As a songwriter, I tend to write from my own voice, especially when writing from my personal experience or struggles. In this sense I am always the main character in my songs. But I've always admired those who can write using the voice of an imagined character. And it's a technique I'd like to learn.
What got me thinking about this was Tom Waits' song, "A Sight For Sore Eyes" from my favorite album, Foreign Affairs. The song is full of gems like "all these palookas", "a nickel's worth of armed robbery", "workin' hard, hardly workin'' and references to DiMaggio, Drysdale, Mantle and Whitey Ford.
Diction is defined as the style used to write or speak. It shows up as your choice of words. "Barkeep", not "Bartender". "All these palookas", not "all these men" or "all these dudes". Syntax is how the words and phrases are put together. "Long time no see", not "Haven't seen you in a long time". Waits uses diction and syntax the way my father used a sharp set of chisels. Tools of the trade in the hands of a craftsman. Is there anything more pleasing?
And where would you meet such a guy? Waits leaves no question: "Hey barkeep, what's keepin' you, keep pourin' drinks." The song is full of the poignant reminiscing we do when we begin to see more of our lives in the rear view mirror than down the road ahead: "I guess you heard about Nash, he was killed in a crash/hell that must've been two or three years ago now."
Everything about this song rings true because the character who claims to be "half drunk all the time and...all drunk the rest" is carefully fleshed out. The wonderful thing, and what I find so inspiring as a writer, is that this man's picture is painted 100% with the character's own words. There's not a single line of narrative in this song.
It is, in my twenty-five cent opinion, a masterstroke.
[Painting is "Old Man at Bar" by Paul Tiberio. You can see more of his work at Paul Tiberio]