What Do Ringtones Say About Your Characters?

One of my favorite ways to play with characterization is to assign my main character a ringtone.

In my Mayhem Series, Shawnee Daniels started with “You Oughta Know” by Alanis Morissette. Two books later, she switched to ZZ Ward’s “Put the Gun Down.” And now, she has “Ironic” also by Alanis.

Even without any other information, I bet you’ve already formed a visual of who she is, based on her ringtones.

If you guessed snarky and badass, you’re right. 😉

In my Grafton County Series, I used ringtones to show my main character’s emotional wellbeing. Sage Quintano has no designated ringtone for herself, but she constantly changes her Sheriff husband’s ringtone as a form of silent communication. She’s done it so many times, I doubt I could list them all, but let’s go through a few to show what she’s saying to her husband.

  • “Here Comes Goodbye” by Rascal Flatts

Considering this is a psychological thriller series, not romance, Sage used this ringtone to indicate fear.

  • “How Am I Supposed to Live Without You” by Michael Bolton

This ringtone showed Sage’s gut-wrenching devastation when their child was abducted.

  • “Just Once” by James Ingram

This ringtone showed Sage’s sadness about a rough patch in their marriage.

  • “Tonight I Wanna Cry” by Keith Urban

This ringtone indicates Sage’s sadness, too.

  • “Live Like You Were Dying” by Tim McGraw

Though this is an uplifting song, Sage used the ringtone to show a ticking clock on her life.

  • “If I Die Young” by The Band Perry

Sage used this ringtone to show fear.

  • “Let it Hurt” by Rascal Flatts

This one still gets me every time. Sage used this ringtone to show her devastation over an incident involving Ruger, one of her beloved dogs. Don’t worry. He survived. 😉

  • “All of Me” by John Legend

Sage used this ringtone to show her husband she’s feeling frisky.

  • “Only Women Bleed” by Alice Cooper

Sage used this ringtone to show her fear while being stalked by a killer. The killer also sent her this song, so it worked two-fold.

  • “Hurt” by Christina Aguilera

If you know, you know. This song shows soul-crushing sadness, and Sage used it to portray exactly that.

  • “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me” by Elton John

Sage used this ringtone to show panic. If her husband didn’t hurry, she may die.

To add validity to this post, I ran a search to see how other writers might use ringtones. Couldn’t find what I was looking for, but Forbes had an interesting article.

Research indicates that people do judge mobile users based on their ringtone. In 2005, U.K.-based carrier Tesco Mobile surveyed 1,000 customers and discovered that 21% of them thought having a standard ringtone was “uncool.” The survey also concluded that people who use their own recorded voice as a ringtone are self-obsessed, and that users who constantly change their rings might be flighty and unreliable.

No rocket science, that. But there’s no doubt that ringtones have become big business because people want to say something personal about themselves. So we wondered, what does your ringtone say about you?

If your phone plays a classic rock tune, you’re showing your age, but you get points for figuring out how to change the ringer, Gramps.

If your phone is still playing “Jingle Bell Rock” in July, you’re not going to impress people with your productivity.

If your ringtone is a current hip-hop or R&B hit, you’re young at heart, but you’re not particularly original. Hip-hop ringtones accounted for more than half of the $300 million U.S. market in 2004.

If your phone plays the sound of an old mechanical phone bell, you’re not as funny as you think you are.

If your phone plays the theme song to a television show, you’re not going to impress anyone with your intellectual acumen. Perhaps a Mozart or Beethoven ringer would do some damage control.

If your phone never leaves vibrate or silent mode, you may be the kind of important person who can’t afford to waste time answering a phone call right now. Or maybe you just think you’re that important. However, you may also be considerate and respectful, the kind of person we’d like sitting behind us in a movie theater.

Unfortunately, we tend to get saddled with seatmates whose phones play the popular “Crazy Frog,” the clucking chicken, or any number of other annoying animal noises. If you’re one of these folks, you may be a sociopath.

Hope this post gives you some fun ideas on ways to use ringtones for your characters!

Have you ever used ringtones in your writing? Please explain how/why.

Do you change your own ringtone? Share the song!

If you had to choose one song to describe you, what would it be?

This entry was posted in #amwriting, #writetip, #WritingCommunity and tagged , , , , , , by Sue Coletta. Bookmark the permalink.

About Sue Coletta

Sue Coletta is an award-winning crime writer and an active member of Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, and International Thriller Writers. Feedspot and Expertido.org named her Murder Blog as “Best 100 Crime Blogs on the Net.” She also blogs at the Kill Zone, Story Empire, and Writers Helping Writers. Sue lives with her husband in the Lakes Region of New Hampshire. Her backlist includes psychological thrillers, the Mayhem Series (books 1-3) and Grafton County Series, and true crime/narrative nonfiction. Now, she exclusively writes eco-thrillers, Mayhem Series (books 4-8 and continuing). Sue's appeared on the Emmy award-winning true crime series, Storm of Suspicion, and three episodes of A Time to Kill on Investigation Discovery. Learn more about Sue and her books at https://suecoletta.com

45 thoughts on “What Do Ringtones Say About Your Characters?

  1. I never thought of my characters having ringtones, but here are mine for me and my family:
    Me – 3 Little Birds – Bob Marley
    Hubby – Scotland the Brave
    Son – Marine Corps Hymn
    Daughter – My Girl
    Brother & Sister- Addams Family Theme

  2. Sue, one more very interesting way to focus-down on a character and draw the reader more deeply into the story. Excellent. As for the bit of personality it reveals, the ring tone might also be a good hint for a secondary character, foreshadowing, for example.

  3. OK, it’s early here, and I’m confused. I have ringtones for my family members, but I’m not very tech savvy. Those ringtones only work in one direction as far as I know. So if I change my son’s ringtone from Pink Panther to Star Wars, he’ll never know. If I call him, he’ll hear whatever he has set for me. Only the recipient hears them, not the sender.
    What am I missing? Or do I have the wrong phone?
    My characters set ringtones for each other, but I’ve only mentioned exactly which one it was in one book to show how the male protagonist was growing attracted to the female one. She was opening a pastry shop, and he assigned “C is for Cookie” to her.

  4. Good morning, Sue! This is a great idea. I’ve never done it, but I should have, and I will.

    My ringtone is “Search and Destroy” by Iggy and the Stooges: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LC9km8qnbOY I wanted something unobtrusive.

    A song to describe me would be “Standing Outside a Broken Phone Booth with Money in My Hand” by Primitive Radio Gods: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1Y2Pw9E3bL8.

    Thanks so much, Sue, for the great idea and exercise. Have a great week.

  5. LOL! Hadn’t thought about using ringtones to speak to your character. Good idea.

    In my case, writing mostly historical, I don’t have to worry about it. 😎

    One thing that Forbes excerpt failed to mention on it’s analysis of people with phones on silent/vibrate—there are some of us who loathe noise–especially any kind of mechanical/tech noise.

    I’ll have to give some thought to what I would choose as a ringtone for myself if I were to use one. 😎

  6. I loved reading your article today. I could really identify. In my second romantic suspense novel, Dangerous Revenge, I have my FBI agent’s ringtone play: Live and Let Die by the Beatles, in the first sentence and on the first page. Never thought about how the meaning of the song related to her profession. How appropriate.

  7. Very interesting, Sue.

    I have not used ringtones in my writing, but that sounds like a good idea.

    I don’t change ringtones. I’m one of those “uncool” (according to the article you quoted).

    I have no clue what song I would use to describe me, but if I were choosing a ringtone, it would be Beethoven’s 5th. And my overall approach to phones and ring tones would be the Lindsey Graham Sledge Hammer approach.

    Have a smashing-good day!

  8. What a fun post, Sue. I’ve identified ringtones for a couple of my characters.

    Kathryn, the main character in my Watch series, uses Mozart’s A Little Night Music.

    The main character in my WIP is a pilot. Her ringtone is Fly Me to the Moon.

  9. My characters usually don’t have phones, but the one time they did, I played with passwords. My protag’s password was “defend” 33353. He claims it’s just easier to hit all those 3s instead of actually remembering something.

    I love some many types of music that I would probably change it all the time if I did. When I first got a phone, song ringtones had to be paid for, and my family didn’t have the money to waste. I much rather spend the money on actual cds.

    Maybe I’ll look into it again.

    • Playing with passwords is a great idea, Azali. They, too, say a lot about a character.

      Nowadays, there’s a ton of free ringtone apps. Have fun!

  10. Be Thou My Vision is my ringtone. My boyfriend’s was When a Man loves a Woman until it went off in church one day.
    I’ve used ringtones for various characters in the past. Good reminder to do it again.

  11. Aw, geez. My ring tone is a chirping cricket. You can hear it clear across five pickleball courts and it seems to annoy everyone. Tough. I’m a sociopath, apparently. Deal with it. Chirp chirp…

  12. What a fun post, Sue!

    I don’t have a ringtone for my latest WIP MC, but when her best friend calls her, the pic that comes up is the little red-haired girl from Charlie Brown. (Ellen has flaming red hair…)

    My personal ringtones for fam members are nothing special, but from my working years in the local cancer center, we were always treated to the most varied and hilarious tones from patients and family members . . . I wish there’d been a way to record some of them.

    And one last tidbit . . . I worked with an oncology nurse who has two grown daughters. Their two ringtones were a hoot. When mom got a call from “the good daughter”, we heard an angelic choir singing. When she got a call from “the bad daughter”, we heard the theme music from Jaws.

    Never failed to crack me up. G’day to you.

  13. What a great way to start the week and I loved everyone’s replies.

    I am a professional ‘puter geek. My mobile has four voice lines plus three more text lines. I can’t assign different ringtones to different people. I am lucky to answer the right service.

    To be more accurate, for 25 years give or take, I have been IT support for educational institutions. The first thing that happens when I get a new phone is putting my ringtone on. The link is at the bottom. One day, all of the principals for the district got new phones. I set my ringtone. Someone heard it. I then had to set my ringtone as their ringtone for about half of the principals in the district.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5IpYOF4Hi6Q

  14. I intended to set my ringtone as a discreet sneeze. If it went off in church, no problem; I’d just squelch the phone and whip out a tissue in one swift gesture. But, before I could set it, came the days of Corona, and sneezes were anathema. Maybe next year.

    “I bet you’ve already formed a visual of who she is, based on her ringtones…”

    I had already guessed snarky and badass, without the ringtones. Why? As they said in old math textbooks, “It is left to the student to determine the answer as an exercise.”

    “Have you ever used ringtones in your writing?” Forsooth, nay. My story settings leaneth towards the days of my yout’ and yesteryear.

    “Do you change your own ringtone?” I can do so, but it’s more trouble than it’s worth.

    “If you had to choose one song to describe you, what would it be?”
    https://youtu.be/pyV60kTvEFE?t=3

    • I adore James Taylor. Such an easy-listening voice he has. Thanks for sharing that heartwarming song, J. I thought I knew all his songs, but that’s a new one for me.

  15. This post made me curious, because neither I, nor anyone I know, uses a song as a ringtone. So I decided to conduct a small survey among family members, 42 in all. This included people from my 12 & 14-year-old grandchildren, to two Army Majors, a CIA agent, business owners, SCUBA divers, journalists, teachers, attorneys, and several others. Not one of them uses a song. CIA said it would be highly unprofessional, not to mention dangerous, Major #1 agreed. Major #2 said it would just be dumb. The consensus was that a phone normally isn’t allowed to ring long enough to make a statement. One of the attorneys said he would certainly hate to try and decipher what his spouse was trying to say by changing his ringtone. So, while I appreciate that some people in some places do this, I have no plans to have any of my characters follow suit.

  16. Clever stuff to use in fiction writing, Sue. For sure. I had to hunt around but I found a ring tone for my Android (yes, an Android) that mimics a phone bell from the 1920s. To each their own. It’s better than my buddy whose phone bays like a bloodhound.
    But I gotta tell you about a ringer I ran across last year. I was in a store and this little old lady (she was 80+ for sure) had her phone go off in her purse. It was the ringtone for the climax in Paradise By The Dashboard Lights. She did a little dance when she fished it out and answered.

  17. A very belated reply, Sue. We’re having our re-roofed this week, and I was away from home yesterday (and will be again today). I love this idea of ring tone music to characterize!

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