We discussed what a setting can say about a character and what their physical appearance can tell us about them but what else can we use to tell us about characters? There may be things about their sense of style or objects they have with them that can tell readers a little about their personality or history, like the medals on a soldier’s uniform or the tan line from a wedding ring.
We don’t always have to have an in-depth description of the things, for instance mentioning the tan line from a ring could be just a sentence and within that sentence the reader has learnt a lot about a character. Either the character with a missing ring has recently been divorced or they have taken it off for a reason, such as to cheat on their spouse but not necessarily. Alternatively, the character may be someone who wears very formal clothing yet has an item about their person that doesn’t fit with it perhaps a watch or a necklace which might start the reader thinking, could it have sentimental value or is it something else?
Similarly the character might use things about their person to deceive the reader or other characters, such as when Charlotte in the Weekly Serial, Victorian Mistress, disguises herself as an upper-class lady when she’s actually from the opposite end of the social spectrum. The question isn’t simply what do we want to show about our characters but what do they want to reveal about themselves? An example is in an episode of Sherlock where we first meet the character Moriarty. We don’t know the character we’re meeting is Moriarty and because he knows Sherlock’s techniques he pitches his disguise so Sherlock sees what he wants Sherlock to see. In using his clothes and products to create a character even Sherlock doesn’t realise he is Moriarty until later in the episode. However, in doing this it not only masks the antagonist’s identity it also shows the limitations of Sherlock’s skills because he can still be deceived.
Does this mean we need a thorough description of a character’s ensemble? No, we can pick out notes or scatter them through the story as somethings may be noticed later than others. In real life when we meet people we rarely notice everything about them at once. For instance we may notice that a person wears muted colours and plain clothes but later on we may see them sit down and realise they wear very coloured or patterned socks. We might not notice a tan line from a ring until we see their hands resting on a table top or they go to fiddle with a ring which is no longer there. To return to a jigsaw metaphor we scatter the pieces of the puzzle through the story and allow the reader to try and assemble it before we show them the picture on the box.
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