Writing Right with Dmitri: Dressing Your Characters

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Words, words, words. That's what we're made of. Herewith some of my thoughts on what we're doing with them.

Writing Right with Dmitri: Dressing Your Characters

A man in green with a feather in one hand and drawing a theatre curtain with the other
Physically, Sir Percy Blakeney was undeniably handsome – always excepting the lazy, bored look which was habitual to him. He was always irreproachable dressed, and wore the exaggerated "Incroyable" fashions, which had just crept across from Paris to England, with the perfect good taste innate in an English gentleman. On this special afternoon in September, in spite of the long journey by coach, in spite of rain and mud, his coat set irreproachably across his fine shoulders, his hands looked almost femininely white, as they emerged through billowy frills of finest Mechline lace: the extravagantly short-waisted satin coat, wide-lapelled waistcoat, and tight-fitting striped breeches, set off his massive figure to perfection, and in repose one might have admired so fine a specimen of English manhood, until the foppish ways, the affected movements, the perpetual inane laugh, brought one's admiration of Sir Percy Blakeney to an abrupt close.   – Baroness Orczy, The Scarlet Pimpernel.

All r-i-i-ght! Finally a character with fashion sense.

Faith and Buffy

Now that you've stopped laughing at old-fashioned dandies, consider this one:

[Buffy brandishes a crucifix.]

Lothos: So this is your defense? Your puny faith? [he grasps the crucifix; it bursts into flame.]

Buffy: No. My keen fashion sense. [she pulls a can of hair spray out of her purse.]
  –   Joss Whedon, Buffy the Vampire Slayer (the movie).

Aha, closer to home?

How we dress our characters matters. And how much we tell about their sartorial sense depends on our audience. Romance writers need whole bibles full of, ahem, fascinating factoids about Regency clothing styles – more than you ever wanted to know about 'superfine'. Get the gloves wrong on Sir Percy, and you spoil the whole experience. Get Buffy's dress wrong, and your teens will squeal, 'That's so five minutes ago!'

What about characters who aren't fashion plates? Remember Columbo's raincoat? Of course you do. Sherlock's deerstalker hat? He didn't really wear it that often, but it's stuck in our minds. Monk with a tie? Unthinkable. Stage Dracula without a cape? Puh-leeze.

Drac didn't always wear a dinner jacket, though. Check this out:

They make known to us among them, how last afternoon at about five o'clock comes a man so hurry. A tall man, thin and pale, with high nose and teeth so white, and eyes that seem to be burning. That he be all in black, except that he have a hat of straw which suit not him or the time.   –   Bram Stoker, Dracula.

That's the original van Helsing, who is at war with the English language, telling about Dracula. A straw hat? Out of season? He's lucky he didn't start a straw hat riot. Some people take clothing seriously.

How much do you tell? Detail, detail. What's important? Do we care what kind of trousers the hero is wearing, as long as they're on? Probably not. A rule of thumb: whatever you describe will stick in the reader's mind, and that mind will fill in the rest. Mentioning a detail is like focussing a photograph: you're drawing the eye to the detail.

Your character may need a watch, a signet ring, a piece of heirloom jewellery. He/she may sport a special kind of hat, or funny glasses. They may dress behind the curve, or ahead of it. If you're going foreign or historical, you'll probably need a map. For Regency, I recommend this page. For the 20th Century, you might try this site with pictures. Searching can be fun, and take up a lot of your time. Er. . . what was it I was trying to write, anyway?

Even if your character is schlubby, grungy, and unfashionable (remember Columbo's raincoat), you may need an appropriate garment for him/her. Otherwise, you may have to defend yourself against unfair charges of anachronism and/or time travel.

Did Mark Twain wear sunglasses? Er, yeah.

This supplementary program also instructed the excursionists to provide themselves with light musical instruments for amusement in the ship, with saddles for Syrian travel, green spectacles and umbrellas, veils for Egypt, and substantial clothing to use in rough pilgrimizing in the Holy Land.   – Mark Twain, The Innocents Abroad.

He just didn't wear them indoors.

A hackney cab

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