My main character is a cello

Posted: February 5, 2012 in process

Writing Mag March 2012

I love James McCreet’s article in this month’s Writing Mag, called ‘Novel Survival Kit’. He says:

“Think of characters as structural elements that the story plays through. They are almost instruments in an orchestra: the piano carries the tune, the flute is for light relief, the tuba sounds a serious note. What are your characters supplying to the symphony of the plot?”

This set me thinking, partly because I am a musician and partly because this morning I got myself back up to date with my re-write of the book so far (yay!).

If James will excuse me and allow me liberty, I am going to think of my novel as a cello concerto not a symphony  because it works better for me as a metaphor. But a concerto still has an orchestra in it, of course, backing the solo instrument

Kate, my MC, is definitely the cello. Have you ever heard cello music by Boccherini? Or Haydn? Or Elgar? Well, that variety of difference in what can be achieved with the one “voice” is amazing, and Kate runs through all these emotions in the course of the story, yet never loses the cello sound that is hers. She is the narrator, which is why I need a cello concerto. She’s always there commenting, but sometimes she’s the centre of action and other times she’s reporting other people’s actions.

Ellie, Kate’s new friend, is sweet, brave and kind all rolled into one, and I think that would be a flute. It would sound lovely with a cello and the story needs the two together!

Mim, Kate’s long-term friend, is definitely the brash warm tenor horn. You know she’s there and she can switch from brash to warm in an instant. And the note can be rough or gentle, loud or soft, but always distinctly a horn.

Leo, the dead brother, is a puzzle. I hear his echo and remember what he sounded like, but can’t quite pinpoint the instrument. A marimba comes to mind but it doesn’t sound as fun-loving as he was in life, yet a marimba is distinctive – and Leo was always his own person, uninfluenced by what others expected of him. A marimba sounds on in the memory long after it has ended playing. So yes, a marimba. (Yes, I know: cello concertos don’t often have a marimba in the orchestra, but hey, this is fiction!)

Guy – the antagonist – is an oboe. He can move you to tears and/or manipulate your emotions in numerous ways, and isn’t always what he seems. Yet there is a depth to his experiences that invites a certain sympathy. No one is totally bad. When he comes in, you (the reader) are wary, being more suspicious than Kate, yet hoping he will be turn up trumps. But you’re not sure. That’s what an oboe does for me. It’s always enigmatic. I hope the reader will get these vibes and doubts too. And in this cello concerto, he and the flute both claim the cello’s attention for different reasons.

Isn’t it a marvellous way of looking at things? Thanks. James McCreet. Now that this image is in my head, it will be difficult not to think of these characters playing their way through the plot as I bring it to a climax. Pity the oboe has to get up and leave the stage just before the end so he doesn’t ruin the final chord!

  1. Jane says:

    Thanks so much for this! I’m just working on final edits for one of my stories and realized I needed to firm up my ideas of the characters roles in the story. This is the perfect exercise. Thanks so much for sharing!


    • Glad it helped! It sure helped me by seeing things in a different light. If I couldn’t name the instrument, something was missing. And by naming the instrument I have something to check against now. Wish it had been my own idea! thanks for stopping by.


  2. Just caught this post – and I’m really glad I did. metaphors like this are often great for seeing writing in a new, fresh, interesting way. I’m going to go back to my recent stuff and work out who is what instrument!



    • It’s amazing how a metaphor throws light on so many things. Been reading Blood Red Road, and the use of metaphor is brilliant. Glad this helped. Good luck with your characters! And thanks for your encouraging comment.


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