Wednesday, October 29, 2014

DRESSING—AND UNDRESSING—YOUR CHARACTERS by Best Selling Author, Ruth Harris

Clothes, said Mark Twain, make the man. And the woman, as any woman in her right mind knows—whether she’s shopping at Saks, at the mall or on her iPad.

As any writer knows, clothes also make (and define) the character. Think about it: Who's Mark Zuckerberg without his hoodie? Or Steve Jobs without his black turtleneck, jeans and New Balance?

Whether you’re writing about a fashionista or a stay-at-home-Mom, a tomboy, a 1920’s flapper, a surfer, an East Village artist or a Queen, modern or otherwise, the characters will be different and their clothes will be different.
An Annie Hall look projects one kind of heroine; a little black dress and sunglasses à la Audrey Hepburn another. Whether you’re writing about Madonna or Lady Gaga, Michelle Bachman or Michelle Obama, about Catherine the Great or the girl next door, their clothes are your secret weapon and a crucial part of the author’s tool kit, an essential way to bring your characters into focus for yourself—and for your readers.

By the way, speaking of writing about a Queen, did you know that Queen Elizabeth’s skirts are weighted so that no errant gust of wind can blow her skirt up? Never a photo of with the Queen’s underpinnings hanging out. ;-) Interesting tid-bit and just the kind of info that can give a scene or a character another and very intriguing dimension.

Shoes rule.
Some actors say that finding the “right” shoes for the character they’re about to play is key. Shoes on chick lit covers have edged into cliché territory. Cliché—but effective! Jennifer Weiner went even further and acknowledged the importance of footwear in a title: In Her Shoes.
The fashionista will be hobbling around in stilettos, the surfer in flip-flops, the tomboy in Nikes, the artist in Doc Martens, the Lauren Hutton type in jeans and Topsiders. They look different, they walk different, they talk different.

Diction and dialogue.
What your characters say and the way they say it helps define them: a bit of faux French for the fashionista? Chat about pediatrician recommendations for the Mom? NFL scandals and World Series stats for the tomboy? References to Renoir and Warhol for the artist? Safari tips from Lauren Hutton?

Menus matter.
Everyone loves food and reading about it. Think of all the “cupcake” covers or James Bond’s haute cuisine choices.

The fashionista will lunch at the latest, trendy bistro, Mom will eat whatever the kids don’t, the tomboy will scarf down a hot dog at the baseball game, the artist will go organic or maybe vegan. Where they go, who they meet, who they fall in love with—in essence your plot—will all derive from your characters as revealed by their wardrobes.

Twists and surprises.
Take the fashionista out of the trendy bistro, put her into vegan lunch counter and you have the beginnings of a plot. What will she think of the bearded video artist who, apparently needing to make a little money, serves her the organic sprout sandwich? What will he think of her? Intrigue? Disdain? Conflict maybe? Leading to sparks?

Then the twist: the “starving” artist working in an organic luncheonette turns out to be a good-guy Department of Health Inspector and the fashionista turns out to be the devil in (knock-off) Prada. Looks can speak honestly or looks can deceive. The twists and turns are up to the writer but clothes, well-described, can launch an engaging, twisty plot.

Tighty whities and Victoria’s Secret.
Whatever your character wears—or doesn’t wear—underneath his/her clothes counts. Come on, we’re writing fiction—romance, adventure, horror, mystery, erotica. We’ve got to get them undressed, too, don’t we?
The unexpected shock of Fruit-of-the Loom white cotton under the fashionista’s haute couture? Does Mom flaunt lacy, silky undies from Paris? A sequined thong for the tomboy? Or is super sexy Victoria’s Secret the secret our surfer is hiding? And what about the rule-breaking downtown artist? A bullet bra maybe?

If you’re writing historicals, don’t forget that corsets were abandoned in the 1920’s, that underwire bras became popular in the 1950’s and that recently a bra dating from the Middle Ages was found in Austria.

Briefs or Boxers.
Let’s not forget our heroes, either, the bad boys and the good ones. After, all, athletes aren’t called jocks for nothing!

Does the powerful executive in his custom-tailored Saville Road duds indulge in a silk g-string underneath? The electro-punk musician in tightie whities? What is that superhero wearing under his tights and cape? What, if anything, comes between that cool and clever assassin and his Calvins?

Is that honest politician (this is fiction we’re talking about, right?) wearing Spanx under his drab off-the-rack suit?

To finish where we started, I’m about to make a confession. MTwain’s entire quote reads: “Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence on society.”

Much as we love, respect, and admire you, Mr. Twain, we beg to differ. After all, we’re writers and we know better!


Ruth Harris, million-copy NYTimes bestselling author
Blog / Twitter / Pinterest

Decades - 2014 edition revised by the author for today's reader.

THREE WOMEN. THREE DECADES. Spanning the years from the optimistic post-War 1940s to the Mad Men 1950s and rule-breaking "Make Love, Not War" 1960s, DECADES is about three generations of women who must confront the radical changes and upended expectations of the turbulent decades in which they lived.

"The songs we sang, the clothes we wore, the way we made love. Absolutely perfect!" --Publisher's Weekly

31 comments:

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Thanks again, Ruth!

L. Diane Wolfe said...

That's why it's fun to put something on your character that seems a little bit out of character.

Fundy Blue said...

What an insightful post, Ruth! It really made me think about things that I hadn't consciously considered. Thanks for sharing your book "Decades." It looks like it would be both a fun read and a good resource for that time period. Thanks for posting on the IWSG today!

Pat Hatt said...

Always can be fun to give a little something extra, commando is the way to go lol

Ruth Harris said...

Alex—Thank you! An honor to be here. :-)

LDW—You're so right! Plus it's a great way to engage the reader.

Fundy—So glad it triggered some new directions for you. By the way, Decades is FREE. So, if it sounds like your cup of tea, do download!

Pat—Love it! Perfecto! :-)

Susan Gourley/Kelley said...

I love Twain's quote. I sometimes forget to share anything about what my characters wear and have to catch it in the second draft. Thanks for the ideas.

Michelle Wallace said...

I thoroughly enjoyed this...and such a stylish delivery!

"...clothes, well-described, can launch an engaging, twisty plot."
Now that really caught my attention!
Thank you Ruth.

Joylene Nowell Butler said...

Ruth, excellent post. It took me a while to realize how important attire is. It wasn't actually until my 6th book when my character stepped into an abandoned home and took off her shoes that it occurred to me they couldn't be just any shoes under the circumstances. They were in effect introducing her to my reader and they had to be right.

Thanks for reinforcing such an important aspect of our stories.

Huntress said...

What a devilish idea, using clothing to give the storyline a twist.
Love it! My tomboy mc might start wearing silk dresses by Galliano. See how she likes that, LOL

Ruth Harris said...

Susan—I love that quote, too, So glad to meet a fellow fan!

Michelle—Thanks for the kind words. Selecting a wardrobe for our characters is all the fun of shopping—with none of the bills. What's not to like?

Joylene—Excellent point: in a scene like the one you describe, the shoes have to be just the "right" shoes!

Huntress—Perfect! Let the tomboy deal with *that* and see how she does. Could add a very interesting dimension to your characters and also to those around her who witness her struggles/delight.

KAT Writer said...

Thanks for your post. Wonderful information just in time for me to embark on my new novel.

cleemckenzie said...

I loved reading this. Yes, to getting the shoes right or terribly wrong. That speaks volumes!

Elizabeth Seckman said...

Excellent advice! And so cleverly delivered.

I did not know that about the Queen. Now, that shows a lady who thinks of everything!

Ruth Harris said...

KAT Writer — Oooooh! Timing! Good luck on your novel. :-)

cleemckenzie — Thank you. Sometimes, it IS all about the shoes, isn't it?

Ruth Harris said...

Elizabeth Seckman—Thank you for the kind words. Most appreciated!

Either the Queen—or her photo-savvy staff. Anyway, it's the kind of "inside info" I love and that's terrific for fiction.

Christine Rains said...

Fantastically fun post! I love putting a character who dresses one way in a setting that doesn't seem to fit. It's the little details that count. :)

P V Ariel said...

Hi Ruth,
Good to be here again.
You start with a good quote.
but sad to say the pics are nauseating.
especially the first pic! LOL.
Have a good day.
Philip Ariel
Hey Alex, again the word verification? How come!

Ruth Harris said...

Christine—Thank you for the flattering words. You're soooo right about the details. Deets anchor and provide credibility!

PV—Thanks! I guess. LOL ;-)

Tracy Terry said...

Wow, such a thought provoking post. I don't think I'll ever look at characters in quite the same way as I did having read this.

Cathrina Constantine said...

What a wonderful post, Ruth. Yes, I believe those little details matter!!! Thank You!!

J.L. Campbell said...

The stuff we wear does say a lot about us. Your article reinforces the fact that there are so many layers to what we do.

Ruth Harris said...

Tracy—Thanks. My point was to open up new ways of looking and thinking. Glad to hear it resonated. :-)

Cathrina—Thank you! As Mies said: "God is in the details." Works for writers, too.

J.L.—As you say, lots of layers. Also means lots of opportunities. Much of the pleasure in our work derives from that depth and scope.

dolorah said...

I had a bit of difficulty coming up with a wardrobe for my characters as set in the 80/90's era. As we know, not everyone wore hot pants and polyester suits in the 70's, and my story starts in 1978. Everyone has a different idea of what the characters should be wearing - and not wearing. So much change in small, western towns.

G. B. Miller said...

Clothing and accessories are the best thing about writing characters, as well as food (seems that more often than not, nobody really eats in fiction these days). I do know for accuracy sake, I did ask my female friends on certain clothing items, only because I wanted to as real as possible with my characters.

Father Nature's Corner

Ruth Harris said...

dolorah—You're making an important point about the importance of being specific. To the time, to the place. Thank you!

G.B.—Food! They definitely eat in my romcom-mystery The Chanel Caper: Afghan take-out, go-to pasta w tomato sauce & salad plus a glass of red wine, turkey sandwiches w cole slaw that sub for dinner on busy nights.

I love writing about food and I think people love reading about food. There's a reason cupcakes on covers are so popular!

Thanks for bringing up an important subject!

Julie Musil said...

Ruth, these are fun tips to remember! And hey, I didn't know that about the queen's skirts.

Ruth Harris said...

Julie—Thanks! I read about the Queen's weighted skirts years ago but it's one of those little details that stuck in my mind. Never know when you're going to write a character—not necessarily a Queen—where that kind of detail would be just perfect!

Lisa said...

Thanks so much Ruth, and Alex! I got a lot out of this post, things I hadn't thought of and ways to use dress. Great job!

Ruth Harris said...

Lisa—Thank *you*! So glad to hear we triggered some new thoughts and ideas. :-)

Toinette Thomas said...

Cool article. I will definitely be sharing. I've always tried to consider the attire of my characters and even how fashion effects my writing. I write about it once a month on my blog, so I'm glad to know that I haven't been reaching this whole time.
Thanks for sharing.

Ruth Harris said...

Thanks, Toinette! Fashion isn't a billion dollar industry because it's unimportant! lol