Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Why You Should Eliminate "Fashion Inventories" From Your Book

As I warned way back in my first post on this blog, some days I will pull up my soap box, climb up on that son of a bitch, and let fly. Today is going to be one of those days. So, if you're really attached to the fashion inventory as a tool of your writing, I'd suggest you keep on walking. I'm not going to say anything you're going to like today.

Are they gone? Good. Now then, let me explain why this particular quirk of style is a tumor we should all start cutting out of our work post haste.

Some of you may need bigger knives than others.

What Is A "Fashion Inventory"?

So, you're introducing a new character, and you want to do something that really cements them in your audience's mind. Not only that, but you want to be sure that the image you have in your mind is as close to the image in your reader's mind. If you're boring, what you do is give us a full description, complete with hair color, eye color, height, weight, age, build, and a full inventory of tattoos and scars. Unless you're writing a detective novel, in which case you can sometimes get a pass for using procedural-style character description, that's going to turn your audience off faster than cutting a power line with a machete.

When you apply that kind of exhaustive, and yet somehow soulless, detail to what someone is wearing, then you have created a fashion inventory.

"He wore a-" infuriated expression is the term you're looking for.
What I'm not saying here is that your character's clothes don't matter. Clothes make the man, or woman, in many cases. However, how you describe what your character is wearing needs to convey something about them to the reader. It isn't just what they're wearing, but how they're wearing it, and what it says about them.

As a for-instance, take the rather irate-looking fellow above. You could list what he's wearing, from the denim vest, to his pegged jeans, to the camouflage head wrap, but you wouldn't be capturing the essence of the man. You would be telling us the sea is wide, blue, and wet. Instead, you might want to say something like:

He looked like a blue-collar thunder god, the flash of his belt buckle followed by the heavy thump of his engineer boots as he crossed the boards. His thick, white mane, like the temper in his eyes, was barely restrained as he shifted his attention to the new fish.

A little flowery, sure, but it gives the audience more than just an itemized list of what they're looking at. It creates an impression of the character, and feeds the imagination. The description focuses on the important connections you want the audience to make (blue collar implies work wear like denim and Carhartt, along with heavy boots, while comparing him to the likes of Thor or Zeus brings across that he is physically powerful, and carries a lot of presence into the space he occupies), without getting bogged down in unnecessary details.

Only Mention Details Your Audience Needs To Know

Any time you focus on what your character is wearing, ask why it's necessary to your story. Especially if you're going to tell instead of show.

Don't give me dictation. Paint the picture.
For example, say you're going to tell your audience a particular character is wearing an Armani suit, or a Rolex watch. That's one, acceptable way to use what someone is wearing to tell us something about them (in this case that they are wealthy). However, rather than naming names, you could just as easily describe the character as wearing a tailored suit, and a time piece that cost more than most people's cars. The latter is more descriptive, and it doesn't depend on the audience being familiar with the brands you're talking about. Alternatively, you might have a character in a short skirt, or with rolled sleeves, which allows us to catch a glimpse of a prison tattoo. That is both descriptive when it comes to what we see, but it also creates a metaphor. This character carries a harsh past that, despite their current attire, still shines through from time to time.

In short, if a character's clothes don't express something we need to know, then don't distract us with them. And if you ever find yourself going on for more than a paragraph, re-evaluate why that's necessary.

You're an author, not a runway director.

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1 comment:

  1. One thing I always found very evocative about William Gibson's early work is he named names. It was very effective for the genre (cyberpunk) because one of the genre features was giant megacorporations. Plus he used the names to tell us about the world. Japanese economic dominance was shown and demonstrated by the corporate names, many of which implied western companies merged with or bought out by Japanese companies (Zeiss-Ikon, etc).

    it did date the piece though, same with using specific tech specs (his cyberdeck had a whole 16 megabytes of memory for his programs!), but it did have a great narrative effect. For some genres I'd say describing some brands, real or imagined, is a great tactic to slip in world info without resorting to exposition.

    As an aside, one technique I've found effective in writing is to describe the EFFECTS of the clothing over time. Is it constricting? do they have to keep pulling up their skirt to adjust a thigh holster or keep pulling on the hem of their suit jacket because the shoulders don't lay right thanks to the brass knuckles in their pocket? Are they hot, or cold, does a tense scene cause their shirt to feel suddenly constricting as their breathing speeds up? After a sudden fright is their stiff shirt collar causing them to feel every beat of their heart in their neck?

    I also loved your example because it uses a great technique: the looks analogy.