Build-a-Book Step 1: Imagining the initial dynamic

So, how do you start a romance novel? To me, a romance novel is ultimately the story of how two people’s lives clash, and so in the earliest days of imagining a new book, my creative energy is really focused on the the couple at the heart of the book. To use a construction metaphor that I’m in no way qualified to make (ha!), I think of the main couple as the framework of the house (a.k.a. the book.) They are the heart of the book, and everything else – the side characters, the setting, the friendships that support them, etc. – gets added on later. To figure that what the couple is all about, I begin to think about three key questions:

  • Who are the lead characters?
  • Who are the characters to each other?
  • Where will the characters engage with each another?

As part of my build-a-book project, I’m going to elaborate here about what this early imagination process has looked like for me for this work-in-progress (working title: “The Fund Feud,”) and then down below, I’ll share how I answered these questions for this book I’m developing.

Who are the lead characters?

When I first imagine designing a character, the sketch is pretty simple. As I begin to imagine more of the larger book, and better conceptualize the setting and the side-characters, I flesh them out more (including writing more detailed character sketches, which I’ll elaborate on in a future post.)

But to start, I’m really trying to imagine their broad personality types, their sensitive spots, and how they move through the world.

Most of this work actually happens on paper for me. On scratch paper or notecards, I begin to jot down ideas for characters — a general physical description, and some ideas for what motivates them, some of their quirks or tendencies, and what their vulnerability is (or, as this post describes it, what is each of those characters’ “inner wound.”) In romance especially, the lead characters are likely dealing with some previous experiences that make it difficult to imagine a successful romantic relationship. This could be trust issues from unhealthy past relationships, trauma from their childhood, family dynamics that have forged their tendencies, etc.

If you’ve read my books, you know that I love a quirky cast of side characters, but they emerge as the story unfolds.

Who are the lead characters to each other?

If I really think about where my books begin, it’s in imagining a dynamic. So as I’m thinking about character types that would be fun to write, I’m also thinking about: who would be fun to pair together? How could their strengths and weaknesses spark between them? What would they bring out in each other, for better or for worse? This can come back to the notion of romance novel tropes. That is, if I know that I want to write a second-chance romance, then I know that I’m going to be developing a story around characters who have really hurt each other in the past. The dynamic will be vastly different if I want to write a “friends to lovers” story where they’ll start off close and connected and at ease with each other, and then their chemistry will change in ways that complicate everything. So thinking about the trope (or tropes) at play helps me think about this dynamic.

I think the most delicious romances are those that include love interests with opposing goals, which is what I wanted to bring into my next book. What happens when you fall in love with the person whose own goals stand directly in the way of your life-long dream?

Where will the characters engage with Each another?

This question is ultimately about setting. Again, like with the character design, this is a general outline at this stage, but my writing, personally, is deeply rooted in place. I write small-town romance, and so the community becomes like another character in the book. But even beyond the town, I need to ask myself: what other settings will bring them together? Are they part of the same volunteer committee? Do they work at the same coffee shop every morning? Did their boss stick them together on a work project? Are they neighbors (maybe who share a wall, and all that this … entails?) Do they have a mutual acquaintance who ends up connecting them? To me, the character dynamic is deeply connected to the setting of the story.

BUILDING A BOOK: So, to “show my work,” below I’ll share the very first thoughts I had on my forthcoming project, The Fund Feud, as it relates to these questions. (Note: I’ll talk more on how I picked the working title for the book in a future post, but for now, know that the very FIRST thing I do when thinking of a potential book title is go on Amazon and see if another book has already used it. So far, so good on that front…)

The Fund FEud: Meeting the main couple

About her: Elizabeth “Bitty” O’Brien (27)

At this stage, all character and place names are working names (meaning that they may eventually change), but for this character I wanted to have a name that would play into her “inner wound.” I wanted her to have a very grown-up name (Elizabeth) that no one ever uses, opting instead to refer to her by a nickname that she despises (Bitty.) See, the whole thing with Elizabeth is that she’s the youngest sibling in a big, prominent family in town, and though everyone takes advantage of her (as the single, childless aunt, she’s seen as always free to drive one of her countless nieces and nephews to a practice), no one takes her seriously. They love her, and they do appreciate her deep down, but they treat her with a frivolousness that grates on her. She’s approaching 30, and is insecure about her perceived lack of accomplishments in life. Bitty only magnifieds that, and is especially awkward giving that she’s a curvy gal.

I’ll elaborate more on her when I post about how I do my in-depth character sketches, but Elizabeth is cut from a similar cloth to the first ever heroine I wrote (Winnie Briggs!) – colorful, quirky, curvy, and she tends to wear her heart on her sleeve. She’s a bit hyper, and rambly, and a people pleaser (who stress bakes!) and is very much not super polished. I’ve written other types of women … more alpha, boss-babe types (um, hello Bree Bast!) But I have to admit that I most enjoy writing sweeter, more down-to-earth women, because I personally relate to how they move through the world (and how the world perceives them.) I also reeeeeeeeeally like to contrast them with sexy men who they perceive to be a bit out of their league. Which leads me to…

About him: Colin Ainsley (30)

The handsomest man that anyone can remember wandering into town, Colin Ainsley is the definition of quiet, assured accomplishment. He’s good at almost everything he does, but he’s not flashy about it. He just goes about meeting his goals in a way that feels automatic (which can be infuriating to someone like Elizabeth, who’s always bumbling over things and making missteps.) He has an undeniable charm that he can turn on when work demands it, but in general he’s understated and hard to read. No one can figure out why he moved from Chicago to the small town of Heartsworth, Iowa, but everyone is obsessed with this mysterious newcomer (he’s a trending topic on the town’s social media page.)

His inner wound comes from a disruptive childhood. Foster care eventually pulled him out of an abusive, neglectful home and some caring mentors helped him get on a path to a better life. Discipline has always been his guiding light. He didn’t have money or connections, but he could study harder than anyone to earn the scholarship. He could workout religiously to hone the kind of body that demanded he be taken seriously. He could work harder than anyone else to get the promotions and earn the money that would ensure that he’d have power over his fate for the rest of his life. His connection to the loud, loving, deeply connected O’Brien family shakes things up in him, because he didn’t know families like that existed in real life, so totally different than how he was raised. That kind of love and connection is the one thing that all the discipline in the world can’t buy. To get that, you have to open up and be vulnerable, which is the last thing he wants to do.

About them (their dynamic, and how their lives collide)

For reasons that will eventually unfold (no spoilers … yet), Colin ends up reaching out to Elizabeth’s family’s business to see if they’re hiring. Given that he’s a wildly successful, award-winning realtor in Chicago’s luxury market, no one can quite understand what’s in it for him. But they see how good he’d be for O’Brien Realty, where Elizabeth works as the secretary (her sister, Meg, is the owner of the business, following in line behind their father and grand father.) It’s quickly clear that like King Midas, everything Colin touches turns to gold. Elizabeth is happy for him, and the family business, but to have one more person in her midst who’s succeeding and thriving really gets her twisted up inside. Especially when her attraction to him is magnifying her awkward.

Elizabeth’s one saving grace is the dream she holds for revitalizing the historic “Firefly District” that her grandpa helped develop 60 years ago — and she’s thrilled to find out that a local philanthropist is launching a community fund contest, committed to investing $10 million in the winning plan. What’s less thrilling? Finding out that Colin – Mr. Midas himself – is going to throw his hat in the ring with super competitive proposal of his own and putting her dream in jeopardy.

Colleagues at work, competitors in the fund feud … things get more charged between Colin and Elizabeth by the day, especially when he has the audacity to notice, and show concern about, how she’s burning out from the relentlessness of her work responsibilities, her aunt duties, and the untold hours she’s pouring into her Firefly District proposal. In the end it might not be Colin’s devastating looks or his business prowess that puts an end to her dream, but the tenderness he slowly reveals, leaving her wondering if she had her eye on the wrong prize all along.

About the setting for The Fund Feud

Heartsworth, Iowa, is an imaginary small town. Though I’ve lived many places, I consider Iowa my home, and I love to set my books in the Midwest, as I feel like I understand its people, and its communities, better than anywhere else. I’m not going to lie, I love to create aspirational small towns, not unlike Stars Hollow, full of unique businesses that all magically thrive, quirky townspeople who add color and humor, and one-of-a-kind festivals and events that shape the experience of living there.

O’Brien Real Estate was founded by Elizabeth’s grandpa, Red. Her dad managed it after Red’s retirement, and now her oldest sister Meg runs the place. When Meg fan girls over Colin at a regional real estate conference, he ends up with a job, and he’s a larger-than-life presence at the small family business, housed in the 1950s home that her Grandpa Red built for his wife decades before.) Elizabeth is the receptionist and she’s seen the budget — how on earth can they afford a talent like Colin Ainsley? But he quickly proves he’s a sound investment, selling off the luxury houses on the outskirts of town as easily as the local scouts sell their cookies.

In my next post, I’ll discuss my process for fleshing out the characters in the book, including character sketches, a book board, and creating a playlist!

When Jess Vonn isn’t writing romance novels, she’s reading them (way past her bedtime.) She writes spicy but romantic books with sexy, playful men and quirky, funny women and wonderful groups of “found friends.” She’s the author of the smalltown  “Love by The Seasons” series. Her books are available on Amazon, and via Kindle Unlimited.

Connect with her on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter! She’s on TikTok, too, though in all fairness, she has no idea what she’s doing on there…

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