I’m betting you know the old saying, “The clothing makes the man.” I can’t honestly say what brought it to mind, but for some reason, I started wondering whether it translated for books: “the clothing makes the character.” Is that really true?
So I tried applying the idea to some famous examples:
- Would Drizzt Do’Urden be a different character if he wore bright, cheerful colors? Say, extravagant silks embroidered in gold and covered in gems and seed pearls?
- What about Bilbo Baggins? Would he be the same in a floursack tunic and plain pants?
- Would Ender Wiggin be the same if he wore tights and a leotard for training at the Battle School? Preferably in a soft pastel with a delicate pattern on it. Like weapons re-interpreted as flowers.
It’s ok. I’ll wait ’til you stop laughing and wincing.
Hard to imagine, isn’t it? In fact, it’s hysterically wrong. Those clothes are so different from how we think of those characters that it’s hard to even picture. So the clothing must have something to do with making the character, right?
The Clothing Makes the Character
Because the Character Makes the Clothing
No, literal-minded people (like me), I’m not saying the characters weave and sew their own clothing (well, some of them might but not most). Most characters, on the other hand, usually choose their own clothing.
That’s why it’s strange to think of those characters in unusual clothing – it’s not clothing they would pick under normal circumstances. Bilbo was upset about not having a pocket handkerchief for goodness sake! He would not pick something plain and rough when given other options.
And that’s actually my point. The clothing a character chooses reveals a great deal about that character’s personality and situation.
Clothing Shows More Than We Think
Practicality v. status. Personally flattering v. appealing to fashion. Career-based v. comfort-based. Culture. Region. Socio-economic status.
All these facets of characters and their lives influence their choices of clothing, personal grooming, and accessories. An extremely practical person isn’t going to prefer an outfit made of an easily-wrinkled, itchy fabric for everyday wear. Or something that impedes movement or has to be tugged back into place all the time. On the other hand, someone who loves fashion isn’t going to pick a Hawaiian shirt, khaki shorts, dark socks (knee-high), and sandals. Not in modern-day U.S., anyway.
As a rule, people pick clothing that portrays an image that they feel comfortable with. Something that suits their needs for the day but also reflects their personality, their values, and who they want people to perceive them to be.
And isn’t that the point of the original saying?
People make fast judgments about everyone they meet – based on behavior, yes, but also on appearance. Think about all the dos and don’ts we’re given for dressing for a job interview. Well, this is the reason, and it works the same way for your characters.
The clothing you give your characters gives automatic hints at what that character is like and what that character values. It’s a great way to add quirks or reveal hidden depths. Plus, the other characters are going to make assumptions about that character because of their looks as well as their actions. And, don’t forget, so are the readers!
It’s implicit characterization. That’s what it’s for.
So when you’re building a character, think not only of what the character would pick but also of what impression you want the character to give other characters – and how to tie that into your plot!
Use the clothing to make the character what you want it to be.