Friday, March 6, 2015

What the Well-Dressed Character Will Wear, by Susan Oleksiw

A standard technique to introduce a new character is to provide a physical description--height, weight, hair color--with one unique feature, perhaps a broken nose or uneven shoulders. This is the easy part, but it is hardly enough if we want the reader to get a sense of how this person sees himself or herself in the world. We need to know more, and writers may progress to how the person shakes hands or drives a car. I include clothing in the details that have the potential for making a character vivid.

During a recent visit to a local mall, I found a spot where I could watch the shoppers and other people watchers. I spotted the senior citizens taking their daily walk, the young mothers with kids in tow, eager to get out of the house even if it meant carting half the neighborhood with them to the play room, and shoppers looking for--and finding--bargains. None of these individuals is real to you now reading this because I haven't given any remarkable detail. You don't know what they look like or how they behave.

Most of the characters who populate my fiction appear fully formed--I know what they look like and how they behave and what they believe. But I also want to know what they are wearing. Whatever the reason, I have to think harder about my characters' outfits. The only exception is Anita Ray, most recently in For the Love of Parvati. I understand her wardrobe well. She wears a full sari, a two-piece Kerala sari, or a salwar khameez set. Sometimes she wears western clothes--slacks and a khurta. In her case I only have to think about colors and patterns.

Western characters are more of a challenge. I am so used to seeing people wearing jeans and jerseys that I have to remind myself that there are other options. I find some of these at the mall or in restaurants or movie theaters. An especially good site for searching out wardrobe possibilities is the train station. I don't mind waiting for the less-regular train service leaving North Station in Boston because I take the time to study the outfits of professional women. They are varied and sometimes surprising.

Women have a far wider range in clothing now than in years past, and I have a few favorites. Many women still wear business suits, particularly those raised in traditional families determined to maintain hard-won family status. Deanie Silva, in Last Call for Justice, would only wear the most expensive but slightly conservative clothes. But her nieces would wear anything but. 

For the younger age group, which includes Jenny, Chief of Police Joe Silva's stepdaughter, I especially like the silk blouses with jeans, the black leather boots with flowery cotton dresses, the leggings on stick-thin legs with layers of tops, the leggings and long flowing skirts with cowboy shirts. Thought it's not for Sarah Souza, one of Joe's nieces, I have admired the white silk slip, with lace, worn underneath a red sweater embroidered with flowers. I can't say I have admired the combat boots worn with a khaki dress slung with empty gun holsters beneath lips pierced at least five times with silver studs but I remember the woman who wore the outfit. She may appear in another book, but not as a relative.

Whatever I may think of these outfits on a personal level (hint: they will never appear in my closet), I know I have a character who will love at least one of them. And however I describe her, with long brown hair or green eyes that recall Elizabeth Taylor's, the reader will remember the outfit that says, this young lady knows who she is. And that's how vivid I want my characters to be.


Bobbi A. Chukran, Author said...

Interesting post, Susan. It occurs to me that clothing choices for characters can be regional, too. Down here in Texas, I very seldom see anybody dressed up unless I'm at a large cultural event in a nearby large city (Austin). Everyday wear is jeans, tee-shirts, sandals, cotton skirts with tees, etc. I recently wrote a story where I had a character dress up, and used ads from a western magazine for reference. :-)

Susan Oleksiw said...

I like the idea of using a magazine for reference. Almost everyone here wears leggings or jeans and simple tops, usually t-necks. I think our clothing is the most egalitarian feature of American life. Thanks for commenting.

Unknown said...

I agree that clothing can often tell more about a character than the actual physical description and it's fun thinking about what they would wear. One of my characters always wears a uniform but when I finally had to write a scene in which she would wear street clothes it took me forever to imagine what she would wear!!!

Jacqueline Seewald said...

Hi, Susan,

Appearance is important in how characters are perceived. We do have to visualize clothing in physical description and it deserves serious thought. As they say: "clothes make the man (or the woman)." It can be too that the appearance is misleading and provides a twist in a tale.

Susan Oleksiw said...

I think giving characters as rich a presence as possible, however achieved, is important. I love the idea of a wardrobe being used to mislead others in a story, or to reveal something important. A character who only wears designer labels purchased at a thrift shop could be caught off guard at a party by someone who recognizes the outfit and asks innocently, Where did you get that? His label is so hard to find. Thanks for commenting Kathleen and Jacquie.

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