Image: Matthew Loffhagen
In life, we can tell a lot about a person by how they dress. We make first impressions – right or wrong – about someone’s personality, values, priorities, and preferences by what they wear. These impressions may be undermined and revised over time as we get to know a person, or perhaps they only get further reinforced. In fiction, clothing serves the same purpose, granting authors the ability to influence their readers in subtle but effective ways.
Fashion choices can help with everything from character development to world building. So, whether you’re planning to sew a burgundy vowel to your protagonist’s dress or only gift them a single sock, here’s what you need to know about dressing your characters.
Clothing as character development
How your character dresses can tell readers a lot about them. In the most obvious sense, it can mirror a character’s authentic inner reality. A high-powered professional might dress in flawless outfits, even on a day off. A busy stay-at-home parent might live perpetually in sweatpants and a T-shirt. A self-conscious teen might hide under layers of ill-fitting clothes. These are the more overt ways of reinforcing character.Clothing can help define a character’s inner life, even if it’s through contrast.Click To Tweet
But what about subverting character traits? Consider an insecure mom who takes too much care with what she’s wearing to the kids’ playdate, or a nerdy teenager dressing to infiltrate a clique. Clothing can also be a reflection of some inner struggle, insincerity, or even deception in more extreme cases. There’s a reason fiction is awash with well-dressed murderers.
In this way, clothes can be both a technique to help readers visualize the world of the story and a tool to strengthen character development. The key to deciding how to use these techniques is to spend time with your characters. Try and discern their psychology, their inner selves, and imagine how those aspects might manifest in their sense of style (or lack thereof). David Corbett approaches this idea in his book The Art of Character:
Beyond the issue of shabby versus neat, comfy versus haute couture, questions worth considering include:
- Does your character have a sense of style? In what way – Goth? Bohemian? Label conscious? Does she disdain style as a narcissistic bother?
- Does she suit her dress to the occasion, or wear whatever she wants whenever she wants, occasion be damned?
- How crowded are her closets? Does this make her feel proud or uneasy?
- How old is the oldest thing she owns? How new is the newest? What does this tell you about her?
- Is there a favorite item of clothing? When was the last time he wore it? …
Remember, these questions should not prompt answers but scenes.
Of course, these questions aren’t limited to individuals. Considering the styles and choices of a society is a great way to build a fictional world, whether it’s the plain overalls of 1984’s oppressive, conformity-obsessed society or the decadent pageantry of Panem in The Hunger Games.
Considering your world’s trends and fashions should also give you a new viewpoint on how to dress your characters – to what degree do they conform or rebel, and how do they express that in contrast to the fashion around them?
Clothing in developing theme
In addition to reinforcing or subverting character development, clothing can be used as a tool to develop themes in fiction. Whether we’re conscious of it or not, our sense of style in general – and our choices about what we wear in particular – are directly related to our inner lives, our insecurities, and our sense of self-worth. Imagine the wealth of possibility this creates for exploring and developing themes.
Identity is a main theme in Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl, in which twin girls – Cath and Wren – navigate college and their ever-evolving relationship and individual identities. Consider this scene in which Cath is getting dressed for a party (a rare occasion for Cath):
When she and Wren divided up their clothes, Wren had taken anything that said “party at a boy’s place” or “leaving the house.” Cath had taken everything that said “up all night writing” or “it’s okay to spill tea on this.” She’d accidentally grabbed a pair of Wren’s jeans at Thanksgiving, so she put those on. She found a white T-shirt … there was a weird stain she’d have to hide with a sweater. She dug out her least piled-up black cardigan.
The great thing about this approach is that it works on multiple levels: it’s a perfect visual to draw readers into the moment and Cath’s emotional state, and it continues to develop that theme of identity that’s strung throughout the whole book.How can clothing reinforce your story’s themes?Click To Tweet
What about your characters? What themes are you developing in their stories, and how might you use clothing as a tool to reinforce it throughout the book?
Though there’s no magic formula for writing great clothing descriptions, consider these tips to guide you:
Make a strong first impression
Use a few memorable and striking details in your initial description. Then reinforce those aspects occasionally throughout the scene and throughout the book to help keep the visual and thematic effect in the reader’s mind.Everyone in your story is wearing something – don’t pass up the opportunity to say what.Click To Tweet
Think favorite colors, patterns, types of items, or styles that do the heavy lifting of developing your character or reinforcing a theme. The more striking and representative this item is, the easier it will be to repeat it later and jog the reader’s memory. After all, the most famous short story in existence is just a description of some shoes.
For sale: baby shoes, never worn.
– Commonly attributed to Ernest Hemingway
Keep it natural
Work your description into the scene in a natural way so that it feels authentic and organic to the story and won’t pull the reader out of the narrative. The more in-tune you are with your characters, the easier this will be.
Getting dressed, receiving a compliment from another character, going shopping, packing for a trip – these are just a few opportunities to get you started.
[You can] convey with remarkable economy not just the character’s appearance but her essence.
Say yes to the dress
Dressing your characters can be fun! But clothing is more than just fashion sense, it’s a tool writers can use to aid their character development, flesh out a book’s themes, and draw the reader more fully into the world of the story.Fashion can be a fantastic route to world building, if you let it.Click To Tweet
How have you used clothing in your novels to develop your characters or reinforce themes? Tell us about other creative ways you make use of clothing as a tool in your writing. Or, for advice on a similar theme, check out Understanding Cultural Trends Can Help You Write A Bestseller, Save That Cat! The Easy Secret To Introducing A Hero, and How To Give Your Hero Some Personality.