What Is Your Character’s Wish-Song?
By Jacob Krueger
I recently saw a trailer for the upcoming film version of Les Miserables—a series of evocative images from the film, underscored by Fantine’s tear-inducing musical theme: I Dreamed a Dream. Yeah, I found myself emotionally moved by a promotional trailer. But more importantly, I found myself thinking about the power of a wish-song to provide an emotional structure for your character’s journey, even if you’re not writing a musical.
In musicals, it’s easy to connect with a character’s wish-song, because they tend to sing it right at us:
In The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy sings of escaping to a better place, “Somewhere Over The Rainbow.” In Fiddler on The Roof, Tevya sings his dream of an easier life, “If I Were A Rich Man.” In the prologue of Into The Woods the entire cast sings of the things they wish for “more than life… more than anything”. And in the most twisted wish-song of all, Sweeney Todd and the Judge sing their dark longings for love and revenge in Pretty Women.
These wish-songs not only become the musical themes for these characters, they also provide a powerful drive to their journeys, and a way for the writer to attack them at their most vulnerable places.
As writers, we discover the wishes to grant our characters, and the wishes to take away, in order to force them to undergo profound changes.
In Dorothy’s case, she gets exactly what she wished for, only to discover that “there’s no place like home. Tevya will not only lose the opportunity for an easier life, but also his daughters, his family’s traditions, and the town he calls home. Each character in Into The Woods will gain and lose their one true wish. And Sweeney Todd’s revenge against the Judge will ultimately cost him both his daughter and the one woman he truly loved.
In musicals, characters sing their wish songs in music and lyrics. But in traditional narrative films, characters have wish songs as well. They sing them through their actions, their interactions with other characters, the ways they pursue what they so desperately want.
Every character has a wish-song. They just sing them in different ways.
In There Will Be Blood, Daniel Plainview “sings” his desperate wish for financial success in a silent opening sequence in which he mines first for silver and then for oil against impossible odds. In The Godfather, Vito Corleone “sings” his hopes for a different life for his son Michael: “I always thought that when it was your time, that you would be the one to hold the strings. Senator Corleone, Governor Corleone, something.” In Black Swan, the main character “sings” her desire for perfection by destroying her white swan veneer in pursuit of the black swan underneath. Even a ridiculous character like Zoolander gets a powerful wish song: The Center For Kids Who Can’t Read Good And Wanna Learn To Do Other Stuff Good Too.
When you know your character’s wish song, you know their expectations, their dreams, their hopes, the tangible and intangible things they are pursuing. That means you not only have an opportunity to dramatize their pursuit of these things, but you also have the chance to make it hurt when you take them away.
So take a moment to think about your character’s wish song.
What would they be singing if they could sing it? And how can they sing it in your movie, through the choices they make in every scene?
Terrific post, Jake!
I found myself a little teary eyed when that amazing score kicked up in the trailer as well.
Thanks James! Yup, that song kills me.
Great idea! Thank you!
My writing is often inspired by music, never thought of having a wish song for any of my characters. Great idea.
Hi – interesting post! Indeed most successful musicals not only have a wish song (e.g., Eliza, ‘All I want…” in “My Fair Lady,”, etc.) — but those songs are normally pretty early on in the show. In traditional musical theater, the “I wish” or “I want” of a major character is usually set up a few minutes into to story to answer a structural question: “why are we spending time with this character, and what do they want?” If you prolong this question too long into a musical — especially for a major character — the audience may be scratching their heads – for motivation may not be clear… Put another way, if you were to move “If I were a Rich Man” to any other time in the musical, would it make sense? We need to know what Tevye wants early on, so the rest of what follows makes sense.(And breaking that down a little further, you could argue that Tevye sets up his first “wish/want” at the top of the show with “tradition,” potentially wishing to hold it all together.)
Musical theater writing is much more up front with this technique. You can trace this “I want/I wish” idea as far back as “Oklahoma” where Hammerstein pretty much created the model. Breaking the mold is tough to do – like, “Company,” where you don’t really discover the lead character Bobby’s “I want/I wish” until the end. Then again, shows that to do this very thing — find innovative ways of breaking the rules — makes it that much more interesting…
So glad you enjoyed the article! Sounds like you’ve got a lot of experience with musicals. They’re close to my heart as well– are you working on something musical right now?