How to write better characters: Character clothing

To write better characters, it’s wise to make every detail of each character – from body language to verbal tics to clothing choice – convey something vivid and real.  In real life, people make judgements about others all the time based on what they are wearing. Showing the clothing choices that your characters make can say a great deal about who they are, their social or professional status and even their personality and psychology. Here are some ideas for how to use clothing description to write great characters:

Imagining characters: Changing clothes

Think about what you like to wear and when you like to wear it. What are you most comfortable in and why? Do you think your clothing accurately reflects who you are? Why or why not? What misconceptions might people have about you based on your clothing, and what might they be right about?

We automatically categorise people based on their clothing whether we realise it or not. In fact, it takes no more than a description of their clothing to build a variety of pictures of a person in our heads. Let’s try it:Picture a thirty-something woman in first a track suit, then an expensive designer dress, then in revealing club wear and finally in grubby jeans and a T-shirt. How did your picture change? Did you even see the same woman from one mental picture to the next?

What’s also important is the correlation between what your character wears and place. Does your character dress down or up when heading out in public? This can suggest whether they are self-conscious about their appearance or not, and whether they are aesthetically-minded or their focus lies elsewhere.

Build and confound character expectations using clothing description

You can quickly convey a number of things about your characters based on the clothing they wear. You can also subvert the initial impression of your readers and your other characters. For example, think about a wealthy person and how that person might dress. You may have imagined a man in an expensive suit or a woman in designer clothes. You can immediately signal to your reader that a character is wealthy with markers such as these. However, you can tell your reader some other things as well:

A wealthy character who dresses ostentatiously or in a way that draws attention to the expense of the clothing sends a different signal from a wealthy character who dresses in quality but modest, classic clothes. What about a wealthy character who actually dresses down? What would you think about a wealthy character who looked as though he shopped at thrift stores or one who was forever wearing poorly-fitted clothing that appeared to be handed down from friends? This detail could suggest that your character is either miserly or else down-to-earth despite his status, for example.

Use clothing to differentiate between characters’ professions and personalities

In addition to assessing someone’s social class, you may also draw conclusions about a person’s profession based on clothing. A uniform will send an obvious signal whether it is a military uniform, a flight attendant’s outfit or the required dress for a fast-food restaurant. How might a woman who is a CEO dress versus a teacher, an artist or a waitress? Once again, as with wealth, you might also think about how a character’s dress can dodge expectations, creating interest and surprise. A CEO who is always in jeans with her hair pulled back in a ponytail instead of a power suit might suggest that the character didn’t use representation of power to rise through the ranks. A teacher who is always dressed as though she is a CEO might send an impression of being inflexible, overly formal or perhaps aiming for a promotion.

Use clothing to show instead of tell

Outlandish dress may suggest that a character wants to be the centre of attention. Alternatively, it may signal a person could be out of touch with social norms or simply indifferent to them. Clothing can be an effective way of following the guideline that you should show instead of tell. A character who is resentful of being asked to attend a family dinner at an expensive restaurant might show up in clothes that barely meet the minimum dress code standards for example. On the other hand, this could simply be a way of showing that the character does not care about or is oblivious to appearances. Such a character might be direct, confident and/or rebellious.

Other types of clothing choices may have multiple interpretations as well, so it is important to consider ahead of time what you want to convey about your character with clothing choice and to be consistent. What does it say about a character who dresses in a way that is significantly older or younger than that character’s chronological age? In the former case, the character might be mature or might simply lack fashion sense. The latter character might be afraid of aging or be hanging onto a particular time of life that has passed. Or it could have a more positive suggestion, that the character has an irrepressible, bright and youthful outlook.

Aligning clothing changes with character developments

A shift in clothing choices can signify a change in a character. What do the following changes in clothing make you think has happened to the characters?

  • A character known for being impeccably dressed begins slouching around in ill-fitting clothes and track suits.
  • A character who has always worn T-shirts and jeans begins dressing up.
  • A character begins to dress in a way that is different to how others of their sex dress.

In the first two cases, the mental states of the characters seem mirrored in their action. In the first, the character might seem depressed while in the second the opposite appears to be the case. But these are only two possibilities. These changes could also suggest that the first character has finally learned to relax and stop worrying about what others think. The second character could simply be dressing more elegantly in response to nagging from a partner, sibling or parent.

The same may be true for the third character as well. These characters may be suddenly growing more comfortable with who they are, or they may be facing pressure from elsewhere to conform to a gender standard.

This is another point you can address when writing about a character’s clothing. How does the character feel in the clothing? A well-dressed woman striding confidently across the room in heels presents a very different picture from someone in the same outfit stumbling on the heels and tugging at the dress. Clothing can send subtle signals in other ways as well. For example, the poverty of a character may not be apparent until it is revealed that the character’s shoes have holes in the soles.

The clothing worn by our characters may come almost as an afterthought, yet clothing can convey so much about who we are and how we feel about ourselves. A character’s clothing can be used both to reinforce and undermine the readers’ and other characters’ ideas about that person.

Have you fleshed out your novel blueprint and begun creating vivid characters? Go here to start.


Images from here and here

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  • I used to be under the mindset that describing attire was boring and it was better to let the reader fill in those details… but especially with the novel I’m working on now, I have used clothing to portray more about their character. So this really reaffirmed that approach for me. You really can tell a lot about a person by what they wear, or what they don’t wear.

    • True, it all depends on your purpose. Subtle clothing changes can signal character development quite effectively in some scenarios.

  • Liv Heady

    This article was very helpful…can you post some examples of showing versus telling when describing clothing? Thanks I will be following your blog from now one I just came across it today.

    • Thanks Liv, I’m glad you found this helpful. As for showing with clothing rather than telling, a writer could say, ‘He was lazy and inattentive to his appearance’ about a character, or they could say ‘his clothes always looked like he’d just pulled them out of a pile in some corner of his bedroom and had thrown them on without a glance in the mirror’. You can use visual description to make a character more vivid in the reader’s mind’s eye.

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