Friday, May 1, 2015

Clothes Can Make the Character

The Wardrobe is an online journal based out of the UK that focuses on a very specific subject: clothes. ( As they explain on their Internet page:

“Clothes are often overlooked in life and literature and considered frivolous, but they shape character, draw out concepts and connect you to your culture and landscape. As signals for who we are, where we are and what we are, clothes are invaluably transformative and revealing.”

Previous eFiles in this series have focused on characters, specifically their personalities and motives, and to some extent, physical attributes as they might pertain to those areas. This time around, let's talk about their what they look like above skin level.


There are a number of ways to describe a character. One method is the bare bones. The author gives very little in the way of physical descriptions, leaving the reader to fill in the blanks with whatever they imagine. Usually, this is the technique in short stories. It's a matter of space.

In another method, a frequently published author introduces a character and immediately sets out a physical description. To be honest, I don't like that approach because it disrupts the flow of the story. As example, the protagonist is following the antagonist when a woman steps in his path. She is a tall redhead . . . A paragraph later we find out why she got in the way and what happened to the bad guy.

Another method is to give a quick description and add more detail at a later time or sprinkled throughout the story as is pertinent. I tend to this method so that the plot flows uninterrupted. As example, this is one of the crewmen aboard the protagonist's ship:

"[The stowaways were] assigned a teacher. That it was the Irishman, Cochran, was a pleasing choice. He'd instruct them well." (p.23 early)
"Cochran's laugh was not mean, but the boys weren't sure how to take him. He had a light way about himself." (p.23 late)
"“The name's Mr. Cochran. Just Mr. Cochran. When we be socializin' ye can call me Dónall.”" (p.24)
"“They have good eyes, too, just like blue-eyed Cochran.”" [p.26] (reference to being a lookout)
". . . being pink-skinned like Cochran" [p.26]
". . . the inveterate storyteller." [p.31]

"Cochran was thirty-six, young-looking with a light-hearted, carefree demeanor people liked to be around. Unlike Pasquel whose dark skin tolerated the sun, Cochran was fair skinned with a splash of freckles across the nose and a perpetual reddish glow, so he always wore a shirt and hat when working in the sunlight. He was slender, never seeming to put on weight as hard as Mr. Lytle tried. A hard worker, he was one of the few who could give [the captain] a good match with the cutlass and keep up as the two swam alongside the Raven. Any attempt at growing a beard was a disaster. Apparently some ancestry kept him clean as if newly shaved. The only mark on his smooth skin was the ugly scar on the left shoulder from [the captain's] knife. It saved him from losing the arm when he'd been injured in battle six years before." [p.96]

Dónall Cochran is a re-occurring actor throughout the story, and obviously appeared in a previous novel. His physical appearance comes in bits and pieces as they become important without disrupting the flow of the story or as a boost to other actors or events.

When describing a character, physical details are important because they can say a great deal about them.

1.  Think of hair—straight, wavy, curled, kinky, thick, thin, bald fuzz, halo, long, short, color.

2.  Think of eyes—round, oval, almond, recessed, dark, bright, overhung by a thick brow, (which could be thin, thick, long like an old man).

3.  Think of noses, mouths, ears, facial hair. Each detail shapes the personality of your character and we haven't even gotten below the shoulders which are . . .

And what about those clothes? What a character wears, how, and why can be important. In a story under construct, the antagonist usually is seen with a chest-length, powered wig and all the rest of a 15th Century English peacock's attire. The protagonist (a ship captain) tends to be casual, hat, loose-fitting shirt, short trousers, seldom with shoes. The natives they encounter group themselves into classes which can be identified by what they wear—the length of the breach cloth, from short for low class to ankle length for the chief. Older and married women wear a short breach cloth while unmarried girls and children wear nothing. And not only what they wear, but how the clothes look—clean, pressed, wrinkled, soiled, torn, worn thin, dull to bright colors, the kinds of fabrics, how they are made.

Your sources can come from a person walking down the street or research. If writing historically-based novels the focus is on research since hardly anyone dresses like that—go online, books, museums, photo collections. Writing about clothing in futuristic stories could go from whimsical to best guess.

The external appearance of your actors can be as important as their physicals, internal thoughts, and behaviors to present a complete picture. Whatever you write, consider the importance of clothing along with all those other things that bring the character and story alive.