Character Appearance

Physical appearance says a lot about a character. Sometimes writers get fixated on internal thought, and readers never get a look at the character’s dress and looks. When using first-person point of view it can be especially tricky, because in our own lives as “I” speakers, we rarely have a reason to launch into an account of what we’re wearing. Other people can see what we’re wearing, and no one is asking anyway.

One trick in first person is to find an opportunity to get your protagonist in front of a mirror or reflection. You might include a scene of them getting dressed, but that could be a bit mundane. (A common item on agent’s no-no lists are chapters opening with characters waking up, showering, etc.) I like the scene in Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs, when Tim Roth’s character, the undercover cop, sizes himself up in the mirror to see how convincing he looks in the leather jacket. A moment of doubt or self-assessment is a great time to show a character’s clothes. Maybe they’re headed out on a date or a job interview.

The issue of point of view aside, it’s always important that your readers can form a clear picture of what your character looks like, including their physical features and attire.

Prompt: Write a scene by starting with descriptions of a character’s physical appearance and their attire. Choose a style of dress and let the garments and general sartorial demeanor inform and reveal the person. Go from there, and form a scene.

If you use someone you actually saw recently, as I’ve done in the example below, you can include actual conversation as well.


Roy wore a very heavy flannel shirt—red and black flannel, which he had put on in the men’s room of the Thruway rest stop at Ramapo, 25 miles out of Brooklyn. His jeans were not as beat up as the other men’s, and not as worn as they would be if he were chopping wood, mending fence, painting barns, and what-have-you. His shoes were not muddy but dabbled in paint from his friend’s studio. His beard he kept trimmed to a length that he believed described both a city-dwelling aristocrat of the nouveaux-granola sort, or a legitimate country man just a touch on the tidy side. It was interchangeable—which was what Roy wanted to be.

One day, he figured, he would either shave the beard entirely or grow it to its full, replete expression of ruggedness. Until then, here he stood in a rural restaurant nodding gleefully to a farmer he did not know who was saying something about filling the back of his pickup with mulch. Roy was in amongst the locals, and though he was dressed as rustically as his wardrobe allowed, compared to them, he felt like a walking Gucci model straight from the cobblestone of the West Village with Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson in the background.

“Whaddya want?” the proprietress of the place asked the man. She was a rather burly looking woman, and her ugliness flattered her. “White mulch or brown mulch?”

How Roy wished he knew the difference. He reached for his iPhone to google it, but he’d lost signal thirty miles back coming to this backwoods log-walled diner.