Please welcome James R Callan, mystery writer and author of a resource for writers: Character: The Heartbeat of a Novel.

cover-character Forget the Labels

We’ve all heard, “Clothes make the man.” Actually, I don’t believe that. But I do believe the writer can use clothes to show her readers a lot about a character – without actually telling those things.

I’m not talking about giving the reader the designer’s name for each piece of clothing the character is wearing. Personally, I tire of that quickly. I know other avid readers who feel the same way. It’s one of the instances when I’m taken out of the story by the thought that the writer is trying to impress me with her knowledge of all those designers.

I’m sure some readers and perhaps some publishers like that attention to detail. Frankly, that’s too easy to get much credit for detail. Once you’ve established this character likes designer labels, the rest is not so much detail as fluff.

If you’re trying to get across the idea that this character has a lot of money, or she shops at exclusive boutiques, or designer clothes are important to her, or she was raised to wear only designer clothes, then I believe you can do that in a better way.

What I want to explore today is what clothes tell us about the character, rather than who manufactured the clothes. Here’s an example from my book on character development, Character: The Heartbeat of the Novel.

The silky material clung to every curve and garnered the attention of every male, and many of the females, in the crowded room. Jane tugged at the skirt, trying to keep it from hugging her hips. Why did she get talked into wearing this? Her blue cotton skirt and white blouse would have been more comfortable.

Regardless of what label adorns the skirt, the reader gets a good feel for how Jane feels about clothes. Even more important, we have shown the reader a lot about Jane, how she feels about herself, how she sees herself. We accomplished this in a subtle way, but the reader will get it very clearly.

You can accomplish similar things by showing how a character feels about other aspects of personal care or appearance. Here are two examples from my character development book.

Jennifer fished a lipstick out of her purse and with two quick motions ran a hint of pink across her lips.

Ashley used a fine brush to outline her lips, opened another tube and brushed on a deep rose color to her lips. Finally, she applied a thin coat of gloss. She studied the effect. It was only a casual lunch. This would do.

Do you get a clear picture of how these two women deal with appearances? Does this show you something about them, without the author having to tell you?

Could I tell you Ashley is very concerned that she always looks her best, even at casual events? Certainly. But in this short paragraph, I have shown you much more clearly, and in a way you will likely remember. I could write several paragraphs explaining that Jennifer isn’t concerned with makeup. She uses lipstick mainly to keep her lips from drying out, plus a little color gives her face more definition. She is confident in her looks and doesn’t feel like she needs to enhance them. But one sentence gives the reader most of that and in a way that will be believed.

The universal admonition is: “show, don’t tell.” Use clothes, makeup, and hair not so much to tell the reader the outward appearance, but to show the reader who this character really is, how they feel about themselves, how they relate to others.

Cover-A Ton of Gold

After a successful career in mathematics and computer science, receiving grants from the National Science Foundation and NASA, and being listed in Who’s Who in Computer Science and Two Thousand Notable Americans, James R. Callan turned to his first love—writing. He wrote a monthly column for a national magazine for two years, and published four non-fiction books. He now concentrates on his favorite genre, mysteries, with his sixth book releasing in Spring, 2014.

Amazon Author page:
Twitter: @jamesrcallan

A Ton of Gold On Amazon at: or Nook at:

Character: The Heartbeat of the Novel, (Oak Tree Press, 2013)
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