Dressing your Characters. Why Clothes Matter!

Some authors say that what your characters wear doesn’t matter. I say, erm, excuse me. It matters to me!

Surely characters need a costume?

I LOVE clothes!

When writing books for kids I’m always thinking about my characters’ outfits. Clothes tell me oodles about a character; give me priceless insights into their personality.

It might seem superficial but I assure you it’s not.

As I go deeper into a story, what my characters are wearing becomes way more important than the colour of their hair and eyes, their height, body shape, etc.

Their clothing helps me see them more clearly and helps me bring them to life with more authenticity.

This was especially relevant when I wrote the Crystal Bay Girls (upper middle grade fiction), but extends to all categories of children’s literature.

It’s not about fashion it’s about self-expression.

We have loads of fun deciding on Tan Callahan’s wardrobe.

Each time I write a book in that series, I do tons of online research, picking up images here and there, going down endless rabbit holes. I also spy on kids Tan’s age (Tan would love that!) and if I see a quirky combo I scribble it down in my notebook.

When I’ve gathered all my online images, I make a folder for each of the Callahan sisters, Tan, Emerald, Amber and Rose, and send that along with extra notes to my editor, Eve, at HarperCollins, and to our illustrator, Claire Robertson.

I’ve also collected images and made folders for the boys, Ted and Scooter.

From my ‘collections’ (ahem) it’s up to Eve and Claire to come up with the final outfits.

During my research, I look at everything from fabrics to shoes to sweet little felt brooches on Etsy.

We like Tan to be wearing an animal motif somewhere on every cover (she loves animals).

In book one, Truly Tan, it was the cat hairclip.

In book two, Truly Tan: Jinxed! she wears a funky owl t-shirt.

In book three, Truly Tan: Spooked! she’s wearing an echidna brooch.

And so on.

If you look closely you can see that Claire scans real fabric into the illustrations. This adds extra texture and movement.

Of course, when I wrote Tensy Farlow and the Home for Mislaid Children I went through a similar process but this time I was researching clothes from post WWII England.

The glamorous Matron Pluckrose (who is loosely based on a Nurse Educator who terrified me when I was a pupil nurse) was decked out in utility clothing. Later, as her fortunes improved, she upgraded to New Look.

Tensy and her friends were dressed like the waifs I saw in black and white newsreels of war torn London.

Tensy Farlow and the Home for Mislaid Children isn’t illustrated. But in order to write with depth and immediacy I needed a clear image of everyone’s clothing.

Incidentally, when the cover came out I was surprised to see Tensy in puffed sleeves. They had never been part of my vision. But it didn’t matter. The cover is beautiful (it actually won a ‘Best Cover’ Australian Design Award that year) and it’s always fascinating to see how others interpret your work.

Kids constantly tell me how much they love the details in my books. Clothing is a huge part of that detail. For me, it’s one of the most magical components of bringing a story and its characters to life.

Jen xo

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