[Think Aloud] – #31 – Why Readers Don’t Imagine Characters Naked

Think Aloud explores book-related discussions encompassing reading, writing, blogging, and perhaps newsworthy content. The focus is to push the boundaries, stretch the mind, and encourage dialogue within this community. Let’s all think out loud. 

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Table Topic:
Why Readers Don’t
Imagine Characters Naked

Abstract:

Is there enough description to say characters don’t run around naked in contemporary fiction?


Thoughts:

Here’s my question: who’s to say a protagonist in a contemporary genre can’t wear a suit of armor and wield a broadsword?

Correction.

Who’s to say they’re even wearing any clothes at all?

Typically, the genre and setting outline the appearance of characters. It’s a tone kinda thing.

In fantasy or historical fiction, gorgeous flowing dresses for nobles and plain or grimy slacks commoners are prime examples used to sell the socioeconomic divergence in the community. In hard science fiction, you might find sleek and formfitting spandex attire a la venturing through space operas. Even murder-mysteries may feature trench-coaty noir everything.

Then there’s contemporary fiction–the “today” time if you will. We’re reminded, by the law and social etiquette, that public nudity is obscene. So we cover up by wearing all sorts of things for comfort, fashion, or a sense of shelter. In New Adult+ particularly, you’d fully expect the belt buckle contraption to get caught or the bra to be expertly removed–suggesting that there are clothes to be taken off prior to sexy times. But once you step out of this toothsome foreplay, the mere mention of garments ceases in presence–and should they be so discretely written?

Privatized or boarding schools have it easy: slap on a uniform and bingo bango–no need to fuss over matching shirts to go with wearing pink on wednesdays. Sports oriented stories with popular student tropes can simply cover their hunkadories and scantily clad students in school jerseys or form-fitting fabrics (to highlight physique). Alternative ‘other-ism’ is the most dangerous of all and perpetuates a sleuth of things if mishandled.

Yet from a storytelling perspective, the materialization of “clothing” from an imaginative front is like a giant word association game; influenced by character archetypes and the cultural/social norms of that time period.

It’s kind of a free pass if you think about it.

School>public>nondescript clothes.

Work>office>nondescript office clothes.

In either [baseline] scenario, there isn’t a need to overexert the prose to meticulously describe the quality of material, the feels in figuratively-swimming-in-a-cloud-of-down-feathers, or the simple fact that they had to put on a parka or wrap a scarf around themselves. Delving into specificity simply steps into purple prose territory and that’s a hit-or-miss with readers.

That’s the double-edged sword issue here: if there isn’t any description, aren’t these characters frolicking around in naked freedom?

The only case this word association game fails to hold true is when characters are exposed to extraordinary moments; ones that aren’t considered normal. It is in these instances that warrants a need to highlight where they’re going and how they’re going to achieve it. Call it a makeover if you want but the idea behind “suiting up“, to overcome a hurdle, is one that burns brightest if it doesn’t rely on some preconceived static thought.

But that’s generally an outlier.

I’m not saying that upgrading a character’s superficial appearance by tacking on some sweater is going to make a huge difference. Nor is it really something people want to be distracted about in flow and pacing unless it promotes necessity and part of that individual’s design. (Though not contemporary, Kell’s coat from A Darker Shade of Magic was legit AF.)

With how I read, I mostly follow an omniscient perspective; whereby characters are faceless mannequins with walking personalities. In my mind, they’re basically naked specters floating around from point a-to-b. More importantly, they come automatically “clothed”, or rather, characters herald the idea of being clothed in my mind because there’s no doubt that they’d be walking around naked.

And that’s some wizardry.

*mic drops*


Afterthought Prompts:

Now on to some things for you to think about:

1) Why do you think readers don’t imagine characters naked even if there’s limited support in writing to say otherwise?

2) Can you think of a book with over-the-top writing that described the garments being worn?

3) Which book features clothes you’d love to wear (or what you wouldn’t love to wear)?

As always, think aloud. 

Cheers,
Joey

connect: afterthoughtAn // twitter  |  anotherafterthought // goodreads

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Post Inspiration:

Does this post make sense? I hope it does because I wrote the bulk of it weeks ago and when I returned to it, I was like “what the fuck was I writing?” — so I tried to finish it. And it was half baked to say the least.

My brain is full of nonsense, I know.

I’d like to thank Becca @ Becca and Books and Brett Michael Orr for reading excerpts and shit like that.

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9 thoughts on “[Think Aloud] – #31 – Why Readers Don’t Imagine Characters Naked”

  1. Joey, you neglected to describe what you were wearing at the time of this article.
    Incidentally, I am lounging about in my maroon, satin, smoking jacket with purple silk ascot and pajammy bottoms..
    Please do not envision me in the nude, anymore, please.
    ~Icky. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  2. 1. I have to disagree with you. I have read a ton of contemporary novels with clothing descriptions. And if they’re not included, we imagine clothes because no one is naked in public — I hope!
    2. I’ve read novels where girls/womens’ clothing choices are described as slutty (The Year We Fell Apart, Stealing Parker), professional (The Sex, Love & Stiletto series), sexy (hot red dress in so many, many novels), tomboyish (On the Fence, Catching Jordan), surfer (Bright Side), plain (Fifty Shades), unpopular, etc. I’ve seen guys’ clothing described as geeky (That Girl, Darcy), professional (Oxford Series, Fifty Shades) and classic (Sweet Little Lies). I feel like most novels I read describe clothing.
    3. I would go with Kate’s wardrobe in Bright Side. It sounds cool and comfy.
    Great discussion topic!

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  3. That was a great discussion, Joey. I’m always complaining about not enough clothes description on my novels, because I’m a bit fashion obsessed. I really like to know what my characters would wear, because I firmly believe fashion is a form of expression. But, indeed, I don’t picture them naked. I just picture them with the wrong clothes. Even during the steamy scenes, I have a hard time picturing characters losing pieces of clothing. I think I don’t do that because I’m too embarrassed and I would definitely feel uncomfortable. But it was a great topic to reflect about. I should try harder picturing them with the clothes they’re actually described on – even if there aren’t any.

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  4. I think we’re so used to clothes in today’s society that we naturally picture characters with them on. Clothes I’d love to wear? They’re definitely described vividly in the Throne of Glass series, especially Celaena’s assassin outfits and ball gowns. Not sure about the over the top writing, the outfits really stood out in the Hunger Games series particularly for Katniss’s ceremonial gear and the other tributes and the Capitol. It’s funny because the clothes kind of come with the setting.

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  5. LOL. Joey, that title alone made me smirk so much when I saw it in my feed reader. Now, if a book is set in Germany or Spain, this could truly be a concern since public nudity as legally less restrictive. Though in most other countries the characters would surely be in trouble for not wearing clothes, so I should think that it’s safe to assume characters in contemporary fiction are wearing clothes, even if they don’t get mentioned 😉 I don’t think it’s all that uncommon to mention the clothes the characters are wearing — few books in my recent memory completely ignored them.

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  6. If I’m reading a high-school based book filled with many stereotypes, I always imagine them wearing pink on Wednesdays because Mean Girls gave me such preconceived notions on how queen bees dress themselves. LOL

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