Saturday, May 27, 2017

Fleshing Out Your Story by Betsy Ashton

Every time I speak to book clubs, I hear the same question: where do you get your ideas? It usually comes halfway through the talk and before the reading. I don't have a stock answer, so I'm going to walk you through how I built a character for a new series.

Back in grad school when dirt was young and dinosaurs were slowly fading away, one of my friends got into trouble with her family when she started dating a guy named Sa-Li Ma.

Hmm, great name. I filed it away at a time when I never thought I'd write one book, let alone plan out a series. Fast forward to now.

I decide to set a novel in Roanoke, VA. I want a stranger in town, someone who will stand out and not fade easily into the local population. I want him to have a prominent position in law enforcement. And I want him to be called Sa-Li Ma.

I have a name. It's a Chinese name. What does this skeleton of a character look like? Well, he's tall because his ancestors come from an area in China where most were horsemen. Why horsemen? Because "ma" in Chinese is horse. He has black hair and eyes, is muscular in a lean sort of way. His face is a land of planes, not at all round.

Good, this name now has a body and a hint of a profession. Let's make him a DEA agent leading a multi-jurisdictional task force charged with slowing or stopping the opioid epidemic sweeping through many southern states. It's an important job, prominent, dangerous.

His age? Ah, he has to be around forty-five. Not much older. Is he married? Here comes a chance for character development and conflict. His wife is dead when the series opens, an FBI agent killed in the line of duty a month before he shows up in town. Does he have children? One. A daughter aged five.

So, where are we? We have a widower in a dangerous job with a princess for a daughter. What opportunities to humanize the tough guy when he has a tea party for her birthday, plays knight-in-shining-armor, and reads her to sleep at night. He needs someone to take care of the little girl, whom we will call Maggie Rose (named after a fellow writer who lost her battle with cancer a few years back). Enter his sister, who has no name right now. Having a Chinese woman living in his house opens the way for misunderstandings about her role in the family.

With this, we have a protagonist who can carry a single novel or multiple novels. His first challenge will be...

Oooh, that would be telling.

Betsy Ashton is the author of Mad Max Unintended Consequences and Uncharted Territory, A Mad Max Mystery. She has a new short story, "Midnight in the Church of the Holy Grape," in 50 Shades of Cabernet. Her works have appeared in several anthologies and on NPR.


Vonnie Davis ~ Romance Author said...

Thanks for sharing your process, Betsy. Love the Chinese name. I start from the inside out. I begin with their points of pain--past hurts that shape how they act and react. I move out to their education and profession. Pressure points, push buttons, and things that put him or her in a mood. Lastly, I work on their appearance.

Jannine Gallant said...

Sounds like you put a lot of thought into rounding out your characters, Betsy. I start with a career that works with my plot, then personal characteristics, then appearance. At that point, I pick a name that seems to match. As I start writing, I discover internal motivations that make them tick.

Leah St. James said...

I love the way you started with a character, Betsy, and moved into a larger framework based on his development character. Great process! I tend to start with the what-if type thing first, then build characters into it. For example, I want a dangerous situation in a specific environment. Who do I need to make that happen. That kind of thing. Thanks for sharing!

Rolynn Anderson said...

I love hearing these 'origin''s as if such names/people get stuck in our brains and we HAVE to do something about them. Just imagine if we didn't write and had to live with them as ear worms instead of expelling them. I like hearing about your processes, Leah, Betsy and Vonnie. My what-if is usually focused on an unusual setting, event, or human idiosyncrasy...and I gather more trouble for my characters as I write the story. Poor things...we are so mean to our fictional characters!

Brenda Whiteside said...

It's always fun to hear how other writers process. I always start with characters and as I see them, their stories unfold.

Margo Hoornstra said...

Thanks for the mini characterization forum. Very interesting process you have there.

Diane Burton said...

I enjoyed reading about your process, Betsy. Mine isn't as defined. A scene pops in my head. As I write it, the character(s) slowly become real and I flesh them out. Rather, they tell me who they are. It's interesting to read how each of us approach a story. I never understood that "blank screen" image, along with a blinking cursor. My screen is never blank. My mind might be. LOL

Alicia Dean said...

Hmmm, your process sounds like it really works well. That would definitely help flesh out characters. Great job!