The Secret To Great Characters

Well, I discovered that trying to write when you have a hangover is a big no no for me. Never mind, I did however manage to catch up with 300 e mails…only another 100 to go now lol….but anyway…..

I few weeks ago I went to The Victoria & Albert Musuems Hollywood Costume Exhibition

I’d never thought of the idea of costume designers being storytellers. Isn’t that the job of the scriptwriter? But movies are about characters and their costumes play a crucial role in bringing those characters to life.

The costume designer must know who a character is before they can design a costume. One that makes the audience believe that the character had a life before the start of the movie. The clothes then transform a character from being written and two dimensional to a point where an audience will actually believe they are real people.

The exhibition has over 100 iconic costumes from Charlie Chaplin, Judy Garlands Dorothy dress (plus ruby slippers) to what Keanu Reeves wore in the Matrix and Robert Downey Jnrs Sherlock Holmes attire.


It’s a fascinating exhibition in its own right, but, as a writer I found it very interesting *eyes light up*

If that’s all true (I’m not actually doubting it) then surely, it works the same for a writer? We want our characters to be real to our readers. We want them to be believable don’t we? So how important are your characters clothes in a work of fiction? It’s perhaps not important in a 1000 word short story, but in a novel?

Didn’t someone once say “clothes maketh the man.”? You can tell a lot about a person by the clothes they wear 😉

Do you describe in depth what clothes your characters are wearing?


38 thoughts on “The Secret To Great Characters

  1. Great insight. Clothes are absolutely important to the character’s development. It is one piece of the character puzzle that helps our readers to see the person as we want them to be seem. They should appear to be real so the reader connects and wants to know more about them; by reading our books, of course. 😉


  2. Vikki, thank you for sharing! You are right. Costume designers tell stories with clothes. i remember a make-up artist said on television that she told a story with her make-up. I agreed when I saw her work.

    In the early years of writing Sons of the Edisto – when I had more time – I drew characters and their clothes. I drew them with blank faces like fashion designers do with the exception of one. On the computer, i made one costume design of my main female character in a blue dress. It is very much ’20s style.

    What do you imagine your favorite characters wearing?


  3. I think clothes are very important. They define characters. As a reader, I can tell a lot about a character by the clothes and shoes they wear. Unfortunately, many agents, editors and readers do not like reading about what types of clothes people wear. They think it bogs down the story. I guess, like anything, it can be overdone, but I like giving my readers an idea of who they are reading about. A teen who wears :designer clothes and Rolex watches gives an entirely different impression than one who wears blue jeans and shoes with holes in the soles.


  4. I think viewing this sort of thing can be good for making you notice some details you might not have thought about, or giving a different perspective. All about keeping your eyes open and “viewing it through the correct lens”.


  5. Loved the piece Vikki. When I was acting it was shoes and costume that defined the character. Once I had the shoes and (part of) the costume on, all the hard work in rehearsals seemed to fall into place. And as writers we have to walk in our character’s shoes to bring them to life. Don’t you just love the process? Great piece! xxx


      • Not quite. But for me shoes are very important. Rehearsal is to give you time to know your character, become your character. Find out why they are like they are. Understand the relationship they have with the other characters. Who are you? Where are you? Why, what are they doing and when are most important. And leaning the lines of course. Making the words your character says your own. If you have the five W’s in place the lines come much more easily. Three quarters of the way through rehearsals, when you go for costume fittings, when you put on your character’s clothes and shoes, you’re half way there with the character. By the end of rehearsals it all comes together. The hard work pays off. And like magic, you are the character.


  6. I set off to London to meet a friend and go to the same exhibition but I hadn’t realised you needed to buy the tickets in advance. (Sad face) I had bought the afternoon tea though. (smiley face) Never mind we went to the Valentino exhibion instead which was extremely good and so was the tea. Will be watching to see what your characters are wearing in the future. 🙂


    • We got there when it opened Mary and they had some tickets left for the first time slot, so we were incredibly lucky 🙂 I was thinking about the Valentino exhibition 🙂

      He he he 🙂



  7. This is hard for me sometimes because I can’t ‘see’ their clothes to write them. If I really need to write what the character is wearing, I have to google that article of clothing and describe it while staring at the picture. But I avoid it if I can because clothing choice description in a contemporary piece isn’t important to me as a reader. That’s why show don’t tell is difficult for me. I can’t see the description when I read it because there’s no photo to conjure up in my mind’s eye. So that tends to be what I skip over in books I read. No image in my head, not important.


  8. It’s a great point, Vikki. Anne Tyler always uses clothes to aid with characterisation – I’m going to make more of an effort on that front in future. Also made me wonder what people would think about me from my clothes alone! I used to treat clothes like costumes when I was (much) younger, but these days I generally sling on jogging bottoms and a jumper to take my daughter to school, and this is my outfit for the day! x


  9. Great post – and I really wanted to get to that exhibition but probably won’t! I do describe what characters are wearing but not in great detail. I tend to mention one or two items or a colour to give a hint as to the sort of person they might be. If it was central to the story, I’d describe more. Mind you, writing as Bel Anderson, most of my characters only have their clothes on for a few lines…


    • Ha ha ha, I was gunna say, clothes are NOT the most important bit in your stories are they Bel 😉

      Yeah, I think there has to be a happy balance. I don’t think I’ll be describing EVERY piece of clothing.



  10. Ooo, what a fun exhibit! 🙂

    I love putting wardrobes together for my characters. When I first set out to write a story, I always comb through catalogs and ads to find the clothes my characters would wear. I cut them out and paste them into my notebook. 🙂 Because I know their style, I find it automatically works its way into my writing.


  11. Welcome to the A to Z Challenge. Your link was entered incorrectly on the Linky List, but hopefully Alex will be able to correct it okay.


  12. I saw that exhibit on its opening day along with a million people lol. But it was awesome! And yes, I do describe my characters’ clothes in detail, because it’s good way of showing who the characters are and not telling…


  13. Vikki, with two days knocked off the net … I missed this one. I only describe what they are wearing when it’s needed for the scene. It helps nail down their character quirks and personalities and it’s fun 🙂


  14. Clever post! My online teacher just did a class telling us to describe our clothes in the year we are writing about. Ours and our character’s clothes to make them more realistic and so the reader can step back into history. there are ways to learn about clothes on the internet and I think Pinterest will come in so handy for this. 🙂


  15. I try to describe what my characters are wearing every so often but I struggle with balancing detail with story progression. If you’re not careful, you can end up with 10 pages of details and sensory observations (how’d it smell? What were they wearing? What did the environment look like? etc…). It’ll pull the reader who appreciates the fine details into the story but annoy the bejeebus out of others.

    One day, though, I’ll have the guts to sit down and write a novel whose story line is steeped in hundreds of pages of details. Personally I love those kinds of novels it’s just such a tedious process. You really have to have patience.


  16. Pingback: I Reckon I’m A Downton Junkie | Another 12 Novels in 12 Months

  17. Hmm, I’m on the fence. I guess it depends on whether describing the clothing in detail is important, if it gives insight into the character or not. A stay-at-home mom who wears spandex to run her errands is interesting and I’d write out the details. But if that stay-at-home mom wore jeans and a T-shirt, I wouldn’t bother mentioning it because 1) it’s kinda expected and 2) it does nothing to illustrate the character further.


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