Thursday, March 27, 2014
Dressing Your Characters
Do clothes make the man? Mark Twain thought so. It’s only a saying, but there’s some truth to it. An expensive ‘little black dress’ could give you a boost of confidence, while an pair of old jeans might give you a comfortable, relaxed feeling. Formal wear makes us stand up straighter and mind our manners. Military uniforms do the same thing.
My mother always told me not to judge people by the clothes they wear, but most of us do judge, at least to some extent. One reason is because clothing clues us in about personality. Clothing may say something good, or something bad in other people’s minds. Clothing broadcasts a lot about a character, so we should use it when and where we can.
Sometimes we’ll finish writing our manuscript and realize we didn’t ‘dress our characters’ very well. They’re not exactly naked on the page – readers can fill in the wardrobe – but we, as authors, are missing a great opportunity to show the reader our character’s personality in subtle, and not-so-subtle ways. So, we need to dress them like little girls dress paper dolls, and show style preferences that reflect who they are.
Instead of saying a teenage girl is flashy, we can put her in a multi-colored, attention-grabbing dress. Have her striding into the scene swinging a sunny yellow purse, and wearing a turquoise straw hat with pink silk flowers. Let her wobble forward in green spike heels. Paint a picture that characterizes the girl’s personality by showing, not telling. What does this clothing selection tell you about the character? Judging from the picture I painted of the girl, which pair of shoes would she like best?
There’s a good chance she’s not a shy, introverted girl! But don’t take her eye-catching appearance at face value because she might be trying hard to be someone she’s really not. More later.
Are your character’s clothes sloppy or neat? Casual or formal? Do your people like what they’re forced to wear, like work uniforms or suits for the office or courtroom? Or maybe they don’t care what they wear. Think about why they do or don’t. It could tell the reader a lot.
A Question: If the heroine wears shorts and a tee shirt to a worship service, would you as the reader make any assumptions about her? You might, but depending upon the circumstances, you could be all wrong.
If she’s at a worship service in the middle of a field on a hot summer’s day, you’d probably think her clothes were totally appropriate. Most everyone would be dressed informally so she wouldn’t stand out as different from everyone else. In that case, her clothes aren’t making much of a statement – except that she’s conforming to the group much like everyone else. Obviously, she likes to fit in. (However, short shorts and a halter-top might attract attention, some of it negative.)
If her clothes were a little more extreme than shorts and a tee shirt, some people might approve of her courage or flare, but others might think she was looking for attention or showing off.
But if she were a guest at a fancy wedding held in a cathedral, you’d wonder why she showed up in shorts. Most people would gape at her. The reader would wonder why she wore something so out of place. What was she thinking or wasn’t she thinking at all? We might search for an explanation for her odd behavior. Didn’t she have anything else to wear? Is she trying to attract attention? Is she just strange?
The unusual or unexpected clothing choice grabs the reader’s interest, and if she doesn’t know the reason behind it, she’ll keep reading until she finds out what’s going on.
Clothing choices say a lot about our story people. It says one thing about the heroine if she looks completely comfortable in a bikini in church (yes, I know that’s absurd), and another thing if she looks embarrassed and tries to hide. From her behavior we can make an assumption about what she’s like. Her personality shines through even though she’s not saying a word.
Readers can learn a lot about your characters by WHAT they wear and HOW they wear it.
Clothes reveal personality.
Of course if we’ve never seen this character before we have to remember she might be trying to fool people! Maybe she’s in disguise. It’s always a possibility. We might want to dig a little deeper.
It’s also important to know how the character takes care of her clothes. Does she throw her things in a heap in a corner of her bedroom, or hang them up carefully? Are her clothes clean, or are they dirty and wrinkled? Even if they’re worn and faded, are they neat and laundered? A fashionista who spent a fortune on her wardrobe would probably take good care of it, but if money wasn’t an issue, she might be careless and figure everything can be easily replaced. Her attitude about life comes through loud and clear.
Where do you find fashion ideas?
Catalogs and magazines are great for fashion ideas for writers of contemporary books. Since I write historicals I can’t find what I need in the clothing advertisements that come in my mailbox every day. Exploring the nearest department store won’t help me.
So I search the internet, read tons of articles on early twentieth century fashion and look at images. I also have old Sears and Montgomery Ward catalogs I got from Amazon, and paper doll books. Check out the library or a bookstore. Pictures are everywhere.
How do you decide what your characters will wear? Do you give it much thought?
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