A writing tip I see often concerns character building. You hear over and over that you want real characters, characters that live and breathe.
It's an important piece of advice. Creating a real character is vital to your story, but what exactly is a real character? What is that extra, indefinable something you, as an author, need to give your characters to make them alive to your readers?
Think about yourself for a moment. Think about what your life story would be about, if you were to write an autobiography. Perhaps you conquered cancer. Maybe you're struggling with a divorce. Whatever it is, that main storyline of yours is important ... but it's not the whole story of you. There is so much more to you than this one large event. There are silly times in your life. There are sad times. And if you're anything like me, there are a lot of stupid and embarrassing times along the way.
Your characters are no different. Yes, they are props in your plot, but that's not all they are. They too have silly, sad and embarrassing moments. To bring your characters to life for your readers, you need to show those moments.
To give an example of what I mean, here is an excerpt from my novel Legend of the Mist. In it, I describe a fight scene between two opponents (one Viking, one Scottish). But rather than just have them act out a vicious fight scene, I added banter. I added arrogance and egos in a way that is typical of men (even in our modern times). And at the end I have my characters degenerate into childish fist fighting.
[In the ring,] Garrett had unsheathed the sword from his back and now held it skilfully at the ready. He and Einarr circled one another like two cats, each assessing the other’s weaknesses.
“Are you going to begin?” Einarr prodded.
“What makes ye think I havena already?” Garrett clipped in return.
An amused smile tugged at Einarr’s lips. “Clever sveinn.”
Norah gasped. “There is no call for him to be so insulting.”
“Insult?” questioned Torsten. Then he laughed as he realized the error of her interpretation. “No, no. Sveinn is Norse for boy.”
“Oh,” she chuckled with chagrin, and peered up at him from under her lashes. The simple, intimate look was almost his undoing. His heart began to pound so loudly he worried the entire circle of men would hear.
The first clash of steel upon steel crashed over them, and they both looked to see that Einarr had made the first strike.
Which Garrett easily deflected.
“Well done,” Einarr commended. “But what if I come at you like this?”
With blinding speed, he whirled around, swinging his sword down and then up in a wide arc—a trapping move. Any unsuspecting opponent would have stepped forward to slice at Einarr’s exposed back only to have his own gut sliced open before he got the chance.
Alarm bounded through Torsten. Einarr was serious: he would kill the young man without hesitating.
But Garrett was no unsuspecting opponent. Einarr’s trap failed to entice him. Instead, he stepped back, away from Einarr, which left him a clear path to meet the upward blow and halt it with his blade.
“An impressive move, Viking. More for show than for impact, though, is it no’? I should think something like this is more effective.”
Garrett made a lunge of his own, catching Einarr off guard for a fraction of a second. Surprise was evident in the Viking’s hardened face.
It was not enough, though. He regrouped, his sword ricocheting off of Garrett’s, repelling his strike.
That Garrett had found a moment of weakness made Einarr angry. There was no more talk, no further taunting or teasing. He swung at Garrett with force, lunging and thrusting in earnest, putting the full power of his bodily mass behind each strike. But Garrett proved himself a match. Each of Einarr’s strikes met either air or Garret’s blade, his every move anticipated. And each evasive move of Garrett’s was met with another crushing strike from Einarr.
“Now you are learning the way of the Viking,” Einarr growled between blows.
“Now ye are learning the way of the Celt,” Garrett spat back.
As the battle progressed, Norah’s terror took on a tinge of curiosity. Observing them, she leaned towards Torsten. “Perhaps I dinna understand battle tactics well enough, but it looks to me like there’s no difference between the Viking and the Celt ways.”
“You’re right, there’s not,” Torsten said mildly. “Their fierce words are nothing more than a pissing match—excuse my crudeness, fifla.”
It was not long before Einarr grew frustrated by his lack of victory. His strikes became more daring, more careless. Garrett, on the other hand, remained calculating, waiting for his opponent to make a misstep.
His patience was rewarded. Einarr lunged, and Garrett side-stepped him, releasing a swing that knocked Einarr’s sword from his hand. Letting out a wild cry, Einarr rolled to the ground.
But as Garrett moved to make his final strike, Einarr wrapped his hand around a large rock at the outskirts of the ring and flung it at his opponent with stunning accuracy. The rock hit Garrett in the temple, opening up a large gash in the flesh.
Both Norah and Torsten were on their feet, each of them ready to throw themselves between the two men. Garrett staggered backwards, wiping away the blood which trickled into his eye and down his cheek.
“Ye bloody cheat!” he hollered, his face crimson with rage.
All traces of his calculating obliterated, he leapt for the larger, stronger Viking, landing a fist in the side of Einarr’s head.
Within seconds, both men were on the ground, locked in a violent embrace. Their arms swung wildly; their fists pummelled each other with sheer hate. Despite Einarr’s advantage of size, Garrett held his ground surprisingly well. Raucous cheers erupted from both sides of the ring as the two men fought bitterly by hand, their abandoned weapons completely forgotten to the animal urge to inflict raw pain.
“Torsten, stop them, please,” Norah begged, gripping his hand tighter.
Even in the midst of such madness her touch had a hold on him. It was with effort that he pulled his fingers from her grasp.
“Enough, both of you,” he shouted, rushing to pull the two brawling men apart. But as he bent to wrench Einarr off Garrett, a solid Norse elbow was flung high, crushing the bridge of Torsten’s nose with a sickening crunch. His eyes welled, and blinding pain wrapped his skull. He swore long and eloquently in Norse, falling to the trampled dirt ground which soaked up the blood pouring from his nose.
The sight of him hurt threw Norah into an unprecedented fury. Her fear smothered by the ferocity of her anger, she plunged into the fray, tugging at Einarr’s arm, at Garrett’s leg, at the collar of Torsten’s tunic to pull him out from under the two men wrestling furiously on top of him.
“That’s enough, the both of ye,” she cried.
Now that a maid was in the ring, a number of men from each side jumped in to break the fight apart. One of the Gallachs pulled Norah to safety, though she squirmed against his grip. Recovering, Torsten stood, blood still flowing from his nose, over his lip and down his tunic.
“Get yer bloody hands off me,” Garrett spat at the large Viking who held him by the elbows, dragging him backwards.
“Ja, get your bloody hands off him. I’ve not finished with him yet,” Einarr hollered, himself straining against the three Fara men which held him back with considerable effort.
“Dinna provoke him, Sir Einarr,” Norah snapped.
“You mind your tongue, bikkja, or I’ll mind it for you,” he barked.
The vile insult snapped the line which held Torsten’s temper in check. “You goat buggering drinker of sheep’s piss,” he hurled in Norse, and landed a solid fist in Einarr’s mouth, splitting his lip open and evoking another wave of cheers.
Marching to the dead centre of the ring, Norah lifted her chin. Taking a deep breath, she bellowed at the top of her lungs, “Ye stop now, the lot of ye!”
The entire ring stilled, for the voice which carried on the wind echoed with inherent authority. The Norse, the Gallachs, even Garrett and Einarr quieted. They glanced uneasily at one another, none of them quite sure what it was about the command that made them stop, yet none of them daring to question it.
By adding these extra elements, these extra pieces that didn't necessarily serve the fight and its outcome, I made Garrett and Einarr, and Torsten even, real. To be entirely honest, I wasn't even going to add this fight scene at all. There were other ways to have Einarr and Garrett hash it out with each other. But this fight scene gave me the perfect opportunity to show their human sides, their imperfect sides. Their real sides.
How did I do this? I had fun with it. I let my mind wander through the scene without much of a thought to where it was going to end up. I can promise, I didn't intend to have Garrett and Einarr pummel each other like that, it just kind of happened. And I let it happen. And it turned out great.
When you're writing your characters, don't focus so much on what they're supposed to be doing in the scene. Instead, let your creativity wander. Let your characters have conversations, and silly moments. Moments where they do daft and embarrassing things.
Maybe your main character gets caught belting out a tune while showering. Maybe your heroine spills soup on her dress. Don't stop yourself from writing these parts - and don't edit them out. They are what make your characters real.