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Clothing Your Characters

Therese butting in for a second to announce that Liz Michalski, a frequent guest here at WU and assistant editor of the WU newsletter, Writer Inboxed, will be contributing here on WU the blog more frequently! I’ve always enjoyed Liz’s unique posts, and I think you will as well. Please join me in welcoming her!

Clothing Your Characters

National Aids Trust (NAT) - Walk for Life - Red Shoes [1]
Red Shoes by NAT – National AIDS Trust, on Flickr

Confession time: I am a fashion faux pas.

It could be the eight years I spent in a Catholic school uniform so plaidly hideous, my fashion taste buds withered and died.

It could be my first job as a newspaper reporter. (Poorly paid but righteous in their desire to report the truth, print reporters, as a rule, are the worst-dressed people in the room. ) Add in an equine addiction and a horse who required $150 in steel shoes every other month, and you’ll understand why my own soles were happy just to have bargain-basement sneakers.

That changed a few years ago, when I had an unexpected event. Normally, I’d call my sister or a friend and borrow an outfit from their closets, but neither were around. So I bit the bullet, went shopping, and walked out with a lovely dress that fit me — not my sister or my friend. I didn’t have to roll up the sleeves or tape up the hem. I went to my event and rocked it. And that, my friends, was my fashion awakening. At my very advanced age I finally understood that clothes, do indeed, make the (wo)man.

They also make the character.

Clothes, I’ve finally figured out, are shorthand for how we present ourselves to the world.  Think about the people you see each day and how many of them have a unique style.  At the school pickup lane alone, I see The New Yorker, The Sophisticated European, The Athlete, and The WannaBe Hippie.  We dress to impress. We dress to fit in. We dress to show we (don’t) care.

Our characters do these things as well. Clothes can be an easy way to tell a reader who a character is, as well as what is on his or her mind. It’s a writing shorthand, a way to do two things at once — describe what a character looks like on the outside and give the reader a peek at what’s happening internally. And anytime you can use one set of words to perform two functions, it’s good.

So ask yourself:

What does your character like to wear, and what happens when she dons the opposite?  In my first book, one of my characters dresses in utilitarian clothes, but for a special meeting, she purchases a gorgeous silk outfit. I wanted to show how important the meeting was for her.

What’s quirky about her clothes? The same character I mentioned above cuts holes in her tennis shoes to relieve her bunions. In The Graveyard Book, a heartbreakingly beautiful story by Neil Gaiman about growing up and the passage of time, the main character sometimes wears winding sheets — odd, yes, but a way to reinforce the main setting, which is a graveyard.

What’s in her closet? Is it designer or bargain basement? A person who makes minimum wage and saves all year to buy Prada sunglasses may have a very different viewpoint from someone who can afford to buy several pairs at a time.

What does your character reach for on an average day, and what happens when it’s not there? Do other people recognize her by her clothes? What happens when she’s forced to change her style for some reason?

Who does she steal clothes from, and how does wearing them make her feel? A woman who keeps her high school boyfriend’s sweater in the closet even after she’s married to someone else may have some interesting thoughts to share. A woman who wears her daughter’s sweater when that daughter is away at college has very different thoughts.

What condition are her clothes in?  Are they ironed? By your character, or by someone else? Does she wear her clothes ripped or stained? If she wears armor, is it shiny and new, or dented and old?  Did your character receive the blows that made those dents, or did someone else wear the armor first? Are those dents badges of pride, or signs of shame?

I’m not asking for pages and pages of description here, unless you are writing a fashion biopic. But carefully considering what your character wears, and how she wears it, will make her unique and lend readers insight into her psyche and the circumstances that surround her.

About Liz Michalski [2]

Liz Michalski's first novel, Evenfall, was published by Berkley Books (Penguin). Liz has been a reporter, an editor, and a freelance writer. In her previous life, she wrangled with ill-tempered horses and oversized show dogs. These days she's downsized to one husband, two children and a medium-sized mutt.