When I was living in London, I used to catch the Tube to work. Everyone did, and often I’d bump into my work colleagues either on the train or as we got off at the station and walked to the office together. There was an editor who worked in our office for a few months and I remember once he came up to me as I was eating my lunch and started chatting. I was a bit perplexed as to why – we rarely spoke during work as he was hidden away in his edit suite and we’d exchanged polite small talk on the way in from the station that morning.
After a little awkward small talk, he segued into the real purpose of the conversation.
“So when I’m on the Tube, I play this game,” he says. “I look at people’s shoes and I try to figure out what their personality traits are from their shoes.” Bit of an interesting conversation topic, right? But I was kind of intrigued by this – as I do like making up people’s life stories as I watch them walking past or wonder where they’re going when they’re on the train.
“This morning, I was looking at this pair of shoes,” says he. “And I looked up and realised they were yours.”
“Oh really?” says I, even more interested now. “What did you figure out about me from my shoes?”
But he just shook his head mutely and drifted back into his edit suite.
To this day, I have no idea what he ‘surmised’ about me from my shoes. I figure his judgements were wrong or wildly off the mark as he was too afraid to tell me and I’m guessing the fact that he admitted the game to me was his way of some sort of an apology. I think about the shoes that I was wearing and I can perhaps guess what the outsider might judge about my appearance, but it does make me think about how you can build your characters in your story.
How do they dress? As my old workmate showed, how your character dresses immediately tells us things about them. Are they dressed in Armani? Are they dressed in worn out clothes? Are they dressed provocatively? Are they dressed for the gym? Do they take pride in their appearance? Or do they not really care? Everything is important, from the accessories in their hair to the socks they wear. Honestly. Have you ever heard the story that businessmen often wear brightly coloured socks as it’s the only thing that is rarely seen to the public? It’s true – I used to look for the different kinds of socks when I was on the train. I think my favourite pair was a Star Wars pair that were bright red sporting Han Solo and Princess Leia.
Is how they dress a true reflection of the character? Someone may dress incredibly conservatively, but be a real wild child. A sloppy businessman could actually be a CEO of a company. In the same way that the editor’s judgments on me were (possibly) wrong, what are some ways that you can create a conflicting audience view of your character through the way they portray themselves?
How do they act? What will your audience gather from how your character acts? Are they blunt? Rude? Friendly? Warm? Generous? Stressed? Are they predictable or do they make you play a guessing game with what they’re really thinking?
And, to be honest, one of the best things you can do to help you build characters in your story is to play this game with real people. Sit in a busy place and watch people come and go. Focus on someone and see what the way they dress tells you about them. About where they’re going. What does jeans and a t-shirt say that a business suit doesn’t? Are they wearing a big winter jacket in the sunshine? What about shorts and a singlet in the rain?
The snap judgments you make on other people will be similar to the judgments your audience will make on your character. So check that the signs you’re selling to your audience are the ones that you want your audience to be aware of.
Check out my script-reading services if you want a second opinion on where to take your script next!