The Little Things Novice Writers Miss: What Clothing Says About a Person
In the past few months, we've explored several aspects of worldbuilding and character development that novice writers often ignore. We've discussed how things are made, what body language says about a person, how education impacts speech, and more.
Now it's time to take a look at what our characters are wearing, and what that says about them.
How important is clothing, really?
You know how everyone judges books by their covers, despite the saying? We also judge people by their clothing, especially women. Our clothing even impacts how we feel about ourselves, which is why many people suggest wearing formal clothes even if you work from home. And your characters' clothing most certainly impacts how your readers - and other characters - feel about them.
How we feel about particular styles of dress is rooted in a combination of societal expectations, the media we're exposed to, and our own personal experiences. When we choose clothes, we choose them to project a certain image to the world. Maybe not on a daily level, but when we buy clothes, we buy them because they speak to a certain aspect of our personality.
If your characters aren't able to choose clothing based on their personality because of restrictions on commoners or a lack of financial resources, this also says important things about them. In many cultures, clothing is an easy way to tell a person's class. Some even maintain strict legal or cultural rules about people wearing clothes to match their class or profession, and these codes used to be a lot more common.
To determine what clothes mean in your story's setting, answer the questions below. If you're working in the real world, research the answers. If you're building your own world, free write your answers.
What is most clothing made of?
How common are colorful fabrics?
Are clothing styles gendered?
Does the government or religious establishment control what people wear?
Does this culture make moral judgments based on certain clothing choices?
What are the the most common garments for the average person?
What are the most common garments for the upper class?
If there's a standing military and/or police force, what do their uniforms look like?
Once you've established these overall details, you might also want to give each of your characters a style. This can be added to your extended character profile.
How to incorporate clothing into your story (without dragging it down)
Clothing matters to people, but when it comes to a book, there's a fine line between enough description and too much. Every single book in A Song of Ice and Fire would probably be a hundred pages shorter if they cut out two thirds of the clothing description (and definitely if they cut out an equal amount of food description). It obviously works for his readers, but readers of other genres will balk at page-long descriptions of clothing.
Instead, you want to spread occasional details about clothing throughout your project, the same way you're peppering in references to the world outside your story. If you're using a third person limited point of view or writing in first person, you also need to think about when your characters would notice clothing, and what they'd notice. Unless your characters are fashionistas, they'll probably only notice clothing in specific circumstances:
Meeting someone for the first time - Most people wear similar outfits every day, so your character won't notice them all the time. They will, however, notice the outfit when they meet your character, and use that outfit to form their initial impression.
When something changes - You don't need to describe the subtle differences between pairs of dress pants, but if someone starts wearing radically different clothing, your characters should notice.
When it compliments or contrasts their environment - Sometimes the reason we notice clothing is because it blends into the person's surroundings like a piece of art. Other times we're drawn to clothing that stands out, that contrasts the surrounding environment in a unique way.
Attending a large event - If your story includes a major celebration or ritual where people dress up, you'll want to pay careful attention to what everyone's wearing in this scene.
During a fight - Clothes, especially the restrictive finery often worn by the upper classes in speculative fiction worlds, can have a major impact on how successful a fighter is.
You also need to be cautious about how much you describe clothing in each of these situations. Even in a first meeting, you don't want to spend more than two or three sentences at a time describing somebody's clothes. If an outfit is particularly interesting, you can sprinkle a few more references to it into a scene, but putting all of the description together will clog your story.
Last but not least, remember to respect your readers. One of the great things about books is that they let us fill things in with our own imagination. Trust your readers to see the people you're creating based on a few key details. The color(s), fabric, and type of garment are often all you need to give your readers an image - we do, after all, see clothing every day.
We might not like admitting that we make judgments based on clothing any more than we like admitting that we choose books by their covers, but that doesn't make it any less true. Our clothes are how we express ourselves to the world, how we introduce ourselves before we ever open our mouths. It works the same way for your characters. Introduce them with a few details about clothing, and your readers will get a stronger first impression.
Little Things Writers Miss is a series exploring common elements of world-building, character development, and story elements that novice writers often neglect. Every month on the 15th and 30th (or the closest weekdays), we will explore two of the little things writers miss, helping writers identify and eliminate issues in their own work.
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Dianna Gunn is the author of YA fantasy novella “Keeper of the Dawn” and the Write Plan content writer. She also blogs about creativity, life and books at The Dabbler.
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