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How do writers decide how their characters dress?

Updated: Jan 4, 2023

How to describe a fictional character through prose is a question that crops up often, but I think the title of this post, which adheres to the original online post, is actually the best way to frame the question. Just what is it that goes into this decision, or do writers employ a far more haphazard approach?

Let me start by explaining what I'm not interested in seeing in terms of character description for my personal reading tastes: a list of meaningless aesthetic attributes. I don't care if the character has 'emerald' eyes. That is to say, I don't care unless it plays a specific role in the story. I don't want to read a shopping list of descriptions that bear no relevance and that I will forget before I finish the next page, either.

To be frank, my brain is going to form a rough image of your character from the first page on the basis of their voice and their personality before you've even mentioned the colour of their eyes. And I'm not going to concentrate conjuring up an exact colour of their eyes because I really don't care enough to worry about it. On the other hand, if you suddenly mention in chapter three they have black hair and I have already imagined them with shocking orange, it doesn't matter how often you tell me from there onwards that they have black hair, I'm going to imagine them with shocking orange. Be honest with yourself: just how important is it that they have black hair? Does it matter if I, the reader, form my own version of your character? If it's important, no worries! If not, don't spend too much time focusing on it. Now we've got that out of the way, let's think in terms of descriptions that do matter, why they matter and how to craft them. It very much depends on how important wardrobe is in terms of characterisation and world building. In terms of characterisation, work on contextualising their ego. Everyone has an ego, though at varying levels of self-importance, or maybe even psychopathy. 😁 The way you dress and style yourself (or even if you don’t) is an expression of your personality. If you don’t have any ‘style’, what does that tell other people about you? That fashion isn’t a priority in your life? If you are writing someone who is the polar opposite of that, you’ll just have to do the research required to portray someone who IS stylish. Learn about style/clothing, if that’s what the character or story dictates.

So, for an example of expressing their character, if they are well-to-do, posh people, they might wear only the highest quality clothing, designer outfits and expensive jewellery. They’d potentially be bothered about keeping their appearance spotless and looking after those items with care. Of course, they might actually suffer a sense of complete over-entitlement and take those items for granted by not looking after them, so it just goes to show that stock stereotypes make no difference in this context because it really comes down to how you want them to be perceived. How you decide to portray those differing attitudes will be driven by what considerations you make in terms of the character’s viewpoint.

Alternatively, their clothes might speak about the time or place where they live, and contribute to establishing the genre. FREX: if the story is sci-fi, there might be some technological aspects to their clothing. Think Star Trek and the badges they tap and talk into. Or it might be something more superficial than that and simply be a change of colour because it’s the current trend. Think Back to the Future 2 with the ridiculously long jacket sleeves Marty's son wears when he first meets him.

Or, in the case of historical fiction, the way they dress is going to contribute towards ensconcing the reader in that time period. In Girl With a Pearl Earring, the details surrounding Griet’s clothing and appearance partly establish the 18th century period, but also that the story takes place in Holland. On another level, it makes a big statement about her character and (again) the cultural expectations of the time on a girl of that age. She is depicted with an acute self-awareness of needing to appear entirely unblemished to maintain her propriety, expressed through the upkeep of her white and starched clothes. But, to be seasonal about it, being December and all, imagine writing a Christmas story about Santa's workshop in the North Pole where Father Christmas or the elves are not described with anything notably 'Christmassy'. No black boots, no red suit, no gift sack, no jingle bell on the end of a pointy hat. Wouldn't quite be the same, huh?

Father Christmas by the fire with a Christmas tree

So, think about genre, setting and period. And then think about character — who they are, in what way clothing is important to them and, in the role of portraying them as a real person, how they express their identity through their appearance (including hair). People who dye their hair might be rebelling against a perceived authority — why don’t they want to conform? Or shaving it might be to hide the fact they are actually going bald and make it look like a deliberate choice rather than genetics, which could suggest a low self-esteem. Think in those terms — why, why, why? Why does anyone do what they do, act how they act? That’s the central point of any story: motivation. Always question why, and the answers will eventually come.

Until next time, friends, have a very merry Christmas if you celebrate it, and a Happy New year!

If you want to get deep into your character's psyche and understand their ego, how they tick and what their superficialities say about their deeper emotional context and moral compass, check out my Dig Deep Character Profile Worksheet. You'll be surprised what you find out about them once you view them from entirely different angles.

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