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…

Read the rest in…

Editor and author Philip Athans offers hands on advice for authors of fantasy, science fiction, horror, and fiction in general in this collection of 58 revised and expanded essays from the first five years of his long-running weekly blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook.


—Philip Athans


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Or contact me for editing, coaching, ghostwriting, and more at Athans & Associates Creative Consulting.


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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