Thursday, October 9, 2008

Describing clothes

I have a confession to make: I love clothes. Trying them on, buying them, imagining what I would like to have and wear, describing them. I usually rein this last impulse in when it comes to my work, but here are a few of the guidelines I use when writing about clothes.

1. Only describe when necessary and relevant.

Especially when it comes to minor characters and walk-ons, all that’s usually needed is to say that they’re wearing uniforms or rags or ballgowns. Too much detail here can slow down the story, as well as distracting readers and making them believe these characters must be more important than they actually are, since they’re being described in detail.

Even with main characters, it’s not always necessary to go into a lot of detail. The lengths of skirts or sleeves, color, fabric, ornamentation, fastenings… if there’s a good reason to include these in the description, I’ll do it. Otherwise, they’re not relevant.

2. Have a good reason to describe clothes.

In a fantasy novel, good reasons for me are

• To highlight an aspect of a different culture
• To show a character’s preparations for some future event
• To indicate or symbolize a major change in a character’s situation. For instance, when Antoinette’s family in Wide Sargasso Sea is poor, her braid is tied off with string. After their fortunes improve, her braid is tied with red ribbon instead. It’s a subtle, beautiful detail

3. Be specific.

Saying a woman wore a dress isn’t as effective as saying she wore a riding habit, a nun’s habit, a ballgown with a bustle in the back or a clinging silver sheath that made her look as though she was wrapped in aluminium foil. This can often be quicker and easier than going into long descriptions; saying that a character wears a lab coat, for instance, gives me the same picture as saying that a character wears a long white coat over her clothes to protect them from stains and spills.

Making a list, e.g. Jill wore a beret, a blue coat, a silk scarf, white slacks and suede boots, has much less of an impact because equal weight is given to every item on the list. If the heroine’s tarnished silver locket, which may or may not be magical, is more important than her socks, then the locket should be given priority in a description. We’ll assume she’s wearing socks unless we’re told otherwise.

4. Be aware of what the readers will remember.

I once read a Judith Michael novel called Private Affairs and don’t remember much of what anyone looked like with one major exception. That was the Other Woman, who always dressed in black and white. Always. The only accent to this was a touch of red here and there – eg. her lipstick or a camellia in her hair. She was as stark as a Mondrian painting and more dramatic.

Another memorable character clothes-wise is Grace, the insane cult leader in Dean Koontz’s The Servants of Twilight, who always dresses in monochrome, down to her jewelry – i.e. all-green one day, all-red another. Black-and-white and monochrome are both extremely easy to remember. Likewise, if the only thing readers remember of the Dracolytes’ clothes are that they wear uniforms with little metal dragon pins to indicate their rank, I’ll be happy.

5. Don’t be anachronistic.

In Stephen King’s “Apt Pupil”, a boy buys a reproduction of an SS uniform for a geriatric ex-Nazi, who notices at once that the fly is a zipper, when it should be buttons. I haven’t come across any anachronisms clothes-wise in fiction, but it’s something to keep in mind. When I first read the Song of Ice and Fire books, where people lace up clothes rather than buttoning them, I looked up the history of buttons to make sure they could realistically be used as fasteners for my characters’ clothes.

I have fun designing and describing clothes for my characters. But I also want people to have fun reading about them.


Janna Leadbetter said...

Hi, Marian! Just wanted to stop in and let you know (in case you hadn't made it over yet), I wrote something using your prompt about the wooden box. You can view it here:

Thanks! It was a great prompt. :)

colbymarshall said...

I don't really describe clothes, either, unless its something special and I have real reason to.

Jewel Allen said...

Marian, thanks for stopping at my blog. I can relate to this post. I have no idea sometimes what my characters are wearing, so I just kind of have them come in and they could have been wearing trash bags, and no one would have known. I wish sometimes I could have just LIVED in the time period in my novel, so I'd KNOW!

Jewel Allen said...

I mean, I know the clothes don't have to be described in detail, but I sometimes feel like I would like to know!

Anonymous said...

Hm. Most of my characters don't wear clothes at all, so that's not normally a problem for me. >.>

Anonymous said...

Thanks! great you share your tips, I really need them when describing anything.