I recieved a great comment on my World Building: Clothing Pt1 from Alice Leiper. As I started writing a response, the realisation hit that it was a bit to long for the comment box. So, I decided to turn it into a quick article, that will give you some little tips, as well as explain why you should consider developing your characters clothes in a fantasy setting.
Alice started off by saying, ‘novels are not visual,‘ which is true, in a literal sense. Unless you consider letters “visuals”, which I suppose they are. But world building, and writing Fantasy as a whole is a very visual experience.
A little bit about show vs. tell:
This adage is one I’m sure nearly everyone has heard in their writing life, so I will be brief. When writing Fantasy in a constructed world, the reader has very little point of reference, so to improve immersion you need to be a bit more liberal with description.
Allen’s jaw dropped as he looked upon the fair maiden, she wore a fine silk dress, and a pretty necklace.
Allen’s jaw dropped as he looked upon the fair maiden, her red silk dress slid on floor behind her, as she walked into the room. Around her neck an emerald – the size of a man’s fist – hung from a thin gold chain.
Define your world’s clothing Parameters
“She wore a fine silk dress,” is OK if you are writing a contemporary piece. People have a pre-conceived notion of what a fine silk dress is. I’ve been coding a lot of CSS lately so I’ve unfortunately taken to writing as if it was code (haha). At one point or another, if you want to build a strong sense of the world you need to define the parameters of what constitutes a fine silk dress [in your world].
Are they dyed in strong colours?
Do they have complex embroidery?
Are they embroidered with house emblems?
Do they have trains? Are they long, or short?
Once you have given the reader a clear idea of how people dress, then you can use shorthand down the track to convey a great deal more information.
You can tell a lot from a man’s shoes
Another cliché, which rings true. But cementing the look and feel of clothing in your world has far more uses than giving a little bit of character development. Clothing plays an integral role in building a scene, conveying action, stress, and character ticks and your world as a whole.
Building a scene – Summer’s end Festival in Etheros
In Etheros [my own world], Leonirians have a festival at the end of a long summer, where they all dress in brightly coloured clothes because they believe it will bring warmth over the winter. Without clothing description here, the scene will seem flat, and the description of the festival will be a boring info-dump.
If a character is wearing leather, then they will have some protection from grazing. If a character is wearing wool, it could get snagged if they are running through a dense forest.
Do characters pull at threads? Thumb earrings or other jewellery?
What not to do
This is probably the most important thing to consider when developing your world’s apparel: Do not info-dump! If info-dumps are boring, clothing info-dumps are waiting at a station for a train that don’t come here no more.
The reason you need to consider the look and materials of the clothing your characters wear is so you can pepper your story with details and maintain continuity. You need to describe the characters clothing subtly, over time.
Times to describe clothing:
When a character changes clothes
When a character gets a new piece of clothing.
Character ticks: E.g. [when a character is nervous] “Allen tugged a stray woollen thread on his sleeve.”
Action: E.g. “Allen’s sweater caught on the undergrowth. Its woollen threads ripped apart as he tried to free himself.”
Impact: Anytime a character needs to stand out, describing their clothing can be a great way to do this. E.g. “Allen pushed through the crowd when a fair maiden suddenly caught his eye. [description of woman].”
Weather: E.g. “Allen’s cloak flapped in the wind, as he pulled the hood up.”
When not to describe clothing
Every time a new character enters a room.
Right at the beginning of your story.
Clothing adds depth of feel to your world. Long winded, detailed descriptions of clothing are bad. But if you avoid any in-depth description your world will be in danger of becoming flat. There are a great many tools a Fantasy writer can use to separate their world from ours, and because everyone needs clothes, clothing is one of the best and easiest.
Any thoughts? Thanks for reading,