Research Writing

Dressing your characters

Describing your character’s dress and appearance can be the sign of poor writing taste – but not if you do it in the right context, as a Harvard Business School study has just confirmed.

When writing a story, having a character know what the norms are and being able to conform or break them, and how others react to this, can help a story. While some dress differently “to communicate that they are different or worthy of attention”, the exact effects have been found in a psychological study.

And it led to interesting results relevant to writers.

Suited mannequin with cameras
Watch your character’s description. Via laverrue

Writing the man in the mirror

You’re a writer. You know what your character looks like, the reader knows what they need to look like, surely? So what many a new writer has done is either just plain describe the character, or try and be imaginative by having the protagonist stop and look in the mirror and describe themselves.

With few exceptions – say where self-description is part of Patrick Bateman narcissism in The American Psycho – it is a technique that is generally despised and largely written off as cliché by writers.

This is where the report comes in, for it looks not just at the clothing but how others react to appearance and attire.

Gym pants in Gucci

Doctoral student Silvia Bellezz  set up a series of tests on shop assistants and students to find out how they’d react to different people. The article has the full details but the summary is:

  • Shoppers at exclusive Milanese boutiques were judged by assistants as out to spend if they came in gym clothes rather than in furs.
  • Tweedy lecturers in brogues and ties were seen as less intellectual than one who rocks up to lectures in t-shirt and trainers.
  • But – and this applies to both – only if they seen to know what they’re doing.

Clothing caveat

The final point is important – those judging someone’s clothing needs to feel that they are aware of being there. So your stereotypical chav in Kappa and Adidas who stumbles in to Gucci won’t be considered as there to spend, if they’re considered at all.

However, those who purposely go in to such as shop wearing gym gear were seen by assistants as comfortable enough in themselves to be able to do so – and so would be there to spend.

Likewise with the lecturers, those who were seen as comfortable enough to wear t-shirts were deemed to be confident enough in their knowledge to get away with it.

Yet breaking the norms wasn’t always a good thing. Someone who wore a red bow-tie to a black-tie ball not because they were making a point but because they were clueless would lose any cred they had for breaking boundaries.

Writing description

What this means for writers is that they should first consider the reaction of others around their characters before choosing to describe them.

Stamp out any scene where the character is described or describes themselves. Pencil out any passages where the mirror is gazed upon. Instead replace this with characters reacting to them – it’s easy to write ‘flame haired with a body to die for’ but trickier, and ultimately worth the effort, to show how that red hair and svelte body has an effect on others. Does it cause a character to change their reaction compared to others, does it lead to ginger jeers?

‘Essence and emotion’

Finally, one thought came from Pilar Alessandro. Scripts require a description of main characters, but don’t just describe them as ‘blonde and beautiful’. She recommends ‘essence and emotion’.

By this she means describe their essence while the character is doing something. Her examples are:

  • Chet. A good looking jock who reached his pinnacle in high school, plops down at the table holding a crumpled Starbucks uniform.
  • Susie, a mousey cubicle worker, sits at her desk and stares at a thin slice of sky through a distant window.

Better than just putting “Chet, wearing a Starbucks uniform and former jock”, or “Susie has brown lank hair and is wearing a faded cardigan. She is at her desk”.

So  next time you feel like describing your characters instead think how others react to them; aim to capture their essence, not their appearance. 

By Jonathan Richardson

Jonathan Richardson is a writer and the editor of Considered Words.

He's worked as a journalist, writer and analyst for organisations including the BBC and Which? He's also written for the stage in Cambridge, radio and sketches at the Edinburgh festival.

He's now a freelance writer and data analyst.

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