Learning Characters

As I watched the first presidential debate earlier this week, I started thinking about characters.  This isn’t the first time watching politicians has sparked musings on characters, and probably won’t be the last.  The interesting thing about such events is watching real people, not actors playing a character.  Although maybe some would argue that point!  Then I started thinking about doing job interviews — the debates are essentially job interviews — or auditions if you’re in the arts, and how carefully prepared candidates must be, right down to the kind of shoes they’re wearing.

Clothes say a lot about a person.  Think about that when you’re thinking about a fictional character that has come into your mind.  What is his or her fashion style?  Does he like clothes?  What are his favorite clothes to wear?  When I watch people out on the street, I notice what they wear but I also notice how their clothes fit.  That can also reveal something about the character — she cares about her appearance or she’s a fashionista or she’s a perfectionist.  The other evening on the bus, I watched a young woman board who had a dramatic presence.  Part of this presence was her bearing and demeanor, but most of it was her clothing style and the fact that she wore black high-heeled boots.  An even more interesting detail: she had secured a bicycle to the front on the bike rack.  She clearly wasn’t on her way to a job interview.

Take two 30-year-old women of approximately the same height.  Stand them side by side.  The one on the left wears a green turtleneck knit dress with a skinny black belt around her waist, black stiletto heels, and carries a black leather hobo shoulder bag.  The one on the right wears a three-piece navy blue suit, white silk blouse and pearls with pearl drop earrings, a dark brown leather shoulder bag, and navy blue 1-inch heel leather shoes.  OK, what kind of job is each going on an interview for?

Your character already has a job.  What does he wear to work?  Does his work play an important role in his story?  Sometimes a character’s occupation has nothing to do with the story, but sometimes it’s an integral part of it, like with Evan Quinn in the Perceval series.  He is a symphony orchestra conductor.  His work clothes consist of white tie and tails, black shoes with good support, black socks, for evening concerts.  For summer evening concerts, he’d wear tuxedo pants with a white dinner jacket, white shirt and black bow tie.  For daytime concerts, he would wear a nice suit.  When he’s not conducting a concert, he wears jeans, T-shirts or sweatshirts and running shoes.  When he’s in America in 2048, he cannot afford to buy a lot of clothes, but when he’s in Europe, he learns that he likes to have nice clothes and look sharp.

And then there’s the hair style.  This can be a highly personal thing for a person and that’s also true for fictional characters.  Grooming reveals character just as clothing does.  I once dated a guy who did not trim his nails or clean under them.  We did not date for very long.  He tuned pianos for a living so he had no excuse for the dirty fingernails.  If someone has dirty hair, this leaves a negative impression.  Clean, shiny hair attracts people, and if it smells lovely, so much the better.  But what about the style?  A hair style can accentuate a face or hide it.  The style can balance a small head on a large body or reveal a character’s income bracket.  A guy with a pony tail shows us something about his life philosophy whereas an adult male with a buzz cut says something else.

Actors understand very well how clothes, hair, accessories and style can give clues to a character.  Even a color can give a hint about what a character thinks about himself.  So, the next time you’re wondering about a character in a story, why not ask him or her to take you shopping for new clothes for them?




2 responses to “Learning Characters

  1. Very good point. The way we dress is the main avenue we have for physically expressing ourselves, and can say so much about us, whether we think very much about our clothing or not. I definitely notice other people’s clothing and make judgements about what kinds of people they are as a result. So you’re right – it should be a vital part of character development!

  2. Hello! I really enjoyed your post. When I stay in the street, I like watching poeple. I try to imagine what kind of poeple they are, what they like, what’s their job, who are their parents… only basing on their appearance. I agree with you when you say that clothes are important to imagine a character. Probably the first thing to think about. Have a nice week-end!

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