Thursday, June 15, 2023

Styling Characters - More Than Meets the Eye


Costume and style can situate the reader in time, place and era.
 Mulan (Yifei Liu). Photo: Jasin Boland. © 2019 Disney Enterprises, Inc. 

Character Clothing as Depiction

Costume and style reveal much about a character and for many authors, utilizing this technique comes naturally. But in writing workshops and critiques, costume design is often overlooked. I thought it would be fun to explore the ins and outs of this topic today. There is definitely more here than meets the eye.

Think about it. If a picture equals a thousand words, then how much are those images created in the reader's head? It's the perfect opportunity to portray the character's personality, background, and place in the world. Also consider what they keep close to hand, a bag of bones, weapons, books, quills, and potions. All can say more about who they are, without having to tell a thing. 

When a character walks onto a scene wearing armour and backing firearms, we know
they are ready to fight. A Mandalorian and droid 

Rank and Power

In my Amassia Series, for example, savants who raise their phantoms wear robes, the colours of which portray their advancement and skill level. Marcus explains it like this:

        "Each banner represents a savant's robe color: brown like the earth for the potentials who come in hopes of raising their phantoms. Then comes blue for young students who stay on .... Green, like me, for those graduating to the next level. Yellow for the successful initiates who've made the journey to Aku. Orange for the upper echelons of mastery. And red for the High Saant who leads us all.... actually, not all. The black-robed Bone Throwers are a clan unto themselves..." - Marcus Adicio Heir to the throne of Baiseen.

With this hierarchy in place, whenever we meet a new character we know by just looking at them if they are savant or non-savant. If the former, we also know their level of training without adding another word to the scene. It frees up space to notice other significant aspects without getting into a long and heavy backstory about how they grew up and where they fit in.

Note how style here confers rank and level of confidence.
 Adjoa Andoh as Lady Agatha Danbury in episode 102 of Queen Charlotte:  Netflix

Personality and Mood

Depicting style also gives the writer an opportunity to utilize what the character is wearing from the start, and contrast it when necessary. So when heavy boots come off, fancy dress is replaced by pants and a button shirt tied in a knot at the waist, or a formal suit is exchanged for PJs, it is telling. Of I should say, showing...

You can also use clothing to portray a deeper backstory and set your character apart. In Curse of Shadows, for example, Ash, who is non-savant, is set apart when she busts out her favourite lavender and black-lace dress. Earlier Marcus recounts having it made for her because her guardian is too auster to consider it. Marcus hides the truth by saying it was left behind by a delegate's daughter and he hopes it will fit.

It's a little Easter egg that pops up later, something the reader knows but Ash does not. Not just a warm moment, but an insight into Marcus's heart as well.

Characters may dress differently for the same event, telling volumes about their intentions.

Contrast for the Win

Another example is how Netflix' Lucifer situates all the ensemble cast in the same workspace, an LA precinct, but each of them wears very different costumes. From human souls to angels to demons and the Devil himself, their get-up offers a view into the characters' goals, desires and means to achieve them. 

So writers, be sure you are giving your characters the style that most brings the story to life, and readers, I would love to hear your favorite costumes, from books or films. Costume design is, after all, one of the Academy Awards, an essential part of storytelling.

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Posts in the 'More Than Meets the Eye' Series

Book Titles

The End



Styling Characters



Kim Falconer, currently writing as A K Wilder, has released Crown of Bones, a YA Epic Fantasy with Curse of Shadows as book 2 in the series. Currently, she is working on the third out in 2024

Kim can be found on  AKWilder TwitterFacebook and Instagram

Throw the bones, read your horoscopes or Raise Your Phantom on the site 

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