It’s all in the Dress

25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee -- University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.

“Clothes are inevitable.  They are nothing less than the
furniture of the mind made visible.”
–James Laver, Style in Costume
I went to see a play last night at our local university.  The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee was directed by the sister of one of my fellow ChattaRosa members – thanks for recommending the play, Jolly.  It was terribly funny and well done.
What I found most remarkable, though, was how the actors could switch roles.  My particular favorite example was the actor (Alex Whittle) who played both a sweet, flighty speller who doesn’t believe in himself, and then, in a different scene, an overbearing father to one of the other characters.  He was completely believable in both roles.
It made me think about what we do with our characters – how important it is to describe them in a way that brings them to life.  In the play, Leaf Coneybear, the somewhat nice, spacey speller wears a cape, pants with colorful patches down his legs, knee pads, and a helmet. He gets distracted easily, is a bit disheveled, and his body is always in constant motion.  Then, suddenly, the same actor becomes one of two father’s for a different speller, Logainne Schwartzandgrubenniere (I’m not sure if he was Schwartz or Grubenniere!).  Now, his hair is neatly combed and he is terribly preppy looking, with a nice sweater tied around his shoulders crisp, khaki pants – okay, he still had the kneepads on, but that was because he had such little time to make the switch, and yet the audience had no problem discerning which character was onstage.
The clothing was very important to distinguish the type of character being portrayed. Certainly, vocabulary, body movement, and other cues helped, but the difference in clothing was the first and most deliberate clue the audience had that even though we had seen this actor before, this was a different character.  Sometimes in our writing, we end up with characters who seem almost interchangeable, and that confuses our readers.  We need to think about the uniqueness of each one – how they look and speak, but especially how they are dressed.  Each of your main characters should have a unique style:  Maybe he is always in business suits, she is in pajama pants, he is in bell bottoms, or she wears the latest styles.  What are the specifics of their wardrobe that you need to bring in to help your readers readily identify the type of person who just arrived on the page?
And remember:  “It’s always the badly dressed people who are the most interesting.”  –Jean Paul Gaultier.
Make the everday daring!

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