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Costuming For Writers

A panel summary from Sasquan in 2015

As I was going through my notes from the most recent convention, I came across my notes from a panel I never wrote up. So it’s going to be a summary of my notes rather than a summary of individual comments; I was wrangling a small child at the time and couldn’t make specific attributions.

When designing a wardrobe for your characters, it has meaning. If you are to make an outfit seem realistic, you can’t just throw clothing on your characters willy-nilly and expect it to stick. These days, there’s enough of a casual interest in historical clothing that contrary elements or different periods will stick out to a reader, and anything that feels “off” is going to throw your reader out of a story.

Wardrobes evolve due to several functions. One such function is as a product of technology. For instance, the invention of the sewing machine in Victorian times led directly to the excess of ruffles and ornamentation that started signifying wealth; when you hired a seamstress to make a dress, but they could make it in a fraction of the time, you needed some new way to signify status. The zipper was a huge game-changer; garments that weren’t physically likely became more common at lower levels of status. (You could have a form-fitting gown in the 17th century but it required pinning in place—not something easy for someone to do without a maidservant.) (Also see the ability to easily set grommets so that shoes could be laced instead of buttoned.) And the invention of the washing machine has led to disuse of overgarments—it used to be that you would have only one or two overgarments and you would change your linen, your undergarments, on a daily basis.

Another function is to symbolize rank, which may be more or less important in various societies. Sumptuary laws were established as a direct means of telling one rank from another, and there were penalties for dressing outside of your class. (This was, in turn, directly related to certain cultural things that were happening at those times; learn your history if you want to have the same signifiers in place.)

Wardrobes are also the art of the possible, and clothing fads happen due to availability. This can be problematic, as in the prevalence of arsenic-based clothing dyes in the 19th century (“poison green” is an accurate description), or it can be simply from what’s suddenly available, such as the fad for mauve when a new colorfast dye came into use. Neon in the 60s and beyond and skintight clothes with the advent of spandex thread are two more modern clothing fads. Fads often subsume into less obvious and more common use, such as the addition of spandex thread blends into formerly inflexible clothing pieces such as jeans. (Think your jeans don’t have spandex? Check the label.)

Sometimes you can have clothing choices signal a counter-cultural choice. Some folk in the 18th and 19th centuries disdained indigo because it was a product of slavery, and it was one fairly visible method of showing allegiance.

Wardrobe can also have a historical function. If you have a culture that carries around a lot of accessories with no obvious immediate need, it could be that they serve a memorial function. But don’t just throw in “tradition” as a reason unless you’ve fleshed that tradition out.

When you write outfits, you should bring in enough to set the scene and as and aspect of the story. If you spend three pages writing about pin tucks and ruffles and lace and specific stitches, the reader is going to get annoyed. Unless that’s critical to moving the plot along, in which case you’d better let the reader know why.

An outfit that is practical has a lot of significance. A blacksmith will have a protective leather apron (probably with burn marks); a leatherworker’s pouches will show his skill as an advertisement. Tanners will have a lingering smell; weavers will have dye stains on their hands.

Don’t forget reasons for clothing and grooming choices. Dreadlocks for tightly curling hair keeps it from felting into a heavy cap that overheats the wearer. Most cultures don’t get scissors until fairly late in the game, and that changes how neatly one can cut. In the desert, the choice of dark robes (as opposed to white ones) is actually supported by how dark robes create convection currents to draw air through. (And you will not go bare-headed in the desert without risking heat stroke!)

If there are clear cultural markers in the clothing, your outfit choices have weight. Our culture has fairly loose standards, but even we have a good notion that “street clothes” and “business wear” are different things. In a culture with sumptuary laws, or with two cultures that have different signifiers of status, how your character dresses can illuminate their personality. Does your character choose to “pass”? Is their moral weight to what they choose to wear?

One final note is to consider the source when looking at clothing commentary. When the Romans—a fairly flamboyant culture when it came to color—called the Irish “garish”, it had some extra oomph. Maybe not so much from the Puritans.

Writing About Fighting – Panel

WorldCon 76, San Jose, August 16, 2018. All comments are paraphrased from notes.

Panelists (all are also writers)
Kristine Perron, martial arts, stunt work
Marie Brennan, martial arts, theatrical fight choreography
Tony Barajas, martial arts, swords
Fonda Lee, martial arts
Michael Tinker Pierce, sword maker and European fighting styles expert

 

Things to remember when putting fight scenes in:

KP: Make sure all fights are physically possible. Don’t choreograph things that require impossible contortions or abilities beyond the reach of your characters. Use the tactile sense of what is going on to convey information. Choreograph it out; it’s a lot easier to tell what’s going on if you go through the rough moves yourself. Characters of different physical sizes and abilities are going to make a difference to your fight; a smaller fighter is going to have a difficult time against a larger, heavier opponent. (The phrase “the feel of his leg passing over my head like a tree” was used.) There can be an advantage to writing mismatched opponents.

MB: You need both the narrative of the fight and how the fight will affect your narrative. Don’t put a fight in because you can’t think of anything; a fight will have to advance the plot.

FL: Writing the fight scenes is like a treat for me. Some of the other scenes are a slog and I get through by thinking that I can write the fight scene later.

MTP: The trick is to convey information to the reader who is often less knowledgable without resorting to an info dump. They don’t need to know the specific fighting style by name if the description gives them a good feel for it. Fighting styles will illuminate character. (A timid character will approach a fight differently from an overconfident one; cultural styles can come through how fights are approached.)

TB: Consistency is key. The geography should not move around; the sun should not change sides; make sure that hands (and wounds) stay in the same places. And it drives me nuts with those medieval movies where somebody gets cleaved in half through armor. That doesn’t happen. That’s why you WEAR armor.

MB: From my theatre experience, it’s very useful to have an ugly sketch that shows the space, with a wall here and a window there, and arrows everywhere that show how the fighting goes. It’s all clear in your head now, but when you come back to it in two months, how will you remember?

What truth about fighting do you wish writers knew?

MB: Fights are short! You read a scene that says that a fight goes on for twenty minutes—that doesn’t happen. Three minutes is an eternity in a fight. They get decided before people around the fight can even turn around to see what’s going on.

FL: Fights are unpredictable. Random things happen that change who is winning. Also note that you sink to the level of your technique; you never rise above it to a level of excellence. You can practice a thing again and again and still not be able to do it in a fighting situation.

some discussion on how proper drilling can also instill the wrong habits in you; the example given was of someone learning to disarm a knife wielder and then unconsciously handing the knife back to the person they disarmed.

KP: Conditioning is huge. It doesn’t matter how good you are at something if you’re not in condition to do that particular thing at the time you need it, and fights are not like working out. Learning to take a hit and move past it is also huge.

MTP: You can be conditioned to wearing armor, and it won’t slow you down—but it will sap your stamina.

More techniques for writing fight sequences:

MB: In theatre, there is a term called a “beat.” Which is not the same as a beating. Beats are points where something changes, a point of action; those are the moments you want to put in your fight sequence, not every last action.

KP: Use sensory details, the feel of sweat, how the mud under the fighters’ feet slips, the smell of blood. Five senses; use them.

MTP: With the serialized version of the Mongoliad, they put in every detail of a fight we choreographed for them. EVERY detail. The final sequence was 10,000 words long. When it was put into the novel, the scene was 700 words—which means the original was 9300 words too long. Don’t do that.

FL: Clarity is important. WHY the fight happens, HOW did you get there, HOW will they react, WHAT is at stake. A fight illuminates world building through its rituals, language, weaponry, how they react to the fight and its aftermath. A fight builds tension in one way and releases it in another.

MB: From my anthropology experience, I can say that the threshold to violence depends on culture. Our culture is at an ahistoric high threshold; humans are a naturally social species and it takes a lot to drive us to violence barring other factors. (implied: those other factors are largely absent right now.) We could do better, but our level of interpersonal violence is very low. Consequences have an effect on the level of violence in a culture; if you are going to be imprisoned after a fight, you’ll think twice about starting one. Make sure to have the aftermath be part of your story.

FL: A fight is not just the action. A fight is the setup, the action itself, and the consequences.

TB: Remember that combat will come with physical damage, and that has long-lasting effects. You don’t have a cleric who can heal all your wounds—do you have a cleric?

KP: If any of you have a cleric who can heal all wounds, I will be right outside the door after the panel.

TB: Wounds don’t heal quickly. If your character has a broken arm, you can’t just have that broken arm go away a page later. Cuts last a while, and even bruises will slow you down and change the way you fight.

KP: And age affects your healing. As you get older, it takes longer to recover from bruises and breaks. And the things you did younger come back to haunt you. Tamora Pierce did something I love with her first series: she had Alanna (the protagonist) talk about training as a knight and how you collect all the bruises and breaks when you’re young and your body presents the bill in your 30s.

FL: I wish writers would understand that if you’re outnumbered, you WILL lose.

TB: Dumas understood this. In The Three Musketeers, the three principal characters are up against five guards and they know they’re going to lose. They’re going to fight anyway, because that’s who they are, but that’s why they’re so willing to accept D’Artagnan’s help. And then they win, and it’s a big surprise.

MTP: I will say that I have successfully won against two opponents, but it’s always a surprise and a fluke. To have someone who is outnumbered win, you need to present reasons—obstacles, them getting in each other’s way, throwing sand in one person’s face so you only have to deal with the other one, that sort of thing.

interjection from the audience about a fight they’d seen from Japan with three trained swordsmen versus 100 untrained folk with swords. The swordsmen lost—but only after defeating 98 of the untrained type. MB commented that you wouldn’t want to talk about each defeat.

MB: You can up the stakes for the protagonist to make the fight more interesting. Maybe they’re wounded, or outnumbered, or pressed for time. How they get past that will engage the reader.

How do you write about fights when you are not a fighter?

KP: Cultivate friends with knowledge. We like to talk.

FL: Read in depth in the style you want to know about. Read memoirs, first-person accounts, histories of the sport. That will get you the jargon and details you’d never know otherwise.

KP: Boxers’ hands are very soft. I mean, my hands are hard from strikes, so that’s what I’d assume, but boxers’ hands are marinating in their gloves.

TB: Ask an expert, but don’t listen to what they say. Watch what they do and how they move; it’s so internalized that they may not remember to verbalize it, or perhaps they learned it by watching and don’t even realize it’s part of their technique.

Last thoughts?

FL: “Pick your camera angle.” Find the focus for your fight, the POV, and frame it from that perspective.

general comments that if you have characters with special or inhuman abilities, to keep those abilities consistent and impose limitations. Superman is more interesting after a dose of kryptonite.

MB: If a style of fighting is designed to impose a massive amount of trauma, it’s hard to do *less* than that. If you have a gun, “shooting to wound” is difficult if not impossible. And if your hand-to-hand combat is designed to put someone down permanently, it’s hard to just disable them.