I consider myself to be a character driven writer. The tricky part with writing side characters is giving them a voice without letting them take over the page, but at the same time not letting them just be place holders or extras in the scene. Even harder, I find, is writing a cast of characters and not having the voices blend together. I cant say I get it right every time, but I sure have fun trying. 🙂

My writing technique over the years has evolved into what I call layering. I write the bare bones of a scene. Then I go back over and layer more details in. Usually I have one or two main focuses for a given layer, and I run through any given scene multiple times. The layers are where I get to really add in the characters flavor and personalities. Can you tell thats my favorite bit?

As an example, here is a scene from my latest WIP starting with the first draft and then with each subsequent layer.

Its a story for an upcoming urban fantasy anthology called GOOD THINGS. The story, tentatively titled PSYCHED, also fits into my Legendary Consultants series. The hero in the story, Daniel Cain, is the leader of a team of telepathic special agents. In this scene, Cain and his team are playing poker while the heroine is off doing something dangerous.

 

FIRST DRAFT

Remember, my first draft is always super rough and just the bare bones of a scene. This is where I get the dialogue in and the general actions/reactions.

Cain laid down another hand, and glanced at his phone, which sat, on the ends of the desk. Max, Sawyer, and Shaw sat on the other sides as they played poker to pass the time.

“She’ll be fine,” Max said.

Cain grunted and waited for the guys to finish out the hand.

Didn’t take long before Max scooped up the pot. Sawyer shuffled the cards and dealt. Cain checked his. Trash. He waited for the flop. Still trash. He could bluff it out, would usually try that, but instead he folded. And checked his phone again.

“I’ve never seen you like this man,” Shaw commented.

Cain didn’t comment.

“You like her,” Sawyer said.

Cain sat forward. “She’s got guts. I’ll say that for her.”

Max looked up from his cards and pinned Cain with a dark gaze. “This is different.”

Max was right. “Remember our first mission?”

Shaw laid down the turn card. “In Alaska? That cave system holding all the sups?”

“Yeah.”

“You think this is them? We took care of them.”

“All of them,” Max added.

“No. This is not them. But she was there.”

“No way,” Sawyer muttered.

“Quinn was one of the sups they held prisoner?” Shaw asked.

Cain gave a jerky nod.

“How’d you find out?” Max asked.

“She had a nightmare. I touched her, saw everything.”

Max leaned back, studying Cain’s expression. “She the one?”

“Yeah.” After everything had settled in Alaska, Cain had tried to find her. Max had helped, but Delilah had several teams there that day, and another group had taken Quinn to safety.

“I’ll be damned.”

Before anything else could be said, Cain’s phone signaled a message.

 

LAYER 1  Sensory Detail and Physical Action

When I go back through the first time I work at filling in a lot of the details. If its a new scene, I try to incorporate clothing or characters physical descriptions. I add in all five senses where it works (my goal is a sense a page).

Some changes I made:

  • Smell of the room
  • Humidity from the non-working air conditioner
  • Sounds of the city
  • chair hitting the ground

LAYER 2 World Building

Next I add in some world building. This not only includes setting, but also, where I can adding in details about the world itself. This can include infrastructure, society, rules of the world, etc.

Some changes I made:

  • Added more of a description of the room and how theyre playing poker.
  • Got the summer night in the city in there
  • carpeted floor
  • more details about Quinns rescue and that Cains team works with other teams out there in a good guy capactiy

LAYER 3 Character Traits and Voices

Then I get more into the characters heads. If the scene involves a group, I might read through it and focus only on one character at a time.

Some changes I made:

  • Added Max rubbing at his scar.
  • Made Shaws goofier personality come through as well as Sawyers tendency to be the observant/quieter twin
  • Snuck in a hint that Shaws telepathic ability has to do with mechanics
  • Max is Cains best friend hopefully that comes across with him helping Cain search for Quinn

LAYER 4- Internal Reactions

This is a new layer for me, added recently when some great beta reader pointed out how many opportunities Id missed to include the main characters internal reactions. So now I go back through and try to look for those specific opportunities, which helps me build that character more as well.

Some changes I made:

  • This is mostly for Cain. I tried to convey how nervous he was for the heroine without him saying it out loud or thinking the actual words. Smaller details like:
    • distrubling silent phone
    • checking the phone over and over
    • how the others react to him
    • added actual thoughts like not wanting to be weak in front of his team

LAYER 5 Edit and Tighten

Finally, I go through the scene and fix all my bad habits. I have a list a mile long that I search for key words and then reword or redo entire paragraphs to fix it. Anything from overused words like that or mutter, to concepts like talking heads (all talk no action), and more. I try to fix grammar here too.

Final Result

Here is the final result for this scene (at least, before my beta readers get their hands on it). What do you think? Are the characters more clear to you now? Can you picture them and whats going on?

Cain laid down another hand, and glanced at his phone, which sat, disturbingly silent, on the end of the desk. The hotel room only had the one piece of furniture they could use as a poker table, so they’d dragged the desk to the center of the room. Sawyer and Shaw sat on the end of the bed, using one long side. He and Max had grabbed the chair and stool and took the two short sides.

They dressed like they were off duty—jeans and t-shirts—which bugged him in a weird way. Quinn was out there and he wasn’t even dressed to react quickly.

“She’ll be fine.” Max rubbed at the scar on his wrist hidden under the leather band he always wore. Clearly, he didn’t believe that any more than Cain did.

Cain grunted and waited for the guys to finish out the hand. He ignored the trickle of sweat running down his back. The air-conditioner was a piece of junk even Shaw couldn’t fix without new parts. The heat and humidity of the summer night blew in through the open window, along with the noises of the city. The breeze did little to alleviate the smell of sweat and humanity permeating the room.

Didn’t take long before Max scooped up the pot. Sawyer shuffled the cards and dealt. Cain checked his. Trash. He waited for the flop. Still trash. Sure he could bluff it out, in fact, he’d usually try that, but instead he folded. And checked his phone again.

“I’ve never seen you like this man.” Sawyer’s gaze remained on his cards.

Tipping his chair back, Cain ran his hand over his beard and didn’t comment.

“You like her.” Sawyer’s uncanny powers of observation had nothing to do with his telepathy, but Cain often thought it might as well have.

Cain sat forward, the legs of his chair hit the carpeted floor with a muffled thud. “She’s got guts. I’ll say that for her.” No way was he going to voice his real opinion. His team needed him to lead, not turn into a sappy, distracted ass.

Max glanced up from his cards and pinned Cain with a dark, unwavering gaze. “This is different.”

Max was right. The level of his interest in Quinn scared the hell out of Cain. “Remember our first mission?”

Shaw laid down the turn card. “In Alaska? That cave system holding all the sups?”

“Yeah.”

Sawyer frowned over the cards in his hand. “You think this is them? We took care of them.”

“All of them,” Max added, a hard light in his eyes.h

“No. This is not them. But she was there.”

All three of his men jerked their heads up to stare at him.

“No way,” Sawyer muttered.

“Quinn was one of the sups they held prisoner?” Shaw asked.

Cain grunted an affirmative. Not the youngest being held, but close. Cain glanced down and shock pinged through him at the sight of his own clenched his fists. With a shake, he forced his hands to relax under the table where the others couldn’t see.

“How’d you find out?” Max asked.

“She had a nightmare. I touched her, saw everything.”

Max leaned back, studying Cain’s expression. “She the one?”

“Yeah.” After everything had settled in Alaska, Cain had tried to find her. Max had helped, but Delilah had several teams there that day, and another group had taken Quinn to safety.

Max’s eyebrows shot up. “I’ll be damned.”

Exactly.

“So let me get this straight,” Sawyer leaned his elbows on his knees. “She set herself up to be taken into the same situation we rescued her from?”

“Yes.”

“Guts doesn’t begin to cover it,” Sawyer muttered.

Also right.

“How’d you let her go, man?” Shaw asked only to be cuffed by his brother over the head. “Ow! What was that for?” He threw his cards at his brother.

“You’re about as sensitive as a knife to the gut.” Sawyer tipped his chin at Cain.

Shaw’s frown cleared. “Oh. You have a thing for Quinn. I get it.”

Before Sawyer could whack his brother in the head again, Cain’s phone signaled a message.

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