Sunday, February 3, 2008

Dressing Characters

If a young woman came through the door wearing baggy jeans, a large bulky sweatshirt, and a baseball cap set on her head backwards, what would you think? Tomboy? Perhaps. Or could she be a troubled girl trying to hid her sexuality? Had she been molested or raped? Had she been raised in a home of all boys and never learned to express her femininity? How she dresses shows a side of her that defines her personality and character, but the reason can only be discovered as you get to know her.

This is the same for your fictional characters. Clothing choices, styles, and color helps define a character’s personality and even peculiarities—eccentric, casual, prim, aggressive, flashy, or subdued. Does she dress like the hippy of the 70s, an uptight business woman, or a frumpy matron? People hide behind clothing. They use it to state their individuality or to cover flaws, or even confuse others. A man wanting to cover his identity for whatever reason hopes to blend in with the crowds, and he will change his appearance to take attention from himself while a young woman seeking attention for her career or to find a husband might dress to draw attention to herself.

Plunging necklines defines a woman as does high-necked blouses or loose-fitting turtleneck sweater. We contrast the flashing woman exploiting her sexuality while a modest or shy woman might do the opposite.

We can recognize people trying to look chic and well-dressed when they have no flair for it. Their outfights might show the faux pas of their efforts — last years design or color, the wrong shoes with the dress style or gaudy jewelry that distracts rather than enhances. A man named executive in an important position should know which to button on a three-button suit or how to tie a Windsor knot at the right length.

Clothing styles reflect age as well and while tight jeans and the layered look looks good on a teen or younger woman, a woman in her fifties might leave others questioning her taste. As a writer, you can use these techniques to signal the reader as to the inner workings of your characters. Pick up a fashion magazine and take note of the styles or look at a clothing catalogue to see what most people wear, and pay attention to color. Colors change with the season and what was in style last year is out this year.

Some colors though hold meanings. A red dress isn’t worn by a demure young woman while a showy character will. Black can either be sheik, signal grief, or alert a reader that the character wants to blend in with the woodwork. When describing color of clothing in your novels, use it to enhance something more purposeful. Let the blue match the color of her eyes or remind him of a cloudless day that takes him back to good memories. Let the gold flecks in his hair remind her of his sunny disposition. While readers like to know what characters are wearing, use it to enhance characterization or deepen the mood of the story.

As significant is style and color, how the character wears their attire is significant. Someone who is round shouldered and stooped is depressed or lacking confidence. A man wearing white socks to a business meeting looks as if he just left the farm. A female with clothes so loose-fitting her figures is obscured or she could pass for a male could be one with low self-esteem. Use unkempt characters to illustrate their lack of pride or their self-sacrifice of time for others. Occupations can be reflect by attire. Dirt under the fingers nails could point to a man who works in a repair shop. An accountant might wear reading glasses. A librarian might dress fashionably but wear sensible shoes.

Whether tight or loose, casual or elegant, neat or unkempt, clothing adds three-dimensions to characterization so use it effectively with purpose.

Mannerisms and idiosyncrasies also add realism and characterization in your novels. My next blog will cover these techniques.

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