On one level, this is a matter of preference. Some readers like to have a true picture painted for them. Others love to be part of the creative process. They like gaps they can fill in, crafting a unique and personal vision of a novel that is truly their own.
Surprisingly often, we overlook this fact as readers. We don’t realize we are adding details that aren’t given. What is on the page and what comes from us merge into a seamless mental construct. The process is unconscious. Alarmingly natural.
The only time, in fact, we DO tend to realize what we’re doing is when a detail given later contradicts what we had been picturing all along. That is always jarring because it draws attention to the fictional aspect of fiction.
(For instance, I will never forget how STUNNED I was as a teenager to watch the first Harry Potter movie. The quidditch pitch really surprised me, because it was nothing like I had pictured the stadium at Hogwarts. Nothing. The only thing that shocked me more was reading, somewhere later, a reminder that nowhere in the book is the quidditch stadium ever described by Rowling. My interpretation and vision might have been different, but the one in the movie was no less “valid.”)
The point of this post, though, is about clothing in particular. There is no “right” or “wrong” way to describe or to leave out descriptions of clothing, of course. But I wanted to mention some things authors can consider when they decide how much detail is too much, or whether to give any. So here we go:
- CLOTHING CHOICES CAN BE SYMBOLIC. In my novels, I have a rich character who spent some years living poor as he fought for his life against a political regime. After his situation improves, he still prefers to wear simple clothing beneath the robes his station requires him to wear. For me, that’s important because it’s symbolic of what he learned, how the experience of living poor changed him, and how despite his good fortune his is a person poor in spirit who understand the limited value of physical comfort and of wealth.
- WHY DOES THE DETAIL MATTER?: We all wear clothes and accessories. So will your characters. The question to ask when you start to describe clothing: WHY? What am I getting across with this information? Sure, I know what the character is wearing, but why do I need the reader to know as well? Am I portraying social status or occupation? Am I contrasting one character with another? Am I setting a scene in a particular place or time? Am I making a point about a character’s personality or quirkiness? Am I trying to create an iconic image I want to stick with readers? (Like Harry Potter’s glasses?)
- PLOT: Who can forget Scarlett O’Hara’s curtain dress? Cinderella’s ballgown? Clothing can be more than a fashion statement or a symbol. It can be a plot point and a way to introduce or exacerbate conflict. Certain events, certain circumstances, call for certain attire. And when that attire is hard to come by…. You get the picture. OR, in crime/ suspense fiction, clothing left or missing from a (crime) scene can have major plot implications.
- NOT JUST CLOTHING, BUT THE STATE OF CLOTHING CAN SAY A LOT. Is that jacket new or patched? Is a character usually wearing the same outfit(s)? Are those shoes sparkling or scuffed? This is the kind of thing that can help revel biographical information as well as be symbolic or set tone. Speaking of which…
- COLOR TONES CAN MATTER JUST AS MUCH AS HUE. If your purpose in describing clothing is to help set a tone, but you want to give your readers some power, describing a jacket or blouse as “light,” “dark,” “soft,” “pastel,” “bright,” etc, might be an option, rather than saying “lavender,” “navy,” or “kelly green.
- THERE ARE DEGREES OF DESCRIPTION. Clothing can be description on so many different levels. You can give nothing. Or give garment names. (A dress? Slacks? Suit?) You can get more specific (sleeve length? Are those shoes boots or sneakers, or sandals?) You can give color. Fabric. Texture. Describe a print (stripes or polka dots? Animal print?) Again, less is usually more. If you can’t pinpoint a reason that a particular detail is needed, leave it out.
So, what do you think about clothing and characters? Is there any literary example that stands out? For me, Scarlett’s curtain dress was huge. Stuck with me.
Next post, I hope to talk about one major reason less is more when we authors are describing a person or a setting. Work and life have temporarily gotten me off of a regular posting schedule, though I do try to post two or three times a week. To make sure you don’t miss out on future discussions, you can sign up to follow my blog by email.