Created By: ohnoesazombie on April 20, 2013 Last Edited By: ohnoesazombie on February 2, 2014
Troped

AM/FM Characterization

A character's personality is revealed not so much through words, but through what they put on the radio

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Sometimes, it takes paragraph after paragraph to get an idea on what kind of a person you're dealing with. Sometimes characters are so complex, so deep and nuanced, that an entire episode is devoted to some esoteric part of their back story.

And sometimes you can figure out everything you need to know about someone as soon as they get into their car. Taste in music, especially when it's out of the ordinary, can tell you more about a character than a monologue or flashback ever could. A little well-placed Mozart or Chopin lends an outwardly simple-minded individual a bit of mystery and depth. Someone listening to the Beatles, even though it's 2237, and he's on Mars? Safe to say he's a bit old-fashioned.

Music can convey a lot more than just what's in the lyrics, so matching this song with that character, while a bit of a cheat, is a fantastic way to convey a lot about a character in not a lot of time. This also does wonders to convey a deeper side to a character that can easily be considered one-dimensional. A mousy librarian suddenly takes on a wilder angle when her iPod is blaring Joan Jett and the Blackhearts.

This trope does not refer to a character's theme song, if they have one. This refers to diegetic music, often called Source Music, where the other characters can hear it.

Examples

Film
  • A Goofy Movie. Early on, Max and Goofy have a Dueling Banjos moment over the radio between Goofy's 'High Hopes' and Max's latest hit from Powerline. Not only does this show a lot about each character, it highlights the generation gap between them, all without saying an actual word.
  • ''Monsters University: While Mike takes the guys to Monsters Inc., Squish's mom stays in the car and "listen to my tunes", which are evidently Speed Metal.
  • Reservoir Dogs. The pairing of Mr. Blonde's Torture Porn with 'Stuck In The Middle With You' by Settler's Wheel helps to showcase how seriously he doesn't take the situation.
  • Star Trek. In the J.J. Abrams reboot, our first encounter with a young James T. Kirk is him hanging up on his step-father in favor of blasting the Beastie Boys ovet the radio, establishing his disregard for authority even before the character says a single word.
  • Marvel Cinematic Universe:
    • Iron Man 2. After Tony Stark's birthday party is ruined by an Iron Man suit-wearing James Rhodes, Tony requests for the DJ to play Queen's "Another One Bites The Dust" as a way to show he doesn't takes Rhodes' threat even remotely seriously.
      Tony Stark: Give me phat beat to beat my buddy's ass to.
    • The Avengers. Tony Stark hacks the PA system to blare AC/DC as he arrives in Germany, showing his need to create a spectacle wherever he goes.
  • The Silence of the Lambs. While in the prison cell in Tennessee, Hannibal Lecter listens to classical music just before his prison break. This tells the audience that even though he's a psychopathic cannibal, he's still Wicked Cultured.
  • Three Kings. One of the soldiers wants to listen to heavy metal music while going into battle. Another soldier criticizes his musical choice and suggest they go into battle with something soothing to calm their nerves and plays an easy-listening song, showing a definite personality clash.
  • Transformers. Bumblebee, the first Transformer our protagonist meets, actually has no real voice capabilities, and instead does all of his vocalizations through playing songs on his stereo. This is the trope cranked Up to Eleven.

Live-Action TV
  • Defiance. Our first encounter with Nolan and Irisa, the two main characters of the show, has an awkward silence broken with Nolan turning on the radio, only to hear Johnny Cash and June Carter singing 'Jackson', which, in the year 2046, is more than a bit country and old-fashioned.
  • Supernatural. This show is a bit of a running example. Given that Sam and Dean drive state to state and coast to coast with nothing but a stack of classic rock tapes (Tapes!) to listen to, it provides both a soundtrack for the show, and an insight into the characters.
  • Star Trek: The Next Generation. Commander Riker's love of jazz shows a softer, easier going side than his military bearing belies.
Community Feedback Replies: 35
  • April 20, 2013
    StarSword
    Advise a rename. Backstory =/= personality.
  • April 20, 2013
    robybang
    What about AM/FM Characterization?
  • April 20, 2013
    StarSword
    ^That's pretty good. Much better.
  • April 20, 2013
    WackyMeetsPractical
    I think there's a trope here, but I think it should be a bit broader. Sometimes a character's taste in music can be shown in other ways then by turning on the radio station. Looking at their album collections, listening to their ipod playlist, or just having the character start randomly singing one of his favorite songs.
  • April 20, 2013
    randomsurfer
    In an episode of ...The Mentalist? Anyway, some Police Procedural I've seen in the past year or three...the protagonist inducts that the victim did not drive himself out into the woods and off himself there but rather someone killed him and drove him out to dump the body, because the radio in the vic's pickup truck was tuned to a Hard Rock station and the victim was only interested in the classics.
  • April 21, 2013
    ohnoesazombie
    AM/FM Characterization sounds much better. Going to change it now. Also, will broaden the scope a bit. The name still seems punchy, if a bit outdated, but I like the idea of flipping through albums or an ipod playlist.
  • April 22, 2013
    Damr1990
    at first i though it was more about the news station they hear instead , know the types of rants he listens , and you can get an idea of the character's worldview
  • April 22, 2013
    ohnoesazombie
    I don't know if the idea would go as far as "This guy watches Fox News un-ironically. He must be an idiot/gun-toting conservative"(Mind you, I'm not saying that low IQ and fox news go hand in hand, I'm just stating a stereotype.) This is more along the lines of something a bit less tangible. Something harder to put into words. A news story is exactly words, and my world-view is no more elaborated by me watching The Daily Show, than yours is revealed by finding you listen to All Things Considered.

    This is more like, instead of telling the audience the Hitman has a softer side, we hear him humming along to West Side Story. The three-piece suit wearing executive leaves an important luncheon, steps into his BMW, and suddenly we're treated to "Walking On Sunshine" (and, yes, I realize this example is a chainsaw away from being American Psycho).

    This is the kind of trope I'm looking at. something about the character is revealed through their taste in music, especially if it's out of character or a guilty pleasure.
  • April 22, 2013
    arbiter099
    Would a Goofy Movie's Goofy and his son Max back and forth duel over what song gets on the radio (before the thing breaks and eats the tape) count?
  • April 22, 2013
    IsaacSapphire
    Since Source Music is all music that's actually playing in the movie, some of the examples from that page may fit in here too.

    I've noticed that examples of this with Classical music often are similar in effect to Genius Book Club.
  • April 23, 2013
    Arivne
    Film
    • The Silence Of The Lambs. While in the prison cell in Tennessee, Hannibal Lecter listens to classical music just before his prison break. This tells the audience that even though he's a psychopathic cannibal, he can still appreciate the finer things in life.
  • April 23, 2013
    ohnoesazombie
    Thank you kindly, Arivne, for the example.

    Source Music looks to be a great spot to look for examples. Thanks!
  • April 24, 2013
    ohnoesazombie
    If someone would be so kind as to give me the proper term for the soundtrack being heard by the characters (i.e. through the radio or stereo), that would be fantastic, as I'm sure there's a trope for that.
  • April 24, 2013
    Topazan
    ^Source Music or diegetic music.
  • April 26, 2013
    ohnoesazombie
    Okay, so I somewhat suck at the whole formatting thing. Would someone be so kind as to inform me as to how to turn that quote from Iron Man 2 into a nested quote?
  • April 26, 2013
    Topazan
    -->Tony Stark: Give me phat beat to beat my buddy's ass to.

    Tony Stark: Give me phat beat to beat my buddy's ass to.

    You can also click on the "edit" button of other YKTTWs, comments, and trope pages to see how they do things.
  • April 26, 2013
    ohnoesazombie
    Ooh. I learned something new. Shiny. Many thanks, Topazan.
  • April 26, 2013
    TheHandle
    It's not that he appreciates fine things, it's that he's a smug narcissistic asshole who will use his wits and his brutality to do anything for his own hedonistic enjoyment.
  • April 26, 2013
    ohnoesazombie
    I assume your comment is in regards to Silence Of The Lambs, Handle?
  • April 27, 2013
    Arivne
    ^^ The movie also showed us drawings that Hannibal had created, indicating his artistic ability, and had him quote Marcus Aurelius.

    It did all of this to make it clear that he was Wicked Cultured.
  • May 3, 2013
    Sackett
    This can also be used to show a "hidden" side to a character. For example, the mousy librarian character listens to Joan Jett. Or the funny cool dude listens to classical music.

    It's a short hand way of saying, "Yeah you think this character is this one stereotype, but they are more complex then that."
  • May 3, 2013
    triumphantbass
    Would Bumblebee from Transformers count? A lot of his characterization is done through radio, but that essentially is speaking for him.
  • May 4, 2013
    StarSword
    Commander Will Riker on Star Trek The Next Generation is very fond of jazz, but I'm not exactly sure what that reveals about him.
  • May 6, 2013
    ohnoesazombie
    Not sure if Bumblebee doesn't count, or if he is the uber example. Thoughts from anyone else?
  • May 6, 2013
    JonnyB
    I was going to ask about Bumblebee myself.
  • May 6, 2013
    ohnoesazombie
    Yeah. I think Bumblebee, while not the trope codifier, may be the trope Up To Eleven.
  • December 14, 2013
    Arivne
    Namespaced and italicized work names, demarcated Examples section, deleted unnecessary blank lines between examples.
  • December 14, 2013
    DracMonster
    ...and if they listen to 80s rock, they may become a victim of ACDC Characterization.

    /me ducks and runs.
  • December 14, 2013
    pinkdalek
    • Jekyll establishes Hyde's personality through his fondness for Disney songs.
  • December 14, 2013
    ohnoesazombie
    Ouch. That pun. Awesomely bad. I love it.

    And as far as Jekyll goes, are we talking about the BBC series from a few years back. Been a bit since I've seen it.
  • December 14, 2013
    randomsurfer
    re Supernatural, in an episode where Dean is dead we get insight into Sam by his choice of music when Dean isn't around to exercise his veto power. In "Lazarus Rising" Dean discovers that the tapes have been replaced by an iPod and the classic rock by Jason Manns. Whjen Dean comes back he's not pleased.
    Dean: I told you to take care of her, not douche her up.
  • December 15, 2013
    TonyG
    • Monsters University: While Mike takes the guys to Monsters Inc., Squish's mom stays in the car and "listen to my tunes", which are evidently Speed Metal.
  • December 15, 2013
    StarSword
    Also from Star Trek TNG:
    • At one point in "Suddenly Human" Picard walks past the guest quarters where the Talarian-raised human teenager Jono is staying, and hears this blasting in the room. Jono's enjoyment of "alba ra" seems to signify he's a typical teenager.
  • December 15, 2013
    shimaspawn
    Compare Leitmotif where a specific tune is used to signify a character.
  • December 15, 2013
    remande
    The movie I, Robot starts with Stevie Wonder singing "Superstition" to wake up Detective Spooner. This certifies Spooner as retro, showing at least one reason for him to dislike robots.
http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/discussion.php?id=7npufmy694ljj9nfr9ojw7br&trope=AMFMCharacterization