Thursday, October 1, 2009

Dressing your Characters....

When I write fantasy novels, I tend to be hopeless when it comes to sorting out the 'otherworldly' clothes that characters are wearing. Although it isn't advisable to blow the whistle and march a stop sign out in the middle of a story to describe every article of clothing and decoration that your character is wearing, to a certain point it is necessary to drop bits and pieces here and there.

Here's how it helps -

Fantasy: It is a major part of the world building. And like any type of world building, it is done smoothly and in relation to the plot. If you want people to believe they are reading about characters from a different time and place, you should go the extra step. No matter where you go, clothes are ingrained into culture. It is the FUN part of culture, right there with food, music, and language. If you think about the parade of nations (Olympics) when some of the athletes wear traditional garb. Or more to the point - think of the show put on by the host country.

Other than that - no matter what we all think of the 'new' Star Wars movies, we all must admit that the clothes were fantabulous and world building perfection. In Phantom Menace especially, I obsessed much about all of the thought work and world building that went into Queen Amidala, her makeup, and her clothes.

Side point, but I hope I'm not the only one hopping around with excitement at the possibility of the Olympics coming to a midwestern city. Please yes please!

Contemporary: It is a huge part of life. I know that agents and publishers are tired of 'chick lit' with characters obsessed with shoes and mall prowling - and to a certain extent, I'm right there with them. Because I'm not obsessed with shoes or malls (not to say I don't like shopping, but I'd probably shop at a hardware store and still be happy, it isn't only about shopping for clothes, perfume, and jewelry). Still, clothes have that ability to affect your self-confidence and happiness levels like nothing else can, except good/bad hair days. It isn't shallow to look at yourself in the mirror when you get to school and wonder what you were thinking when you chose X outfit, and consider how bad it would be if you went to the principal's office and asked for one of their punishment shawls(*). I still have those days as an adult. Like today. Which is why I started writing this. Somehow or other, I convinced myself that a white blouse with poofy short sleeves and a ridiculous front ruffle would go very well with green clam-diggers and a thermal 'under shirt' with pink, orange, and yellow flowers on the long sleeves. Urk!

*Don't have your character run to the mirror in the first chapter and describe everything that s/he is wearing. I know some of these sneak through into published books, but it still drives me nuts. Possibly because I was raised in a full house. Mirror gawking was done behind closed bathroom doors - otherwise you got teased about it later. And even then, you didn't admit to analyzing your appearance for any other reason than to make sure your clothes matched. Otherwise you got teased. *so, fine, I guess, my disbelief stems from childhood teasing trauma* I do know that I'm not the only one who does the "Is this necessary to the plot?" exclamation when I see the warning signs that a full self-examination is coming up. It reminds me of something I critiqued a while back. Carefully speaking here (to protect the innocent), the first chapter consisted of a character coloring her hair and looking at herself in the mirror, listening to her favorite songs on the ipod, and then going back to rinse her hair off. Nothing happened, and the chapter revolved around the bathroom mirror. It didn't even assert the character, other than to tell us what she looked like from head to toe.

* Don't be afraid to world build with clothing descriptions, and this doesn't just mean put your favorite comfy clothes on the characters at all times (old pair of jeans and ratty purple x-small sweatshirt that you are strangely fond of, even though it's better days had long passed). Give your characters bad/weird clothes days too, as long as it is part of the plot. You need to give your character a reason to be in a rotten mood all day, or lurking in the shadowy back part of the room at all times, the root cause could be the puffy white blouse, which she secretly wants to hack the puffy sleeves off, if only it weren't a gift from Mom.

*This could apply to guys too, btw - despite the fact I mainly aimed at this from the female perspective. They get twitchy about bad clothes choices and bad hair days too.

*laughs thinking about the brother-in-law and his hair*

(*) We didn't have air conditioning at our old church/school. In the summer months at mass and catechism classes, some people would try to get around the rules when our old priest wasn't looking. This didn't apply to new people and visitors, but regular parish members and students weren't supposed to wear revealing outfits - particularly shirts. There would be old ladies and teens who'd come in wearing shirts that clearly revealed their bras and everything. The ushers were instructed to stop those people at the doorway and hand them a punishment shawl if they were attending mass. If they were a student, the parents were called to bring a change of clothes, but until they arrived the punishment shawl was worn.

And they were the UGLIEST shawls ever! Like something your grandmother would make for somebody she hated. Like for the other grandmother whom she was competing with for the 'best grandmother ever' label.

My church doesn't use the punishment shawls anymore to prevent summer revelations. They discovered a subtler and more devious method. They hike up the air conditioning so the church feels like a porous igloo down in Antarctica.

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