Monday, June 17, 2013

"Dressing" Characters

Why do some writers "dress" the viewpoint figure, the protagonist, the antagonist, or other characters in  their stories, in various garb, as if fashion and style were important when it clearly is not?   More to the point, just why do they choose to inflict racial identity, gender, religion, or ethnicity upon their characters when there is no necessity to do so?  Is it just to promote the word count?

Costumes might be relevant should the characters have to adapt to the situation e.g. a time traveller  in a different era, or where there is, later in the story, a bodice to be ripped.  There are other situations but please, dear author, let  us have relevance.

So many times I will see a short story where a description of a character serves no other purpose than to frame the character in the  reader's mind. While such stereotyping might be entertaining to many and amusing to some, if it is not relevant to the character's personality, behavior, or actions, such descriptive passages are meaningless ormolu.  Who gives a damn how character A was dressed, what religion they followed, or their racial identity when the scene involves a lab experiment, rocket ship, or werewolf in the freaking forest?

In the same way "dressing" the character in ethnic or gender identification is meaningless unless it informs the reader of the character's thoughts or actions*. Otherwise it is just an attempt to be "inclusive," which is all very well and good, but only when it has some point in the story. I try not to describe most of my human characters** in my stories so the reader can form their own mental images:  I want an Asian to picture an Asian hero, not some blue-eyed European.

Descriptions of size, shape, and form are acceptable if there is a point. A character can be muscular, tall, or foreboding where such features are pertinent to some point in the story.  You cannot write a romance without getting into such description, but does it matter if the protagonist is black, white, or purple when the sweaty parts start?  I think not.  A good writer needs the reader's imagination to do half the work while describing the activities.

 *I do use gender identifications simply because it's easier to use "he" or "she" instead of some fumbling obfuscation that could take the reader out of the story.  

**As an example, in 1994 I wrote PERSISTENCE without identifying the gender of the narrator.  I've since had readers tell me in no uncertain words that the narrator was "obviously" female, or perhaps "male," depending on their imagining of the story.  I've taken their interpretations as complements.


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