We live in the world of the everyday. Sure, the big sweep of history and politics and ideologies matter. They shape our world. But mostly we live in the world of little things: the foods we put on our plates, the music we listen to, the trinkets on our desk, the clothes we wear. These are the things that create our world, and that create the world of a story. Or, if handled poorly, undercut that story’s world.
I was struck by how important such little things can be recently while reading Sarah Maas’s fantasy novel Throne of Glass. Several people had recommended the novel to me in the course of just a couple of weeks, so I dove in with high expectations. I found the writing beautiful, the main character intriguing, and the world of the story…well…
Maas has done the big work. She knows the geography and history of her world, the forces that will drive the plot. She creates an intriguing setting in castle of glass. She lovingly describes the beautiful, flowing gowns that women wear to the fancy balls. And then she has people standing around with their hands in their pockets.
And that’s the little thing that suddenly undercuts the reality of the story’s world.
Standing around with your hands in your pockets is a very 20th/21st century American thing to do. Even having pockets is a modern thing. Look back at pictures of clothing from previous centuries. Pockets only start to show up, on men’s coats, around the 1700s. They don’t migrate to inner clothing like pants or ladies’ skirts until the 1800s. Maybe there are technical issues around sewing of pockets that keeps them rare until the industrial age; I don’t know enough about clothing construction to say. There are sociological reasons we don’t see pockets, however. For much of history, pockets simply weren’t needed. Pockets are primarily for carrying small items. Until recently, most people did not need them. Poor people did not have small items to carry. They carried big things like tools or baskets of food, but these don’t fit in pockets. These get carried in someone’s hands. Rich people did possess smaller items, but they did not need pockets to carry them in. That’s what servants are for. When the industrial revolution causes the cost of goods to drop, then everyday folks can afford to own the sorts of small items that make pockets useful. And even then, pockets are for things, not hands. Indeed, the pockets are often too small, the garments too tight, to allow people to cram their hands into those pockets. Even when pockets get bigger in the 20th century, putting your hands in them is considered the sort of rude, overly-casual gesture that only lower class men indulge in. Proper gentlemen stand up straight with their hands most definitely not in their pockets. Only when lower class working clothes spread through-out society, such as with the wide-spread adoption of jeans in the 1960s and 70s, does this attitude start to change. The medieval-style clothes of many fantasy novels such as Maas’s simply don’t include pockets.
Of course, there is no reason that Maas’s world, or any fantasy world, has to follow ours so exactly. There’s no reason some other society couldn’t develop pockets and that sticking your hands in them wouldn’t be an acceptable gesture. But Maas does not give us a reason that this is so. All the other descriptions of clothes suggest something close to our medieval/renaissance garb. The hands-in-pockets gesture gets slipped in without comment, without any reason for it. After all, it is something we all see and do many times a day. My guess is that it never occurred to Maas that the gesture is so specifically modern. All of our clothes have pockets (at least they do if you are a man) and all those pockets are designed for hands to slip into them easily. It is just one of those taken-for-granted, everyday aspects of our world.
And that’s the thing. They are part of our world, not necessarily the world of Throne of Glass. Every time I read of someone putting their hands in their pockets, I was jolted out of Maas’s world and back into mine, which I doubt was what she wanted to happen. It was definitely not what I wanted to happen. I want to slip into the world of the story as if it is a real world, not be reminded that it is artificial.
On the other hand, attention to such details can help define a world more clearly. In The Lord of the Rings, hobbits have pockets – and waistcoats and other modern world clothing. Elves do not. Nor do dwarfs or wizards or ents or kings and warriors of far off lands. Just hobbits. But then, Tolkien always intended the hobbits to be our representatives in a world of magic and heroes and epic adventures, a world as strange and unfamiliar to the hobbits as it is to us readers. By giving the hobbits pockets, Tolkien deliberately draws us closer to the familiar hobbits while emphasizing the distinction between the hobbits (and us) and the rest of Middle Earth. By thinking through something as mundane as everyday clothing, Tolkien adds yet another layer of reality to his world and draws us into it just another step more. Which, of course, is what good world-building is supposed to do.