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Dressing Your Characters

#1
They say that "Clothes make the man." Modern day research has proved there's a lot of truth in this old adage, with people making snap judgments based on what someone is wearing:

What Your Clothes Might Be Saying About You

In my Cornish Detective series, I tend to avoid giving elaborate descriptions of my characters' clothing. With the rugged landscape of the county, my coppers dress practically for the conditions, and my protagonist, Neil Kettle, wears leather jackets, sturdy Gore-Tex-lined walking boots and a full-length wax-proof Belstaff coat when it's pouring down.

He also wears 'costumes' appropriate for his leisure activities, of motorcycle riding (full leathers), painting (an artist's smock) and gardening—when he tends to go bare-chested, wielding his scythe on a meadow he's growing, in Ross Poldark fashion. o_O



Other detectives on Neil's team have their own tastes in clothing, with one homely detective (the sharpest of the bunch) looking like "she should be baking a cake on a television commercial", while her female colleague a lesbian ex-nurse, who's a brown belt in karate, prefers form-fitting clothing that allows her ease of movement, as she "prowls like panther." Neil's second-in-command is British-Asian, a city lad, unused to the country, who's trying to fit in by clothing himself in brogue shoes, corduroy trousers and tweed jackets bought from the farmers' outfitters. A rugby-playing detective constable is huge, "as big as a wardrobe" and forced into buying clothing from a Big Man store. They all wear stab proof and bullet proof vests when going to make an arrest.

Despite their different clothing tastes, they all still look like coppers when out and about, which is one reason that Neil enjoys riding his chopper, dressed as a biker, as no one thinks he's a policeman.

With my fictional villains, a serial killer is a master of disguise, from his time as a sniper in war zones, so wears outfits that blend into the landscape. He strives to be unnoticeable when in town, wearing bland clothing bought from charity shops, and regularly changing it, along with altering his facial appearance by the use of facial prosthetics and full head vinyl masks.

At the opposite extreme, the owner of a chain of massage parlours is a narcissistic self-publicist, resplendent in a gold lamé suit, with dyed gold hair, golden-tanned skin from sunbeds, chunky gold jewellery and a gold Jaguar XK8.

In my WIP, one of the witnesses is a heavily-muscled sculptress, who wears undistinguished dungarees and a T-shirt while pounding on granite to create a torso, but her arms are sleeved with ink from colourful tattoos. The antagonist of the story, an eccentric art gallery owner dresses as if he's time-travelled from 125 years ago. He's obsessed with paintings, preferring them to people, and has retreated to Victorian times in his attitude to women, foreigners and in what he wears. He favours handmade shoes, cufflinks, wing collared shirts, hand-tied bow ties, three piece suits, pocket watches and a silk-lined woollen cloak; to read anything, he perches pince-nez spectacles on the bridge of his nose.

As a break from writing novels, last year I penned the second tale in what will become a quartet of short stories about an American Civil War veteran. He's trying to rebuild his life, as his country does the same thing in the Period of Reconstruction. Dressing him required much thought and research, for it was a treacherous time of divided loyalties—just because a peace treaty's been signed doesn't mean to say that the war has stopped raging in ex-soldiers' souls. In a time of great poverty, many old warriors wore a combination of ex-army uniforms, treading a fine line over what was acceptable. My protagonist is suffering with PTSD, ever alert for ambush and has made himself into a walking arsenal, with weapons hidden all over his body. He's modified his clothing to allow quick and easy access to revolvers, knives and a sawn-off shotgun. His full-length duster coat conceals a lot.

The lead character in a short story I wrote, about a man falsely accused of killing a young woman whose body his dog found while out on a walk in the country, is a retired locomotive driver with zero interest in looking fashionable. He dresses for comfort, doing his own clumsy repairs to waterproof clothing, unaware of how peculiar and intimidating he looks...which becomes a factor in the case that's built against him. I was inspired by an extraordinary photograph of the man who would be King—Prince Charles—wearing his favourite wax-proof coat covered in repair patches:



Have you created any characters who are fashion victims, obsessed with wearing the right label?

How do you decide what the protagonist of a fantasy story wears?

I've only written one story set in space, on Mars in the 23rd-century, and one of the trickiest aspects was getting the space suit, helmet and boots right. If you write science-fiction, do you gloss over such details or do they become an integral part of the story?

What do ghosts wear? Presumably, their historical clothing gives them away.

Do your characters accessorize?

 

Amber

Benefactor
#3
Have you created any characters who are fashion victims, obsessed with wearing the right label?

One doesn't always follow the other but no... not so far.

How do you decide what the protagonist of a fantasy story wears?

I base what they're wearing on their character and their world, just as I would if I was writing in a different genre. I don't actually think it's always necessary to say what people are wearing.

I've only written one story set in space, on Mars in the 23rd-century, and one of the trickiest aspects was getting the space suit, helmet and boots right. If you write science-fiction, do you gloss over such details or do they become an integral part of the story?

Well. It's science fiction not science fact and while the suit has to be plausible it doesn't have to currently be possible. So there isn't necessarily a right. Make sure your character can breathe and that the suit protects them from whatever elements you expose them to and you're good to go I say. Fifteen seconds on google. Although, I can appreciate sometimes people enjoy doing in depth research.

Oh, they might also need a means of communicating with whomever and maybe they need to eat or do other things ... depending on the situation and how long they'll be in the suit. Maybe there's a planet where people have to wear their suit all the time. It might make reproduction difficult.

What do ghosts wear? Presumably, their historical clothing gives them away.

It depends on the ghost and the world.

Do your characters accessorize?

Sometimes.
 
#4
I am at this very moment wearing a sleeveless, button down blouse that I bought when I was 16 years old. It still looks good. A classic. I am not much of a shopper and my characters' clothing reflects this. When I was working at the lab, I'd dress to disappear behind glasses, but at home, I dress to blend in with the moms. I like skirts. While my friend and I did design dresses while sitting in the back of my high school math classes, today, I have no imagination for fashion.
 
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#6
The only character's clothes I've described in my MG Fantasy series is a Barbie-type doll and the reason for this was to have a bit of fun with stereotypes and underline certain themes in the story:
1. She's dressed like a princess, but she's actually a hard-working tour guide
2. She has two left shoes (she lives in a world of lost toys and for some reason, it's mainly left dolls' shoes that get lost...NB most dolls don't have left and right feet as such, but it added a humorous touch)
3. Her clothes, although princess-like, are shabby and torn. This is because she has been a much-played-with children's toy.

I've barely described my MC's clothes at all, apart from when they stuff something in their pockets or tug at each other's T shirts.

As a reader, I find an over-lavish description of a character's clothes highly irritating and often rather tedious (unless it's important to the plot or characterisation in some way).
 
#8
Another MC from a Tudor fantasy of mine is a 12 year old girl who dresses as a boy.... due to being poor and wearing her dead father's clothes. Now strictly speaking this would be unacceptable in that era, given the strict cultural and societal expectations on dress. However, I feel a smidgen of creative licence to add frisson to the story is acceptable ... so long as it's just about plausible.
 
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