In certain contexts, this question can be a little creepy. In other contexts it can be totally creepy.

But this past weekend I spoke at the Writer’s Digest Conference West, not surprisingly on the subject of writing fantasy and science fiction, and in that seminar, which is mostly Q&A, a writer told me she was having trouble getting past what her characters were wearing. She’s interested in that, but was starting to question if she might have been spending too much time, or too many words, on “fashion”—where to draw the line?

Great question, and not just because this specific issue is common to a lot of authors—what their characters are wearing—but it speaks to a bigger point.

Always, like this author is doing, ask yourself why? Why does this matter? And how does it help move your story forward? After all, the story is the most important thing, right? Characters first, conflict second, all else third.

My off-the-cuff answer was pretty much exactly that: Ask, “Why does it matter that this character is wearing that outfit?” But beyond that, ask yourself how you can use those clothes as a story device.

Nineteenth Century Spanx.

Nineteenth Century Spanx.

The example I gave was along these lines: If you have a character wearing one of those ridiculous giant hoop skirts out of Gone With the Wind, but then that character has to do kung-fu . . . well, now that skirt becomes a device. I’ll refer you back to a previous post asking What Would Jackie Chan Do? If that hoop skirt becomes a prop, something she either has to overcome, or somehow manages to use to her benefit, now a lovingly rendered description of that outfit matters a great deal, and your story is richer for it, adding a layer of interest and variety to the fight scene.

And clothing can also tell you a lot about how a character interacts with the world. Remember the stilsuits from Frank Herbert’s Dune? I tried to make Dexter Willis’s smartsuit a character in my short story “Vignette.”

When your outfit says: “I am the heartless thug of a genocidal madman.”

When your outfit says: “I am the heartless thug of a genocidal madman.”

Costuming can tell you an awful lot. Imagine that you had no idea what the Nazi SS actually did in the war years, but all you had to go by was a description of their black uniforms with skull and crossbones emblems (see hat) and jagged lightning-bolt Ss . . . they seemed to be specifically and consciously dressing up as villains, leading us into an interesting chicken-and-egg discussion. Does that uniform feel like a villain’s costume becuase we have come to associate it with the empirically villainous deeds of the SS? Or were those uniforms designed specifically to intimidate and scare people, using pre-existing symbolic cues?

There are some characters who simply can not be divorced from their costumes. Darth Vader is that black cape and full-head helmet, but Luke Skywalker was free to change clothes as different needs arose, wearing a coat and hat on the ice planet and a flight suit in his X-wing, and so on. So if Luke shows up wearing a flight suit, the audience gets a cue from that—he’s either just come back from or is getting ready to leave on an X-wing mission. And in the true spirit of “show vs. tell” it’s better to describe Luke’s flight suit then have another character ask him where he’s going than to just say, “Luke was ready to leave for Tatooine.”

We experience the world through a flood of non-verbal clues. We react differently to people based on what they’re wearing. If I walked into the room wearing a Star Trek uniform you would have a different reaction to me than if I came in wearing a tuxedo. Both of those outfits might be a source of conversation. If I walk in wearing jeans and a sweatshirt you probably wouldn’t notice, especially if you know me and know that that’s pretty much my “uniform.” Phil in a suit? That would be weird.

In one of my worldbuilding classes I present a couple of pieces of fantasy art I pulled off the internet and ask the class to look at what the characters are wearing and start making a list of what that tells us about that character and the world he or she inhabits. This is a form of reverse engineering of precisely what we talked about last weekend.

So the answer to that author is, yes it matters what they’re wearing, but only if it matters what they’re wearing.

If you describe that giant hoop skirt in loving detail then it doesn’t matter one way or another to the story, you’re confusing your readers by giving them specific information they’re filing away, then not having to access again. This is a complaint that readers have, a perceived “wrongness” to your writing that they may never be able to specifically articulate, but believe me, they’ll feel it.

And they won’t like it.


—Philip Athans





About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Writing Monsters. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, (https://fantasyhandbook.wordpress.com/) is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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  1. Thank you for posting this. I have always had a difficult time trying to figure out how much I should describe in what my characters are wearing. I tend to describe trademark outfits that they wear into battle, or serve a purpose–usually. Sometimes I find myself describing too much. I remember when I was young and just starting out I would describe everything from head to toe and it really slowed the story down.
    I know some authors say to never describe what a character is wearing because its an amateur move. But I never entirely agreed with that.


  2. Candy Korman says:

    Brilliant post!
    My mother (a huge mystery reader) and I were just discussing this in the context of what makes Chick Lit a specific category. She was reading a mystery and found that the fashion digressions were piling up. She looked up from her Kindle and declared the book “chick lit.” As I always seem to be writing between genres, but hover in the mystery, paranormal, suspense, romantic suspense arena, I’ve dipped my toe (or pen) into chick lit.

    I’m with you on the clothing descriptions, asking myself if it’s relevant (only sometimes) or if it illuminates the character (sometimes) or if it refines the POV of the other character noticing the clothes (more often).

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