Monday

Transposing: When Characters Change Places

I'm a fan of a cappella choral singing. I love the sound of voices in harmony. But every now and then, I hear an a cappella arrangement that I do not like at all.

I recently had an epiphany about this dislike for some a cappella songs, especially a few I've heard in church. I was listening to a Christian radio station (a rarity for me, as I prefer classical) and I heard a song I knew. It was a song I have always hated to sing in church--a truly obnoxious a cappella arrangement. To my surprise, I discovered that in its original version, with instruments and a different vocal sound, it's quite a good song.

So why was it bad, when transposed into an a cappella arrangement? Because when many church musical arrangers change an instrumental, poppy song into an a cappella piece in 4-part harmony, they ALWAYS put the melody into the soprano line.

This sounds really, really awful when the original song featured a melody in a lower key, sung with the radically different vocal quality of an alto or a baritone. The warmth and subtlety of the original alto or baritone melody disappears into a shrieky, high, repetitive soprano line in the new a cappella version. (And I'm one of those shrieky sopranos, so I know whereof I shriek.)

Writing can also involve acts of transposing. In the third draft of my current work in progress, one of my major tasks (other than complete rewriting) has been taking certain characters out of scenes and substituting other characters in their "roles." For example, in one scene, a character held another character at gunpoint to keep him from doing something foolish in a moment of desperation. I had to change out the characters in that scene, so male character A holding the gun became male character B holding the gun, even though the third character (on the wrong end of the gun) did not change.

Wow, was that an eye-opener! Had I used character A's lines and behavior, it would have been a travesty--like writing a baritone line into a soprano melody. Voice matters, in writing or in singing--one voice is not just as good as another for any given line.

Instead, I had to envision how character B would perform the same function in a completely different way. Even my husband had a comment on the transposition when he read the scene, having read both characters in the part. He said: "I envisioned what character B would look like when he did that, and I think you should make this small change."

Transposing is not common--it's rare for writers to need to substitute one character for another in a scene. Have you ever had to transpose one character for another in the same basic scene? Or, have you realized that you've written a moment that was completely out of character for one of your fictional people? Did you notice it yourself or did someone else have to point it out?