Clothes Make the Character   3 comments

How do you decide how to dress your characters?


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Characters are Part of the Setting

Many years ago, a jeweler showed me something interesting. He sprayed a handful of diamonds across a tabletop and asked me what I thought. They weren’t very interesting. Some shimmered a little, but mostly they didn’t seem any more interesting than any other rocks I’d seen recently. Alaska has a lot of cool rocks. Where was the flash, the sparkle, the depth?

He took the smallest, dullest diamond and set it on a square of black velvet, turned out the overhead lights and turned on a lamp right over the table where the square of black velvet rested. There in the middle of it was the uninterested diamond now sparkling as if it was a completely different rock.

What made the difference was the setting? The black velvet and the special light above it.

We authors do a lot of world-building – setting development – spreading the black velvet and adjusting the lighting. The clothes our characters wear are an important part of the setting. Clothes can tell the readers a great deal about the world our characters inhabit or about the characters themselves.

Celtic Fantasy

Daermad Cycle is a high-fantasy set in a medieval world inhabited by the descendants of Celts who were escaping the Romans circa 4th century, as the Roman Empire was collapsing.

How did I choose to dress them? Well, I did some research in the clothes worn by Celts and their descendants. I learned that in regions with heavy Celtic influence, the nobility wear plaids designating their clan particularly as cloaks. I was not making my men wear kilts, but I liked the idea of a lower garment that designed clan, so I gave some thought to how a kilt might become a pair of pants. That became a pair of loose-fitting wool breecs, that are worn by all men in the Celtic society. Nobles wear a plaid that designates their clan and matches their cloaks. Their siarcs (shirts) linen are embroidered in the clan totem. Noblewomen can wear lovely dresses in many colors, often of silk, but their dresses are belted with a kirtle in the clan plaid and the inside of their cloaks are lined with the same plaid.

The ordinary people who work in the noble dun wear wool breecs or aprons in the dominate color of the clan plaid.

Ordinary people who live and work outside of the dun wear wool breecs, dresses and aprons in whatever color they wish.

In the neighboring elven society, the Kin wear a lot of deer skin and the women wear beaded or embroidered dresses. They don’t have a nobility, so people pretty much wear whatever they want to wear, although they tend not to like what the Celts wear because the two don’t get on.

Middle America Apocalypse

I needed to do a lot less research and imagining to dress the people in Emmaus. They live in the United States the day after tomorrow. Masks aside (because the series started pre-CVD19), my people dress pretty much like you’d expect working class Americans to dress — jeans, flannel shirts, maybe some UnderArmour, outerwear. boots. That was easy. I just went on Google Earth and checked out what people were wearing on the streets of Kansas towns. That took five minutes. They dress petty much what Alaskans wear.

Long Island Upscale

My latest series is set in Long Island during normal times. It’s teenagers living on the Gold Coast. I picked a town in the area as my exemplar for Port Mallory. I googled and wandered the streets some. I did some catalog window shopping to understand what kind of clothes teenagers in a wealthy village in Brookhaven New York would wear. I spend more time choosing the clothing of people who think style matters.

Even Simple Stories Need Settings

I occasionally read stories where you have no idea what the characters are wearing and I’ve also read novels where entirely too much attention was spent on describing character ensembles. The extremes bother me. Yes, characters should wear clothing appropriate to the world they live in. If that is never described, I can actually pull up an image of the character naked. On the other hand, after a brief description of what the Aes Sedai or Rand al Thor wore in the Wheel of Time series, I could have happily not returned to the topic and would roll my eyes whenever Robert Jordan would begin some long description AGAIN. I much preferred Brandon Sanderson’s lighter touch.

Still, even simple stories need settings and clothes are one way to define a character. You can learn a great deal about a character’s personality simply by the clothes they choose to wear.

3 responses to “Clothes Make the Character

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  1. Any excessive set decorating drives me nuts. Clothes to gardens. I can go through a kitchen with PD James once, subtropical foliage with James Lee Burke once, stamp collecting and fine art with Lawrence Block once, that’s enough. The second time the inventory starts up I’m out until I see an action verb or Quotation marks. Jeez Louise. It’s not rocket science, and even if it is, all I need is tall as a skyscraper and did it roar off the launchpad toward wherever the hell it’s going, next. I mean ” he was a large man, pink and rubbery, the speedo all but obscured” is freaking plenty to tell me about a fat guy in a swimsuit, you know?
    I took an on-line, briefly. Before I bailed there was this Asian guy in the class and he was caught up in designer branding every article of clothing his sexist male leads put on before going out to dazzle the babes and I was like “For real?” Armani this and Vuitton that, Ford, Gucci, Prada, Ferragamo…on and on. Like the guy was dressing Ken for a coked-out disco night with Barbie the heiress. Oh well.
    Don’t need me none a that. Overalls, a clean wife beater, some Cat workboots an a diss-tressed Dale Earnhardt #3 cap. Alla Port Barre ladies man needs tuh make a statement.


  2. In so many series, when the author is trying to make each book a stand-alone, they do a full description of every familiar piece of scenery again. And again. I understand the motive, but I skip right by those scenes.


  3. I fall along the lines of your last paragraph as a reader. I want some details, but not too many. I was reading a book a few years ago and the characters changed clothes all the time and the author would describe each change in detail. I was so swamped that I lost the want to read.


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