Tuesday, May 4, 2021

Fashion Sense (Writers on character clothing and fashion)

For this week's roundtable, let's talk fashion. No, not your own, but that of your characters.

How much do you use your narrative to draw attention to your characters' clothing choices?

Tom Hutchison: In comics, design is a huge key. In novels far less so. So it depends on what you’re talking about. Design for my comics is super important and we dwell on details and reasons for things to be part of the clothing/equipment/scene etc. there are reasons for everything and it comes through on the page and through the storytelling.

John L. Taylor: I write Dieselpunk fiction and horror in retro settings. Describing the clothing right does a lot when I don't have illustrations to convey a character. In the Dieselpunk example, My protagonist was a working-class hero, a pilot who did mercenary work to care for her orphaned siblings. Things like oil stains, torn patches, and worn flight caps help sell the idea of a hard-fighting rogue with money problems. Conversely, in horror, a character's clothing can both generate a sympathetic mental image or drop subtle hints about motivations. My personal favorite work of my own is a story called "What gasoline won't burn." It's a story set in 1950 in rural Missouri and narrated by a very naïve 8-year-old girl. I described her as looking like something off of a Little Debbie's or raisin box. I had to both sell the reader on the era it was set it (put this way, the plot wouldn't work in a world with cell phones), and the almost cartoonish innocence of the Narrator. People criticized me some over how naïve she was, but that was the source of the horror: her being too sheltered to see what was coming until was too late for her grandparents, while the reader has to follow in dreaded anticipation of the world going to hell around such a poor, sweet, undeserving soul. The other characters' clothing has subtle tells of what role they will play, but the whole effect had to create a sense of looming dread of the inevitable. Without these descriptions, this wouldn't be so effective.

Ernest Russell: Generally, I do this as needed as part of an overall description. If there is need for .ore detail, or it is intrinsic to the character, I add more detail.

Bobby Nash: I make sure the audience knows what the characters are wearing, even if just in generalities ala jeans and a t-shirt or they’re wearing a gray suit. Some characters get more, depending on who they are and if it fits their character’s needs.

John Linwood Grant: What people do with their clothes is sometimes more interesting than the exact nature of the garment/accessory, e.g. someone who goes to great lengths not to spoil their get-up, someone who plays with gloves or a hat as a sign of emotion, or wears clothes that their peers would not have expected.

Hilaire C Smith: I don't like to beat them over the head with a page of detailed description, mind, but clothes are very often a reflection of us as people OR the image we want to project to others. So, I used that with my characters. Sometimes I take that first impression and slowly mold it into something different and sometimes it is exactly who the character is.

Two male characters in my series: (1) long hair, a bit scruffy, but appropriately shaved and buzz cut when reporting for duty.... utilitarian clothes, often dark in color and often carrying weapons.

(2) Pretty male, clean-shaven, hair past shoulders, but immaculate...like GQ model, complete with silk shirts and soft leather pants.

These are very, very different styles, which is also reflected in their temperaments, their choices, etc.

Dale Glaser: For anything set in the vaguely-now, I only use clothing descriptions to reveal character, e.g. a grown man wearing a t-shirt with a cartoon character on it is my show-don't-tell version of getting across he is unserious and immature. 

Bill Craig: In my south Florida mysteries, Guayabera shirts and cargo pants or shorts are standard dress, because you see a lot of them down there. I've recently introduced Rick Marlow's cousin Greg who takes up the title mantle after Rick is nearly killed in an assassination attempt. His style is a bit different due to his background in Special forces and Covert ops in the military, but he also understands the need to blend in with his surroundings. Hardluck Hannigan however wears a bomber jacket, work pants and boots and cotton shirts.

Sean Taylor: It really varies from story to story, but in any case, I do like to at least establish a cursory look at what my characters are wearing. It can say a lot about their character in a sort of shorthand that cuts through so much of the telling that gets in the way of the story. 

Marian Allen: If a character's clothing choices make a difference to the story (one scene casual, one scene formal), I'll put that in. If a character wears a t-shirt, sometimes I'll say what's on it to add to the character. I gave a moderately detailed description of one character's outfit in a mystery because everything hinged on someone who didn't know her well being fooled when she changed outfits with somebody else.

How important are those details for you in establishing character for them?

Dale Glaser: I do lean into it more with stuff set in the recent past, again aiming for show-don't-tell, describing parachute pants and Le Tigre shirts rather than saying "One day in April 1987..." because I lived through it and that's fun for me.  

Bobby Nash: Having written a story or twenty set in the 1920s and up, I try to make sure I have some inkling of the fashion and style of the era when I write. 

Hilaire C Smith: It's a useful tool to paint a picture for the reader. Certain styles can evoke mental images and impressions/assumptions that we want the reader to make, true or not 😏. It's an excellent way to show and not tell.

Ernest Russell: It depends on the story and the characters. I have one who, as part of his persona, wears loud colorful clothing. Descriptions of his suits happen at least once a chapter. Another character, a whaler, you never really see any clothing change.

Sean Taylor: Again, it varies. My sort of "everyperson" stories don't require a lot other than to establish a sense of "muggleness" (khakis, jeans, t-shirt, polo, etc.) But for oddballs and for stories set in a certain period, I usually go into much more detail because the further you are from the current mainstream (at least to me) the more a characters fashion choices help define them. For example a grown man in a Hong Kong Phooey t-shirt gives off a different character vibe than a man the same age in a pair or cargo shorts and bowling shirt. 

John Linwood Grant: I'm a serious minimalist. I might only mention a single aspect of a character’s clothing if any at all. An incongruous jacket, a specific type of hat or boots when relevant. As little as possible. I’m generally put off by character descriptions that read like a shopping and fabrics catalog, or a list of brand names. Mr. Edwin Dry has a bowler hat, and a starched collar; Mamma Lucy has a faded print dress. Captain Redvers Blake is either in uniform, or he isn’t. Usually, that’s it. I once said that my character Justin Margrave was wearing a red silk shirt and a cravat, which was pretty wild for me, and even that was relevant to a viewpoint.

How important is it for you particularly if you're working in period costume (whether 30s gumshoes or Elizabethan vampires)?

Hilaire C Smith: Period stories rely on a cleverly set stage designed to immerse a reader in a different time. Costume is part of that. Now, most readers won't be able to nit-pick small details, but if your 1930's private eye is wearing a t-shirt and jeans, unless he's out doing physical labor or something, it isn't going to feel right. It tosses the reader out of the story. An Elizabethan vampire isn't going to be wearing Vans...unless the story is modern and he's a complete mess of style choices...which would also tell the reader a lot about the character compared to a vampire that has seamlessly blended or another that continues to wear fashions decades or centuries out of date.

I never do lengthy descriptions of clothing, but I often include a description, especially as one character (or the reader) meets another character for the first time.

Marian Allen: Now, when I wrote a Georgian short story, I nearly pulled my hair out learning what different items were called and what one would wear for receiving guests and what for traveling. As with most writing questions, the short answer is: It depends.

John Linwood Grant: People in period costume in their period don't think they're in period costume. 😉 So I try to avoid some of that excess description which only springs from the writer/reader NOT being in the period. 

Dale Glaser: Oddly if it goes much further back I'll use other cultural signifiers like dialogue or people's jobs or whatnot to get across the idea that it's 1921 or 1849, and I'm fine with people assuming they know how people dressed back then and moving on.

Sean Taylor: For me, it's muy importante. I put hours of research on the magic Google device looking up fashions for the time period I'm writing. I want to know it all. What kind of watches did folks where? Were hats preferred or not? That sort of thing. I want to make sure I write the period as authentically as possible. 

Emily Leverett: Oh fashion is SO important in my Eisteddfod Chronicles. Clothes are definitely political and make very specific statements, so the protagonist is careful about how she dresses and chooses attire (like a spiky tiara with a political history) to make a point. After she takes 10 lashes and doesn't get the best medical treatment, she wears a backless dress at a political event to show that she isn't ashamed of what happened. My editor actually commented once that he hadn't thought about fashion being that big of a thing. But clothing and badges are super important to court life.

Bobby Nash: It’s important for some characters. If fashion is important to the character, then that helps establish the character. If not, then it gets mentioned less. The other side of that is having a character that is not fashion-conscious, but then you do a scene where they are in a suit and tie. The other characters are going to remark on it ala “he cleans up nice” or “Damn! You’re wearing a suit!” That’s the sort of thing I hear when I show up wearing nice clothes.

Ernest Russell: Very important. I want my stories to be plausible. How did children dress in the late 19th century? Small details can add an element of reality. Not going to get in the weeds describing the weave and weft of the cloth, but knowing a 1940s French dairy farmer commonly wore a corded vest and pants is a small detail that adds just the right touch of authenticity.

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