Showing Characters instead of telling readers what they think

Would you dance with this man dressed in:

…his orange suede elevator shoes and mingy T-shirt and droopy blue sports coat (Sylvia Plath, “The Bell Jar”)?

Clothing and accessories show a lot about someone’s character and make the difference between a character seeming two-dimensional and too generic and a character readers want to know better or even loathe.

He was too young, too handsome, built like an athlete, and dressed like a slacker in creased black jeans and a faded green sweatshirt from the University of Notre Dame. The clerical collar seemed at odds with the cowboy boots. (Tami Hoag, “Guilty as Sin”)

No one in real life just wears a tee shirt with a pair of jeans. Some one in a pair of light blue jeans, belted at the waist, a branded sweatshirt, branded running shoes, a blouson jacket and gel-tousled hair is going to have a very different character from someone with a moon-like pallor, dark, wide-leg jeans over thick-soled boots and black tee shirt. Even something as seemingly uniform as a business suit can give away a lot about the wearer. Someone in a shiny polyester suit is on a completely different pay scale to someone wearing a bespoke tailored suit.

She was wearing a magenta corset, which trailed back into ruffles that dragged on the floor. Beneath it she wore ripped jeans and turquoise cowboy boots. The top half of her looked like Scarlett O’Hara halfway through a striptease. The bottom half looked like she’d escaped a cage fight with a rabid badger… The makeup girl pointed as Tasia in dismay. ‘Look at her. She’s been playing in the crayon box.’ (Meg Gardiner, “Liar’s Lullaby”)

Accessories are another opportunity. Choice of footwear can say something about the wear’s personality, where someone is going, whether the shoes are polished or scuffed or can point towards contradictions or someone pretending to be or to have done something they haven’t. If a character says they’ve been for a country walk on a wet day but their shoes are dry with no traces of mud, have they been on that walk? Someone with matching, designer-labelled clothes let down with worn, scuffed shoes is trying to create an impression that doesn’t reflect their true character.

Lois sat sturdily, with her knees, as usual, a little apart, her ungloved hands were folded over a huge leather handbag; on her dark face was the expression of the woman who is wondering how she is going to manage about the extra person to dinner (Jean Rhys, “Quartet”).

Movement gives away personality and mood too. Would you trust this character?

Sal, his awful hair, black and greasy slicked back to cover a bald spot. He always stunk of booze and sex, filthy hands nervously checking front and back pockets, smoothing his oily mane back, grabbing his own ass, running a dirty index over chapped lips. (Lydia Lunch, “Paradoxia).

What are your characters wearing? If you’ve grabbed generic, off the peg clothing (even uniform-wearers have hair-styles, deportment and/or cosmetics to personalise their look), you’ll lose your readers who won’t care about characters they can’t engage with.


3 Responses to “Showing Characters instead of telling readers what they think”

  1. Outside The Box Says:

    Thank you for this advice. I have forwarded it to my teenage daughter.

  2. Kick-starting New Poems | Emma Lee's Blog Says:

    […] Without staring or making someone feel uncomfortable, notice someone on your next journey or daily commute. Briefly, mentally note what they’re wearing and carrying. Later write down what you remember (what you remember doesn’t have to be accurate: you’re not writing about the person you saw, you’re creating fiction) and create a back-story for them, showing their character through their choice of clothes. […]

  3. What Prose Writers Can Learn from Great Poetry | Emma Lee's Blog Says:

    […] I’m not saying plot and narrative progression don’t matter. On the contrary, abstract meditation and other impressionistic elements can actually strengthen the force of a narrative by making a character’s experience or point of view more immersive and engaging — so when it comes to narrative and poetic prose, don’t feel like you need to choose one over the other. (For more on how to strike this balance, check out Emma’s post on showing rather than telling!) […]

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