A three character song doesn’t work.
We’ve all heard it, and if you haven’t, you will.
In song feedback sessions you’ll often hear that you should keep your songs to one or two characters. A three character song is too confusing. And, usually it is.
But, a three character song can work – however, you must be very, very, quiet. Wait . . . that’s Elmer Fudd. But he’s right!
The trick is in not saying too much in the lyrics about the other “characters” and keeping them in the background in the scenes you’re creating.
So how do you make a three character song work?
We’ll take a look at a great example, Rae Lynn’s “Love Triangle” and, as a bonus, I’ve added a songwriting exercise at the end so you can apply the techniques to one of your songs.
How Do They Make A Three Character Song Work?
From the time someone came up with the hook, they had to have three people in the song. The songwriters couldn’t avoid it.
Written by Jimmy Robbins, Nicolle Galyon and RaeLynn in 2013, “Love Triangle” is a very personal story for the singer. In 1994, her parents divorced. She was three.
And, despite her original intention of writing a fun song at the writing session with Robbins and Galyon that day, in the end, the personal moment won out.
This song is a great example of a highly emotional personal story, told simply and well, despite the complexity of the song idea and the main character count.
Pretty brilliant point of view approach here.
There is only one narrative voice in the telling of the story. That narrator identifies the “her” in verse one as themselves in the pre-chorus by using the “I” pronoun, but the song comes off as being told from a third person point of view throughout.
How? The narrator is looking back at a younger version of themselves. The third person pronouns help make this clear in the first verse. It also creates a sense of objectivity. The speaker doesn’t sound as if they’re judging anyone – even now.
In addition, by staying away from the first person “I” at the beginning, the songwriters avoid the song slipping into direct address “you” which would quickly become confusing – which “you” – Mom or Dad.
There is a single perspective in terms of how the story is told and what the narrator knows, and doesn’t know.
The lyrics focus on the narrator’s limited view of the situation: their own. It’s written as if they’re talking to themselves. This takes away the need to explain what is going in the heads of the other characters, which would: (1) create complexity, and (2) be a distraction from the core song idea.
This song could have gotten pretty angry, pretty vindictive and pretty judgemental pretty fast. It didn’t because the songwriters stayed on point with the song idea.
What’s the song idea? What many children experience during a divorce disrupts a household. While the child loves both parents, there’s an underlying anxiety – a tug-of-war that is always present.
The songwriters articulate the song idea, and let the emotional impact of the situation emanate, through the scenes they created. And, despite the narrator being the main character, that narrator never speaks directly to the other characters in the present moment. The father talks to her, but she never talks to either of them directly.
This is crucial to limiting confusion.
Notice how the two parents don’t really interact. They’re separate universes within the song, which also compliments and accentuates the meaning of the song.
By creating scenes that function separately with the narrator acting as the connector between the two parents, the song structure and itself emulates the relationships.
In other words, form follows function: a nice writing device if you can do it!
Because you don’t know what’s going on from the other character’s perspectives, the two other characters in the song are minimized. And, they have a label – Mamas and Daddies.
Not my Mamma and my Daddy, but plural. The terms become a universal generalization of a role, which is meant to symbolize how each maintains their role in the family, but situational changes result in two distinct sides.
This symbolism removes their individuality, and essentially leaves one character in the song – the narrator/speaker to deal with a conceptual issue. The speaker is not dealing with two people, but their own feelings about the situation.
Now You Try It!
Do you have a song you’ve already written with more than two characters in it?
How could you change it to make it sound like a single character?
Does your song idea have to change? The point of view?
If you haven’t written a multi-character song, take a single character song and add some characters.
Use the techniques these songwriters used to change up your song.
Use this exercise to look at your song from a different angle as well.
Is your song idea clear? Are you trying to say too much?
If you could create a single focus for the song, and have it played out with multiple characters, what would it look like?