptune and its prodigy, music, stirs the soul!

  2. Judith Haran

    Great post. I’ve found that finding “photos” of my characters has made a great deal of difference in how strongly I feel about them and how well I know them. I’ve downloaded photos of two (now dead) people who were young and attractive in the period of my book (WWII), who are now dead and can’t complain, and I’m thinking about printing them out and putting them on the wall where I write. The only problem is that there is a third character and I cannot find a photo “of” this character. He remains a mystery so far.

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