Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Elements of Successful Fiction Series

Clothing in Fiction

By Debbie Roome

Clothing may seem irrelevant to novel writing but skilful mention of a person’s garb can add important detail and characterization. Many people find identity in their clothing, especially if they are into brand names. I often see an outfit in a shop window and think of a friend or acquaintance who would wear something like that.

Countries and Cultures
If I mention kilt, burkha, sari, kimono or clogs, what country drops into your mind? Even if a story is not set in a foreign location, a character could have Irish, Scottish or Mexican roots. Wearing national dress or having it on display are ways of portraying loyalty to a culture or heritage.

Get the Details Right
If using a foreign form of dress in a story, ensure that the details are correct. Even if familiar with the country, double check your facts. A good example is the types of tartan used in Scotland and the traditional animal skins worn in South Africa. If possible, try and physically handle a genuine sample of the clothing and take note of the texture, weave, color and smell.

Everyday Western Clothing
There is a huge variety of clothing available these days. Think of jeans, T-shirts, shirts, skirts, dresses, long pants, shorts, hoodies, jackets and swimwear. All these come in assorted styles such as casual, smart, formal, romantic and retro. Wise use of clothing can help direct a story and raise questions. A figure running down the street in emo clothing will be assumed to be a young person. If readers encounter a businessman who only wears blue-striped shirts, they want to know why.

Uniforms and Identity
Some occupations are recognizable by their uniforms. For example, if you mention a white-coated man in a hospital, the reader will assume he is a doctor. This can be useful when referring to minor characters. For example, a shop lifter could see a man approaching in a blue uniform with a peaked cap. The reader would automatically assume that he was some kind of security guard. Some groups such as the Amish have a certain style of dress that makes them instantly recognizable. Think also of pilots, soldiers, road workers and prostitutes.

Clothing and Status
People with old, badly worn clothing are normally poor. A woman in designer gowns will be assumed to be rich. A man in sloppy, stained clothes presents the image of an undisciplined slob. The style and condition of a character’s clothing should reflect their status in society.

Clothing and Weather
Clothing should suit the weather conditions in the story. Help the reader feel the cold as wind bites through three layers of clothing. Let them feel the heat as a young woman pulls on a bikini and plunges into an icy pool.

Clothing as a clue
This is often used in thrillers and mysteries. If a person goes missing, one of the first questions police ask is, “What were they wearing?” Forensic investigations can match up fibres of clothing and dogs can track a scent by sniffing clothing. Use clothing to deepen the mystery and raise doubts and questions.

Recommended Reading
Mary Higgins Clark writes suspense novels and the heroine is normally a wealthy professional. She always describes their clothes, creating a picture of the environment in which they work and function. Khaled Hosseini is the author of two books set in Afghanistan. Both are rich in the clothing and culture of the area.

Come back next week to hear how homes can influence a story.

Elements of Successful Fiction - Part 1

Elements of Successful Fiction - Part 2

Debbie Roome works as a freelance writer from her home in New Zealand. Visit her at Debbie Roome or read some of her work at Suite 101 , Take Root and Write and Faithwriters.

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Terri Tiffany said...

Great post! I think we often overlook how important that detail can be:)

Karen Wilber said...

Excellent. I still remember what a girl was wearing in a short story I read in college (a bathing suit in the A&P store). The author's description of her clothing really defined her character.