Saturday, January 30, 2021

How (and Why!) to Dress Your Characters

As your characters wend their way through their novel, bravely facing the obstacles you throw at them, you may ask yourself - what should they wear? And does it really matter?

Well, yes, it does. And here's why. You can pack a ton of information into your characters' wardrobe, from backstory to mood to carefully placed plots elements. Plus, in real life, people wear clothes. Don't neglect this important part of setting and characterization.

Setting, you may ask? How in the world can clothes influence the setting of a book? J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter series is an excellent example of this. Without the wizard robes and pointed hats, Hogwarts would be a very different place indeed. 

Uniforms with Purpose

Uniforms serve several functions in story writing. They provide the reader immediate clues about what type of story and world they've entered. A book packed with characters in army clothes will be quite different from one featuring ball gowns.

Uniforms can create unity among characters and highlight differences between groups. This is also clear in the Harry Potter books where Muggles dress very much like you and I but wizards cannot seem to figure out the intricacies of normal Muggle attire. Rowling also uses the standard wizarding world uniform to accentuate the times Harry and the other characters are away from the magical setting. 

Uniforms can also provide simplicity for both the reader and the writer, who won't need to rack their brains for distinctive, character-consistent outfits. Instead, small differences between similarly dressed characters can reveal their traits and mood. A rumpled outfit vs. a sleek, well-maintained one. 

Again in Harry Potter, Lupin's shabby robes reveal a great deal about his backstory, while Professor Lockhart's garish ones accentuate his narcissism. Ron Weasley's ancient dress robes contrast with Harry's new ones, highlighting Ron's poverty and providing an opportunity to show how each boy feels about it. Even Parvati Patil's butterfly hair clip - not the standard dress code - gives us information about who she is in contrast to those around her.

Dressing for the Weather

Casting characters in big bulky coats versus shorts or swimsuits establishes the type of weather and climate they are in. If they are missing a much-needed coat or sunhat, that creates potential problems for the character to work through. Similarly, when a character chooses a bright yellow raincoat, are they shaking their fist at mother nature, expressing a need for attention, or simply choosing from their limited options? The clothing begs the question. As the author, you decide how much to answer.

When dressing your character, consider how the weather changes throughout the day in your setting. Consider changes across weeks or months and adapt your characters' wardrobes accordingly. 

Clothing Sets the Mood

Perhaps you've heard the phrase, "Let me slip into something more comfortable," often given with a wink and a sly grin. There's no doubt that clothes set the mood for a given situation. Clothing choices often indicate characters' hopes or their anticipation of how the day may progress. They can also reflect characters' moods or their attempts to disguise how they really feel. Clothing can indicate the general mood of a place, like the gray clothes often featured in stories about orphanages.

Time and Fashion

Here's a few examples:
The Chronicles of Narnia by C. S. Lewis features girls wearing dresses, typical of 1940s England.

Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card features characters wearing futuristic battle gear.

The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan dresses its characters in modern clothes.

Clothing Reveals Character

We've all heard it before, you can't judge a book by it's cover. This is meant to prevent hasty, ill-informed opinion making. However, as an author, you can use clothing to reveal a lot about your character. Or lack of clothing - consider The Emperor's New Clothes. 

Cassandra Clare, author of The Mortal Instruments series and its many spinoffs, uses fashion to great effect. Her descriptions of clothing and accessories is so seamlessly woven into the story (pun intended!)
that it doesn't slow the momentum. Instead, it becomes part of what the reader looks forward to enjoying. In the list below, note the contrasting traits that are revealed by the clothing of each character.
Isabel - long dresses, tight clothes, high heels, and an electrum whip wound around her arm
Clary - jeans and tennis shoes, T-shirts or tank tops, a backpack
Alec - dark clothes, including old sweaters
Magnus - flashy clothes with sequins, leather, and plenty of glitter

Whatever your story, put some thought and effort into dressing your characters. Your readers will thank you!

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