January 13, 2015

Talking Shop: Dressing Sexy Characters for Success

Normally I'm not the most fashion-minded of people. If I don't have to be dressed up I'm pretty much in a cartoon-character-like repetition of the same outfit day in and day out: jeans and a tank top. When it comes to describing a character's outfit, though, I am anything but lazy.


Why? Because it's costuming. I'm painting you a picture! While I couldn't care less how my closet ranks against the beautiful women of America's Next Top Model, when I have to describe a character's wardrobe my inner fashion designer arrives in a flurry of caffeinated enthusiasm.


So I get rather grumpy with romance authors who keep falling back on this is the only way a woman can dress sexy:



Google Image Search: tight clothes short skirt killer heels sexy

 Now, there's nothing flat out wrong with this image. She does look very nice. But she also doesn't look very interesting. She's kind of... forgettable, when you get right down to it.


Imagine you're not looking at a picture here, but reading the description of it in a book. Is there anything about this image that really sticks out?


You'll see from my caption the search terms I used to find this image. I'll give you one guess how I decided on those terms. Give up? They are the most common (and in my opinion, most overused) descriptors you'll find in most romance stories, when it comes to describing a woman's sexy getup. This is what 90% of romance leading ladies will wear to an evening out. Inevitably, she's wearing a thong underneath. Of course, it has to be a thong. To read some of these mainstream romance authors, you'd think that for women who want to be sexy, there is no other underwear worth wearing. The thong, by the way, is almost always described as "nothing but a tiny triangle of fabric".


Now, I wear thongs. There are a variety of reasons they are quite wonderful--they don't show panty lines, for one thing. But at the end of the day, I find them a far cry from the height of sensual wear. And let's just for a moment remember that as nice as they are, they also come with a built-in perpetual wedgie mechanic, which much of the time is NOT sexy at all.


Let's talk about how we describe our ladies' wardrobe choices.


First off, if you find yourself using the phrase "leaving little to the imagination" (or something thereof), STOP. Seriously. This phrase should never be a part of your sexy descriptions. Why?


First of all, it's so disgustingly overused it makes me a little sick any time I see it. It's an eye-roller and a groaner, for sure. It's cliche, and you know how I feel about cliches. 




Here's the actual image that comes to my mind when I read that any part of a woman's wardrobe "left little to the imagination":



Why? Because that description uses no imagination. It's lazy. When you write that phrase, you might as well be telling readers you've put no thought into what the woman is actually wearing and why it is sexy. You rely on the implied lack of clothing to tell us she looks good, but you can't even be bothered to explain in what way it makes her looks good...only that what she's wearing is skimpy.


Here are a few other generally relied-upon "go-to's" in the erotic description category:


  • Tight clothes. Because tight = sexy.

  • Short skirts.

  • Midriffs.

  • Black bras (and thongs, of course!)

  • Push-up bras

  • High heels

  • Bikinis


There's nothing inherently wrong with any of these, except the fact they are so quickly and easily relied upon to convey sexy attire. And while there's nothing wrong with them, they aren't universally sexy.



There's a lot to consider when you want to describe sexy, sensual clothing. I, for one, find it sexier for a woman to be wearing something complex and unique to her personality and style, than to be wearing the same old black cocktail dress and six-inch heels. I like to imagine she, like an actual person, has her own sense of fashion and comfort, and her own "blend" of sexy. 


I also find a woman sexier when she's dressing to please herself, not others. Characters whose wardrobes reflect the clothing they feel sexy in come across as far more interesting and attractive than your modern romance staples.


Complex costuming can be fun, as well as becoming a standout point in your writing. One of my favorite parts in writing Lotus Petals was designing the gold tiger kimono Rhiannon is dressed in to meet the daimyo, in a scene where it was important to invoke grace, confidence and strength. I feel the kimono and its elements added a great deal of beauty to the scene, and to the novel. Rather than something common, something non-descript, or something a hundred characters have worn before, this kimono had its purpose, place, and personality, in helping to bring out attractive characteristics in its wearer. 


This is where Pinterest can be an exceptionally valuable writer's tool. I for one find it useful to collect styles and fashion photos, including accessories, I find attractive and unique. When I need to come up with a description, it's helpful to look at what I've collected or what sorts of elements I want to see in my own character's "picture", to visualize what I'm invoking.


Even if you're not fashion-conscious and would rather be sitting at home in your non-thong underwear and a tank top, you don't have to be lazy or uninformed when it comes to dressing your characters. Remember you are costuming your play; painting a picture; seducing your reader with words and images. Practice, if you have to, but don't rely on stereotypes or bad cliches to help you make your ladies look sexy.


For the record, all these things could also be said about male characters. Not every attractive male has to wear the same Armani suit and silk tie, or your classic jeans and T-shirt. The point is, you are fully capable of dressing your characters to the nines and maintaining sensuality, confidence, allure and personality without falling back on a catalog of tired runway repeats. Take an initiative here: dress up may never be this fun in real life!

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