Using details to craft believable characters; when to start a new paragraph
Published: June 22, 2010
Q: One of my characters is a botanist and her occupation is important to the story. However, I don’t know much about botany—just enough to give some specifics. Is this enough? I’m worried that she won’t be a believable character. Maybe I should just stick to what I know.
A: Specific details go a long way. A character who researches non-flowering plants has more credibility than one who is simply labeled a botanist. Including the names of things can also help make her believable. Someone who can identify smooth rock tripe certainly has some specialized knowledge. If she keeps an eye out for liverworts wherever she travels in order to take a photo of every sighting, it will be clear she has a passion for her work.
Still, your concern is a valid one. While these details are certainly crucial, you don’t want your character to pass muster only on the surface. In order to make her seem like a living, breathing individual with a history, you need your character to view the world—of plants and non-plants—through the perspective of someone with this kind of knowledge. You can do this without a botany degree, but it will take a bit of investigation.
Narrow your focus as much as possible. You don’t need to tackle the entire field of botany, or even that of non-flowering plants. Perhaps she’s interested in woodland plants, specifically a type that uses camouflage to hide from predators. (You can do this narrowing with any occupation. An optometrist could work at a vision center at a strip mall, have her own private practice, teach at a university, or work specifically with those who have experienced head trauma.) This focus will help direct your research.
Gather as much information as you can on the specialized topic. Find images in field guides, visual dictionaries, and Internet searches. Seek out first person accounts. Read memoirs, essays, and articles. Conduct interviews. You may only use a small amount of the specific information you gather as detail in the story, but this whole body of knowledge will help inform your characterization on a deeper level.
Of course, you’ll be inventing, too. This is fiction, after all, and you’ll need to imagine your way into your character’s perspective. This investigation will give you a solid foundation. You’ll have a firm grasp on how her occupation might influence her thought process and a wider scope from which to draw references.
There’s no reason to limit yourself and stay within the strict boundaries of what you already know when creating characters. Karl Iagnemma wrote “The Phrenologist’s Dream” from the perspective of a phrenologist, a person who studies skulls to determine personality. Phrenology is a defunct study now, but that didn’t stop Iagnemma from bringing this character to life. Plenty of authors dabble in characterization outside their own experience. If the story demands it, go find it.
Q: How do I know when to start a new paragraph?
A: Dialogue conventions do have some clear guidelines for paragraphing. During an exchange, for example, you generally start a new paragraph every time a different person speaks. Most paragraph breaks, however, aren’t as easy to determine.
In general, start a new paragraph when there’s a shift in focus, idea, or direction. Lorrie Moore’s novel A Gate at the Stairs opens with a student spending the week trudging through the winter cold from one interview for babysitting work to another. She thinks of the songbirds that lingered because of the late winter and how those birds disappeared by the end of the week. She wonders what happened to them, imagining them “in stunning heaps in some killing cornfield outside of town, or dropped from the sky in twos and threes for miles down along the Illinois state line.” The next paragraph shifts to the nature of her job search: “I was looking in December for work that would begin at the start of the January term.” It explores her tolerance for children and how suited she thinks she is for childcare. It’s a subtle shift—from the physical act of looking for work to her motivation for the work—and it’s a good place to start a new paragraph.
You can also start a new paragraph when there’s a shift in time and place. Lisa may be in bed, half awake at five in the morning as her husband prepares for a run. In this paragraph she may consider the strangeness of this behavior, since it’s not something he’s ever done in their seven year marriage. Then, the narrative might jump to a few minutes later, after her husband has left for his run and Lisa is in the kitchen preparing a cup of tea. That’s a perfect opportunity for a paragraph break.
Knowing when a shift is significant enough for a new paragraph is an acquired skill. When you read, pay close attention to the choices an author makes. Some shifts will be dramatic, while others will be subtle.
Don’t worry too much about this as you’re writing. When you go back and reread, you’re bound to find natural breaks.
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Brandi Reissenweber teaches fiction writing and reading fiction at Gotham Writers' Workshop and authored the chapter on characterization in Gotham's Writing Fiction: The Practical Guide. Her work has been published in numerous journals, including Phoebe, North Dakota Quarterly and Rattapallax. She
was a James C. McCreight Fiction Fellow at the Wisconsin Institute for
Creative Writing and has taught fiction at New York University,
University of Wisconsin and University of Chicago. Currently, she is a
visiting professor at Illinois Wesleyan University.
Send your questions on the craft of creative writing to firstname.lastname@example.org. All of Brandi's other Q&A columns are available to registered users.