“Clothes are often overlooked in life and literature and considered frivolous, but they shape character, draw out concepts and connect you to your culture and landscape. As signals for who we are, where we are and what we are, clothes are invaluably transformative and revealing.” (“The Wardrobe,” an online journal based in the UK which focuses on a very specific subject: clothes. (http://www.authorspublish.com/the-wardrobe-open-to-submissions/)
Building on previous eFiles addressing personality and physical attributes, this time around, let’s talk about what they look like above skin level and how to present descriptions.
There are a number of ways to describe a character. One method is bare bones. The author gives very little in the way of a physical description, leaving the reader to fill in the blanks with whatever they imagine. Usually, this technique is used in short stories because of space.
A method used by one frequently published author, he introduces a character, and then immediately sets out a physical description which disrupts the story flow. As example, the protagonist is following the antagonist when a woman steps in his path. She is a tall redhead . . . A long paragraph later we find out why she got in the way, as the action resumes.
Another method is to give a quick description and add more detail at a later time, sprinkling information throughout the story where pertinent. This method allows the plot to flow uninterrupted. As example, this is one of the crewmen aboard a pirate ship:
“[The stowaways were] assigned a teacher. That it was the Irishman, Cochran, was a pleasing choice. He’d instruct them well.” (p.23 early)
“Cochran’s laugh was not mean, but the boys weren’t sure how to take him. He had a light way about himself.” (p.23 late)
“The name’s Mr. Cochran. Just Mr. Cochran. When we be socializin’ ye can call me Dónall.” (p.24)
“They have good eyes, too, just like blue-eyed Cochran.” [p.26] (reference to being a lookout)
“. . . being pink-skinned like Cochran” [p.26]
“. . . the inveterate storyteller.” [p.31]
“Cochran was thirty-six, young-looking with a light-hearted, carefree demeanor people liked to be around. Unlike Pasquel whose dark skin tolerated the sun, Cochran was fair skinned with a splash of freckles across the nose and a perpetual reddish glow, so he always wore a loose shirt, long trousers, hat, and shoes when working in the sunlight. He was slender, never seeming to put on weight as hard as Mr. Lytle [ship’s cook] tried. A hard worker, he was one of the few who could give [the captain] a good match with the cutlass and keep up as the two swam alongside the [ship]. Any attempt at growing a beard was a disaster. Apparently some ancestry kept him clean as if newly shaved. The only mark on his smooth skin was the ugly scar on the left shoulder from [the captain’s] knife. It saved him from losing the arm when he’d been injured in battle six years before.” [p.96] (A Pirate’s Legacy: Return of the Brethren)
Dónall Cochran is a re-occurring actor throughout the story who obviously appeared in a previous novel. His description comes in bits and pieces as they become important and without disrupting the flow of the story, or as a boost to other actors or events.
Describing a character‘s physical and emotional details are important because they say mountains about them, but what a character wears, how, and why can be as important. In the pirate story, the antagonist is usually seen with a chest-length, powered wig and all the rest of a 15th Century English peacock’s attire whether on land or aboard ship. In contrast to many of his fellow sailors, Cochran always wears a loose-fitting shirt, longer trousers, cap, and shoes reinforcing the physical descriptions. Natives encountered during the voyage group themselves into classes identified by what they wear—the length of the loincloth, from short for low class to ankle length for the chief. Older and married women wear a short loincloth while unmarried girls and children wear nothing. (Historical fact) Not only can clothes be described by type, but how they look—clean, pressed, wrinkled, soiled, torn, worn thin, dull to bright colors, the kinds of fabrics, and how they are made. In Cochran’s case, the fabric is thin from use, but clean. (Not a particularly successful pirate, but concerned about his hygiene.)
To present a complete picture, the external appearance of actors can be as important as their physical appearance, internal thoughts, and behaviors. Whatever genre you write, consider the importance of clothing along with all those other things that bring a character and story alive to your reader.