Monday, November 28, 2016

Mary Patterson Thornburg: Clothes Make the Character

Fellow Uncial Press author Mary Patterson Thornburg is my guest today on Clothes Make the Character Monday. She's going to talk about what clothes mean to her characters. Welcome Mary!

"Clothes make the man" is one of those old sayings you have to respect even though you'd like to argue with it. According to my Google search, it's been traced to everybody from Shakespeare to Mark Twain, and it supposedly means something like "You can tell who a person is from the way that person is dressed."

I want to say, "No, no, no! Clothes are all on the surface! Clothes are not even the surface, they're just something draped over the surface! You don't know what's beneath the clothes, beneath the skin, inside the skull, under the breastbone! It could all be a costume, a disguise!" And of course, I'd be right; it could all be a disguise. But then I remember, the surface is all you can see at first. Sometimes it's all you ever see. So, when it comes to real people, I guess the saying is right even though it's probably wrong at the same time.

But what about characters in fiction? Do clothes make the character? I think that in some cases they definitely do. Because fictional characters aren't real people until the author who wrote them and the reader who reads them work the magic together that makes them real. And part of what the author does, at least in some instances, is to choose the character's clothes.

Until I'd given this some thought, I'd have said I don't pay much attention to my characters' clothes. Oh, yes, in my story "Ghosts," it's the young girl's Hallowe'en costume that shocks and disturbs her mother and has a different effect on her friends than the one she'd expected. But then, when I thought about it, I realized that clothes do play an important part in "making" some of my characters.

There's a character in one novel, which I haven't really published yet, who's dressed like this when the main character sees him for the first time:

The person was a boy, younger by the looks of him than his voice had sounded, wearing a pair of tight, sky-blue trousers and a short tunic that was embroidered closely with gleaming silver thread. Around his neck was an ornate metal collar set with multicolored jewels.

The boy's clothes, all the spangles and jewelry, absolutely scream wealth, vanity, and a certain immature lack of taste, even though the people in his world wouldn't find his costume as weird as the people in our world would. This boy turns out to be a nicer person than he first seems to be, but he never quite loses his sense of dramatizing himself by his selection of clothes. It's part of who he is, down deep inside, under the things he wears.

In my book A Glimmer of Guile, clothing plays an important role when the heroine, Vivia, deliberately uses it to make herself look in complete contrast to a woman she's about to go up against in a psychic fight to the finish. Vivia's in her early twenties, small and dark, and not particularly beautiful. The other woman is much older, tall, majestic, and very beautiful (although her beauty is something of a magic trick). Vivia wants to make her jealous, so she presents herself accordingly:

I bathed and dressed quickly in my favorite of the new outfits, another tunic suit, pale lemon-colored linen with a snug, short top and wide-legged trousers. No jewelry. I braided my hair tightly and pulled the braids back into a fountain that hung nearly to my waist. I wanted to look as young and as innocent as possible, as much in contrast to Orath as I could. I wanted her to be jealous; I wanted her to be angry. I was dressed to do battle.

And finally, in The Kura, I had to let readers know something about the main character, Alyssha, early on. Alyssha lives in our world, in Indiana, and in our time. But she's been in another world and she misses it terribly – her missing that world is what defines her life. She's eighteen, a high school senior, at an age when most young people would hardly be caught dead wearing clothes that will set them totally apart from every group, every other individual, in their community. Moreover, she's already different from them all in a way she didn't choose and can't control; she's of mixed race, raised by a poor, white, overprotective father, and she doesn't really fit in anywhere. So it says something very important about her that she chooses to make herself even more different by her choice of clothing:

She went into her bedroom and took from the old-fashioned wardrobe a matching tunic and trousers in light, puckered cotton, with a wide neckline, loose sleeves, and legs tight at the ankles. The outfit was copper-colored, just a bit lighter and brighter than her skin, and she knew she looked good in it. Mattie Hale, who owned a boutique, had made several similar outfits for her, modeled on the one she'd worn when she returned from the place old Mike had called Underland. Nobody else in Granville dressed this way, and she knew what her schoolmates' looks meant, but she didn't care. For six years she'd been homesick. This was how people dressed in Bandor, and it felt good to her.

So, readers, what do you learn about the people in a story from the way they dress? And, writers, how do you use your characters' clothes to make them into real, individual people?


For six years, Alyssha's been torn between her loyalty and love for her widowed father, the promise she made to him that she'd stay in his world, and her longing for the other world she visited for a summer when she was twelve. She found a home there, and the brother she thought she'd lost forever, and a boy who loved her, who would in these six years have become a young man, as she's become a woman. And now, when a hit-and-run victim found dying on a Granville street says her name and gives a policeman a strange object from that other place that can only mean trouble and danger, Alyssha has no choice but to go back.

When she gets there, she finds that a lot has changed…


Mary Patterson Thornburg was born in California, grew up in Washington State, moved to Montana when she was 18, and spent many years in Indiana, where she studied and then taught at Ball State University.

Her dream was always to write fantasy stories and novels, but she didn't get started until she and her husband moved back to Montana in 1998. When she'd finished her first story and it was published, she took off running and never looked back. She's had stories in Cicada, Zahir, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, and Strange, Weird, and Wonderful, among other places. Two of her short stories earned honorable mention in The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror (2006, 2008), and "Niam's Tale," in the July/August 2010 Cicada, won the SCBWI 2011 Magazine Merit Honor Certificate. Her first fantasy/romance/adventure novel, A Glimmer of Guile, was published by Uncial Press in 2014. Her second book for Uncial, The Kura, came out in April, 2015. An Uncial Novel Byte, "Ghosts," was released October 14, 2016.




Twitter: @MaryPThornburg



  1. Jana! Thanks so much for having me on your blog today -- it's been fun!

    1. Thanks for being here, Mary. I always love your thoughtful, insightful pieces.

  2. Very interesting post, Mary!! I love using clothing as a chance to show growth, or a change in character, or just to underline personality. Colour choice and clothing style can often be symbolic of themes, etc.

    1. Hi Karyn! I think clothing choice says a lot about a character, just as it says a lot about a real, live person. The way we dress, and the care we take in our clothing choices says a lot about the way we feel about ourselves. I learned that on "What Not to Wear!"

    2. Thanks, Karyn! Yes, I think it works in fiction the same way it works in visual media. We watched the film "Jaws" a couple of days ago & I was struck by the power of the moment when the woman whose child had been attacked stepped into the scene dressed in black mourning. It was a turning point for the plot before any character said a word!