Thursday, 26 September 2013

What are your characters wearing?

A few years ago, during a critique session on my MA in Creative Writing course, a fellow student pointed out that I often described what my characters were wearing in some considerable detail. This wasn't a criticism as such, she said, but just something she'd noticed. (We’d had a lot of lessons together as this point) Her own short stories were a completely different style to mine - much more abstract - and she said reading my work made her go back and check that her characters were in fact wearing clothes. That she wasn't inadvertently writing stories with naked people in them.

I was thinking back to this conversation while (trying to) write the sequel to The Englishman, but being constantly distracted by email offers from various online fashion stores. Because, as you may have noticed by now, I am a bit of a fashion addict. Not that I pretend to know anything about fashion, but I love looking at designer clothes.

But I digress. What I wanted to know is, is it important to describe what the characters in a book are wearing?

Obviously, I think so.

What she or he wears says so much about a person, doesn’t it? I don’t wish to put my characters into in neat little boxes according to their clothes (a caricature is a dirty word in writing circles), but I think it’s fun to describe the nuances of a character by their outfits.

In The Englishman, for instance, I needed Kaisa to immediately fall head over heels in love with Peter, so I gave him a sexy uniform to wear when they first meet. (OK, this part of the book was based on actual events, so I didn’t make it up, but you see what I mean?).

In Coffee and Vodka, I described the different characters of the two sisters, Anja and Eeva, in the way they carried their clothes.  Anja is a much more flamboyant and confident girl, while Eeva is a bit of a dreamer and less sure of herself. When the two girls were dressed by their mother in identical stripy Marimekko t-shirts and white trousers, for their ferry journey across to Sweden, Anja’s outfit made her look like a young Brigitte Bardot, while Eeva felt her clothes were too big for her, and shapeless.

In The Red King of Helsinki, Iain, the English naval officer turned spy, struggles to wear clothes warm enough for the harsh Finnish winter, while my seventeen-year-old sleuth, Pia, is highly fashion conscious. Pia’s clothing oozes confidence while Peter’s lack of weather awareness shows a worrying level of incompetence.

Of course clothes and the fashions of the time serve well in reminding the reader of the period the book is set in.  Because the story in Coffee and Vodka straddles two eras, it was important for me to dress Eeva appropriately when we meet her as a grown-up (professional, compassionate teacher of Swedish). Later I also use her clothes to show how her attitude to herself and to the people around her change. I won’t reveal any more of the plot, because I don’t want to spoil the ending, but if you’ve read the book, I’m sure you’ll see what I mean.

So, while I’m just nipping over to Net-a-Porter to check out today’s new arrivals, instead of writing, I’ll be secure in the knowledge that this is just research, and not at all a pleasure...

What do you think? Is it important to know what the characters in a  book are wearing?

What kind of character
would wear this Miu Miu spotted coat?


Sara Mills said...

Not only do I totally agree that character can be developed through fashion, I also think your books sound fabulous!

M. Louisa Locke said...

Dear Helena,

I absolutely think it is important, because I like to visualize characters, particularly the main ones. But even secondary characters can leave a stronger impression with me (so I don't get them mixed-up) if I have some physical image. (This is true even though I am not addicted to fashion, and can seldom tell you what someone is wearing!)

I write mysteries set in 1880 San Francisco, and I know that many of my readers want to know about fashions of that time. But as with any historical detail, it is how you weave the information in that makes the difference. I have had to avoid just name dropping (Basque top), but to put some additional description of what a basque top looks like, so that a reader isn't taken out of the book trying to imagine what the dress looks like.

it is easier to desribe men--I can say black formal wear--and while their image might not be perfect--it will be close enough to keep them in the period.

M. Louisa Locke

Helena Halme said...

Thank you Sara, my books are available on Amazon! ;-)

Louisa, I wholeheartedly agree, all my books are also set in recent history (1970's, 80's and 00's), so it's really important to describe the era through clothing particularly, without it being obvious. And sometimes it's easier to describe what men are wearing, especially from a woman's point of view. I find it harder to do it from a man's POV, but if writing was easy, we wouldn't be doing it?


womanmdsguide said...

One of my favorite things in books is what the characters are wearing. If I ever write my memoirs, I am going to write myself much better clothes. I also like to know what the characters bought when they were shopping, how the presents were wrapped, and lots of details about the decorating. These are like little presents, or snacks the author gives the reader in addition to plot, dialogue, sex, and recipes. (yes, I've even made soup from a Sue Grafton book.)ndpagn 204