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How Visual Media Can Show Character Interiority

September 23, 2013


There’s an amazing moment in the musical “The Music Man.” It comes when leading man Harold Hill experiences a change of heart at the hands of Marian, the feisty town librarian. Up to this point, Hill has been an infectious con man up to no good. He’s been fleecing a whole town with promises of mustering up a boy’s marching band, a dream for which many parents in the town have already written hefty checks.  Hill’s epiphany comes late in the action, just as the townspeople are about to find out the dirty truth about his chicanery. Just before that happens, he lingers below Marian’s window, dreaming about the success of his scheme the only way a character in a musical can — he sings.

Throughout the production, Harold Hill’s character sings snippets of his signature song, “76 Trombones.” Even if you hate musicals, as I did before having a daughter who loves them, you’ve probably heard it before:

“Seventy-six trombones caught the morning sun
With a hundred and ten cornets right behind”

By contrast, Marian’s signature song, which she sings twice and which plays as she enters or exits key scenes, is:

Goodnight, my someone,
Goodnight, my love,
Sleep tight, my someone,
Sleep tight, my love

Near the end of the musical a very special thing happens. As Hill sings boastfully about his brass and Marian coos her plaintive lullaby out her window, the two characters suddenly switch songs. Believe me when I say, as someone who grew up despising the mawkishly gooey center at the saccharine core of most musicals, this moment struck even me as surprisingly savory, understated and revelatory.

It struck me in that moment that this is how musical theatre–as a media–can show the interiority of its players. The “76 Trombones” song represents Hill’s character from the inside out. It is the equivalent of the painted wooden mask his character would wear in the Noh theatre version of The Music Man, and at this crucial juncture, he abandons it momentarily to try on the mask worn by his paramour. He sings her song, which is to say, he becomes her for one wondrous moment.

There’s an important ethical implication to this song swapping, too, and it’s tied directly to that moment in the plot just before Hill is found out. If Hill can sing Marian’s song, then character is neither fixed nor as unchangeable as the repeated signature songs would suggest. Characters are more than their songs. They can change. And so can Harold Hill.

A very similar moment occurs in David Mazzuchelli’s ingenious graphic novel, Asterios Polyp. As indicated in the image above, Asterios is a rigid, mathematically-minded architect who sees the world in geometric blue. That’s how Mazzuchelli draws Asterios, in the same way that Asterios sees the world.

Asterios’ love interest, however, is emotionally open. She sees the world and is in turn drawn in sanguinary reds and pinks. Whereas his blue lines are as cold and precise as blueprints, her mauves are sketchily warm.

The image above portrays their meeting. Just as in The Music Man, the two outward cues to characters’ interiors shift and merge at this moment. Her reds fill in his blue outlines and his blue contours momentarily sharpen her face. This is not simply the meeting of two distinct people but of the distinct world views each represents. Fittingly, when they interact harmoniously together in later panels, the base color that tells their story is a deep and unifying purple. Purple is the color of their togetherness, of the merger of two, otherwise separable ways of being.

Whenever I come to a point in my own writing when I feel the urge to simply tell readers what my characters feel, I think of these spectacular scenes from other media. These scenes from primarily visual media are inspiring teachers. They have figured out effective workarounds to the seemingly impossible problem of bringing what’s on the inside magically to the surface.

  1. Never tell. Always show.

  2. G. K. Adams permalink

    I’m off to dig up my CD of _The Music Man_.

  3. Good points and very memorable examples. Thans you.

  4. Michael Andreoni permalink

    Extremely upsetting that I now have to respect musicals. I hope you’re happy.

  5. Thanks Michael. I once wrote a lecture called, “Brief History of the Interior Monologue”. It began with me dressed at Hunter S. Thompson because I was obsessed with the scene in Gilliam’s ‘Fear an Loathing…’ where Depp’s character can no longer determine whether he is speaking out loud or internally. It tied to something I read by Gilbert Ryle that helped me figure out how to deal with the ‘voice in our heads’. Ryle pointed out that it takes effort to speak silently – the boy mumbles out loud in the classroom before he can mumble to himself. Anyway, this might be of interest to those reading your post:

    Look forward to your next blog.
    Best, James.

  6. Brieuse Bernhard Piers-Gûdmönd permalink

    I found it enlightening thanks. One tiny thing PERHAPS: “It struck me in that moment that this is how musical theatre–as a media–can show the inferiority of its players.” I wondered if a T rather than an F was what was meant! You can edit this comment out into oblivion if it needs correcting!

    • Haha. Freudian slip perhaps. I’ll edit that and get a new eye exam tout suite…cause I can only see the squiggle if I squint really hard.

      • Good news. It wasn’t my eyes. (actually, let’s imagine this comment in the style of that brilliant commercial with the guy at the office, where the woman says “I like your boots” and he says “those aren’t my boots; those are my cats”)
        It wasn’t my eyes. It was my spell check.
        Apparently, it has never heard of interiority and out of linguisitic inferiority switches all interiorities accordingly.

  7. You’ve made me wonder. I have to see that musical this week 🙂 Have you ever had a chance to see a Japanese animation aka anime? Creators make sure to give enough time to their characters to explain or express their feelings during crucial scenes. Sometimes it works brilliantly whereas in other cases it is just stretching the episode too much.

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