Your Character’s Closet: How Clothing can Improve Characterization

Your Character’s Closet: How Clothing can Enhance Characterization

What’s in your character’s closet?

And not the skeletons in their closet (although that’s fun, too). Like, their selection of clothes. How much thought have you put into what your characters wear?

Years later, I still remember reading a series of books where one character always wore loose clothing. He never wore anything tight around the neck. I hadn’t even noticed until several books in, someone else mentioned that he hated feeling tied down or restricted, and so that was reflected in his clothes. He didn’t want to feel collared.

It’s not necessary to go into intricate detail in describing the clothes your character chooses to wear each day, unless it’s something important to the plot. Typically, I think clothing descriptions should be brief and subtle. But at the same time, putting characters in their own style of everyday wear is another unique way to characterize who they are as a person.

There’s no need to give a full, detailed description every time they change outfits. But these little details will occasionally pop up around your story. Your character puts something into their pocket. Jean pocket? Back or front? Hoodie pocket? Shirt pocket? Winter jacket pocket? Business suit pocket? Purse pocket?

By adding a snippet of detail, it’s no longer the broad idea of a pocket—it’s the back jean pocket on a pair of skinny jeans, and we can associate a mental image with it.

Description Example:

She tucked the letter into her pocket.

She tucked the letter into the back pocket of her jeans.

Now the reader has a more solid image of this girl. She’s wearing jeans. It’s nothing crazy, but it gives the world a bit more solidity. In this case, it even says something about the letter, too. Either it’s small enough to fit, or she folded it up beforehand.

Maybe you could even make it:

She folded the letter into a tiny square before tucking it into the back pocket of her jeans.

I think I’m getting off track here, and you don’t want to get too wordy. It’s not like you should mention clothing absolutely every time you describe a character, but at the same time, a flavoring of detail can be nice. It gives the world texture.

I don’t know who this girl is or what the letter means to her, but the fact that she folded it up really tiny instead of just in half might be some kind of indicator for how she feels about this letter.

It’s good to know what your character will wear on an everyday basis, but also think of any special pieces of clothing they own. Maybe your character has a favorite jacket, hat, pair of boots, jewelry, etc.

For this sample character, it’s not just a pair of jeans; it’s her favorite pair of jeans. The pair she bought while out shopping with her best friend. The knee is torn from when they hopped the fence to an abandoned building on a dare. There’s faded pen swirls and designs on the right leg, where she and her best friend take turns drawing when they’re zoning out in class.

Establishing a Character’s “Inventory”

Having an established “Inventory” for your character, so to speak, makes the world more realistic. It can also show us what that character’s personality and what they value. Again, keeping it necessary. We don’t need a laundry list.

If you wanted to incorporate this favorite pair of jeans, for example, it should serve as a symbol of the relationship between her and her best friend, which should have trouble/be put to the test during the course of the story to justify making the jeans important.

Let’s say another character, Alice, typically wears a set of boots. They’re not as intense as combat boots, and they’re not flashy, diamond studded fashionable boots. They’re somewhat plain, but sleek and subtly stylish (I imagine a soft black velvet with a buckle across the side). No heels, either. So a nice mix of “looks good” with “comfortable/practical.”

All this adds to her character—she’s trying to appear tougher, and the boots she wears give a more “closed off” vibe than a pair of flip flops. But more than that, she wants to look good without drawing too much attention. At the same time, these are more of a “comfort” wear than anything else, so they need to be practical and something she can wear with almost any outfit, for almost any occasion.

Do I mention each of these details in the story? Probably not. I’ll mention she wears boots, certainly. And if the time is right to mention another detail, I would. But in this case, the brunt of the value comes from ME knowing about these details. It ends up seeping, subconsciously, into your writing, and making the world expand beyond your written pages.

If you don’t know where to start, go for basics:

  • Do they prefer wearing light colors or dark colors? Flashy colors or something more subtle?
  • Do they dress for comfort, for fashion, for practicality, or some mix?
  • How much effort/time do they put into getting ready each day?
  • How conservative do they dress? How much skin are they comfortable showing? Where are they comfortable showing skin? (don’t take this as a virgin vs whore kind of dichotomy for your female characters. It can be a lot more complex than that, or simply a preference, like not minding a low-cut shirt but feeling uncomfortable in shorts)
  • Are they aware of which colors they look best in, based on their eye/skin/hair colors? Do they take advantage of that?
  • Does their clothing have to fit their lifestyle choices/preferences/hobbies/etc? (Like, something tight but not constrictive for someone who does parkour, a layered or long-sleeve style for someone who gets cold easily, avoiding black and certain types of fabric for someone who works with a lot of animals, and so on.)

It’s not the ultimate decider, but how your character answers those questions should reflect their personality in some way, or reflect how they want others to see them. If they aren’t as concerned with how others view/judge them, they’re more likely to dress for comfort. If they value certain lifestyle choices or hobbies, they’ll likely dress to fit those needs.

Just remember…

The character chooses their clothing. Their clothing shouldn’t define them. It’s not “Because Alice wears boots, she’s trying to appear tough.” Rather, it’s “Because Alice wants to appear tough, she wears boots.” Not everyone who wears boots wears them for the same reason Alice does.

And everyone should be dressing differently! It’s another way to distinguish your characters and make them all distinctive individuals. Some will dress in whatever’s the most comfortable. Others aim for sexy or beautiful or professional, or some combination of those. One character might be very fashion-conscious, while another really doesn’t care what’s “in.” The choice of giving her a hoodie and giving him a pullover sweater can start to map out who they are and how they’re different than others.

Once you have their everyday attire down, think about other areas of their life. What kind of bathing suit? Bikini vs a one piece? Speedo vs trunks? What do they wear to bed? How about a formal occasion? (Am I telling you to make all your characters into Sims as a way to make procrastination seem more “productive”…?)

If you’re the visual type who wants to actually SEE your character, then the Sims probably is a good tool for you. As another option, here’s a free fashion doll dress up website that might help you. Yes, a fashion doll dress up site. Some of the “styles” you can choose from are pretty cool though, so you should check it out.

Have you put much thought into what your character wears? In the comments, give a description of their favorite clothing item, like I did for Alice!

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