Author’s Log: Crazy ‘Bout A Sharp-Dressed Man

Warning One of my favorite parts of character development is wardrobe. It was the same when I was in theatre. Donning a costume is so much more than simply putting on a set of clothes, much as one would do when getting up in the morning. It’s about getting into that character’s skin, and thus into their headspace.

In preparation for a performance, we would all hang around backstage, laughing and joking, and let the atmosphere of the theatre–anticipation spiced with a soupcon of dread, the excitement of the audience–seep into our bones. Before long we would all look at each other and know–it was time.

We’d all settle down, gather in our respective dressing rooms, and let the ritual begin. It was largely silent, and utterly sacred.

It was important not to arrive at the theatre already deep into character emotion. It becomes wasted energy, and you have nothing left for the audience for when you really need it. So the act of putting on a costume became an intent act of slowly, carefully, working our way into the character we were playing. Like wading into a pool for the first time, testing the water, feet first, then ankles, calves, knees, and so on until we were under water with the intensity of transition ringing in our ears.

Often there was one piece of costume or a prop that defined that character–a sacred object that anchored it, an oxygen tank in the depths. A walking stick, a suitcase, a pair of shoes. I always tried to find such a thing to imbue with a character’s essence. Something that really did the trick to put me where I needed to be. In Fame, as Lisa Galveston, it was her love/hate relationship with her Capezios, which she eventually freed herself of as she transitioned from dancing to acting. In Dracula I actually embodied another character’s sacred object–one of the demons in Renfield’s mind. The scrim that separated us demons from the rest of the stage became my sacred object–the psycological wall between us and freedom. As a Southern belle in Oklahoma, my object was my fan–an object for expressing emotion and intent–flirtation, displeasure, anxiety, wicked gossip.

Today, as an author, the ritual of character wardrobe is just as sacred–if utterly different.

Like a lot of writers, I like to make collages. Each character gets a small one, made of up actors I might cast in their roles, wardrobe pieces, and objects/props. What’s in their mind, what’s on their body? What’s in their dreams? I cull costume catalogues armed with scissors and glue stick. Museum Replicas is one of my favorite resources. Naturally I also stalk the internets for ideas. As I gather pieces for each character I discover things about them, meditate on their lives and their places in the course of the story. I’m pushing for an intimacy I can then pass on to my readers, an intimacy that will make the writing true. I’m also searching for sacred objects, things that anchor character to their worlds, and thus in my readers’ minds.

In Keepers #1, my heroine is military-trained and drives a 1960s Triumph motorbike, so her wardrobe was practical and functional. Her object sat on a wall until she made the conscious decision to take it down again. It became an object of transition. In Keepers #2, my heroine is tall and a little bohemian. With the practical of shoes and jacket come the bright, colorful dresses for comfort and ease of movement. Unlike Aika in Keepers 1, Callie is utterly at home with herself and her sword. Her sword is who she is, while for Aika, her sword is who she doesn’t want to be.

In Bang Dang Projekt, my hero is a fallen knight who doesn’t care what he wears beyond practicality. There’s no cotton in this fantasy world, so…leather, hide, linen, raw silk. In those few instances he has to dress up he puts on what is given to him. He doesn’t like to draw attention to himself. He holds himself back from the world he’s responsible for breaking. But the Minstrel, now–she’s open and vibrant, and that shows in her wardrobe. She’s not a peacock, but Minstrel blue is her color, and her lute is her sacred object.

Okay, y’all–it’s your turn. What makes or breaks a character in your (proverbial or literal) books? Ever come across any questionable wardrobe choices that made you wonder what the writer could possibly been thinking? What about any objects or costume pieces you felt made a character iconic? Sound off!

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