Thursday, October 5, 2017

Walking the Talk: Bringing a Character to Life through Costume


I once read a free Kindle book that purported to be a novel about a woman who is kidnapped by some vaguely Middle Eastern ruffian and taken back to their homeland. There is she taken under the wing of a strong local woman who eventually helps her to return to her home. I know that there are very good books being self-published, but this one did not fit into that category. The oddly named characters (an Arab name that translated to “zucchini,” for example), the blatant stereotyping, and the clunky use of odd spelling and word order to denote a foreign language were distracting, but the book did not become laughable until the author attempted to portray the protagonist walking around in African/Middle Eastern garb. It was painfully obvious that the writer had no idea not only what the clothing should consist of, but what it would be like to move around and function in it on a daily basis.


Being a Muslim woman who wears Islamic clothing when I go out, the deficiencies in the book were glaringly obvious. Not only did the author not take the time to learn the correct terms for various garments, she obviously had no understanding of how they were worn, how they affected movement, or what it felt like to actually wear them. If she had taken the time to do any of these three things, her portrayal of her female characters would have been stronger.

1: Read accounts of people wearing similar clothing. There are many articles and YouTube videos about non-Muslim women putting on hijab and going out in order to truly understand what it is like.

2: Talk to Muslim women and get their insight and perspective on wearing the hijab.

3: Do some research and then wear the clothing herself, experiencing first-hand what it is like.

This is true of any character we are writing about. For example, I have no idea what it would be like to wear a women’s business suit and high heels around all day. In order to write a believable portrayal of a women who did this, I would have to do more than use my imagination to flesh her out.


When I was active in theatre, I loved the world of costuming. The research was fascinating, but seeing how the costumes actually looked and worked once the actors put them on was always an eye-opener. It went beyond that though- sure, the actors could do incredible work in rehearsals without costumes, but once the clothing was added everything ratcheted up a notch. Noblemen straightened their shoulders even further and the limping gait of the beggar gave life to the character. Clothing does not make the person, but in many ways it does define us, and establishes parameters as to how we interact in our environment, both physical and societal.

Writing a book is, of course, different from acting in a play. However, a whole new layer of truth and depth can be obtained when we authors take the time to not only carefully choose our character’s clothing, but to understand that what she wears will not only tell us about her, but will affect how she is able to function in her role, and how others perceive her.

Khadijah Lacina lives on a small homestead in rural Missouri with her children, horses, goats, chickens, cats, dogs, and an elusive bobcat. She is passionate about speaking up and working for change, and is writing a book about the ten years she spent in Yemen. She is a writer, teacher, translator, herbalist, and fiber artist.

9 comments :

  1. This nails the glaring reasons for doing research about eras, cultures, countries, religions, dress, common and/or specific terminology, etc. As you mentioned, try on the clothes. How do they feel? How well can you function in them? Taste the food. Research names--it DOES matter what you call your characters. ("Zucchini" probably isn't a popular moniker.) After I pointed out some glaring errors in a manuscript that would have been eliminated by basic research, I was informed by an editing client that those things didn't matter because it was a fiction story. A month later, she was talking with an experienced writer she respected, and that writer emphasized the importance of research when writing fiction. I received a phone call from my contrite author, and we never again had a problem with accuracy. This is a great post, Khadijah.

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    1. Thank you! I see it a lot with historical romance books. I am glad that your author owned up after someone else told her!

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  2. Very good point, Khadijah. And a great excuse to dress up :-)

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    1. Yes! I always loved the Renaissance festivals and Rendezvous gatherings- they would be a great place to not only try it all on, but to talk to people who do it all the time!

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  3. I loved this the way you brought to bear your own knowledge to illustrate how getting the details of dress and cultural expression wrong signals the falsity of the narrative. Beautifully written as always.

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  4. It's a good post and relates to the concept of "sensitivity readers" - no opinions as to whether they are a good investment for writers, but they are an option in modern writing.

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  5. Excellent post on the value of research where clothing, or anything else, for that matter, is intrinsic to the story. Explaining costumes or clothing in a novel has its place, however. One crime fiction author I've read describes every character on entering the story, along with what that character is wearing. I always found it annoying. Certain genres work better with description, chic-lit, for instance, or historical romance. Sex and the City is all about fashion, so it's more important than a modern day mystery where clothing would be hardly mentioned. In any case, doing it right adds authenticity to the plot.

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  6. Very enlightening post,Khadijah. There are too many writers who jump into writing a story without doing the proper homework, whether that is getting the costumes right, the words, or the culture nuances. Thanks for the reminder that we all need to employ due diligence.

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The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.

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