Tell Their Secrets

"When I instruct beginning writers to do a characterization, they produce something like this: 'She was a blue-eyed blonde in a red dress.'

Right at this moment, there are probably 10 million blue-eyed, blond women wearing red dresses. So that tells me absolutely nothing. The only thing in that pitiful characterization of any use at all is the mention of the red dress, simply because we have archetypal (and often incorrect) associations with particular colors (red is the color of evil, sensuality or rage) or items of clothing (a red dress is shorthand for the vivacious or celebratory). Of course these associations deal with stereotypes and perhaps even some gender judgement.

Pete Gamlen illustration that accompanied the online version of this article
I didn't come to care about Scout or Ponyboy or Celie because of how they looked. I cared about them because I knew what was going on in their minds and hearts. Readers are better informed if we give them what is in a character's brain, not what is on her body.

Yet people continually want to write about a character's clothes, his height, or the color of his hair. These things rarely matter because they don't tell us about the kind of person we're dealing with. Humans are not all that physically different, after all. But all of our hearts and minds are individual, stamped with our own wonderful and terrible secrets.

That's what readers need to know to care about a character." (Review, 12)

House, Silas. "Tell Their Secrets" in the "Draft" section of The Sunday Review, New York Times, July 14, 2013.

This is a week full of Writers on Writing! I don't disagree with House--it is the "hearts and minds" that endear us to characters, not their overalls or pretty dresses or sailor suits. However, I do think that it's a bit unfair to suggest that clothing doesn't affect how we feel about the characters. It might not make us like them more (or it might--on a more superficial level), or identify with them, or learn about ourselves and others. But I think it's a meaningful way of connecting with the characters on a certain level--we all wear clothes!

A grey flannel suit makes us feel differently than a flowery, flowy muumuu (on women or men), and certainly those feelings are socially constructed and subjective. But I don't feel like House has given clothing description a fair rap here: "a red dress" is as stereotypical as it comes, and I don't disagree that that kind of bland (if intended to be fiery) description should be avoided.

I'm biased, but I believe that thoughtful, original descriptions and observations of dress and adornment make a book all the more real and meaningful to me. I want the characters I read about to be real (mostly), and for me, that sometimes includes his or her choice of clothing for a gala or a trip to the DMV--as well as their hopes, struggles, and stories.