In the mirror

When you look at yourself in the mirror, what do you see? Take a moment, and think about how you’d describe yourself. If I were going for strict facts, I’d say I’m an Asian female, five-foot-one, brown eyes, dark hair, slight build, no visible distinguishing marks. That sounds a bit boring, doesn’t it? But, describing me as “a quirky techie with a rippling laugh and lopsided smile” doesn’t exactly help in forming a physical image for a reader’s eye.

The first physical description I have for my (current) MC comes about 3000 words in [first draft], and it only consists of him “[running] his fingers through his jagged, shower-damp hair [and checking] the closeness of his shave.” Aside from that, I wanted to let the characters speak for me: a local girl giggles at his attention, his best friend describes him as “a vain bastard bordering on narcissistic”, and the love interest calls him “the finest thing [she’d] ever seen.” He’s a surfer and a runner, so he’s got an athletic build, and he looks down at people a lot, so he’s tall (and something of a jerk, but that’s not relevant to this post).

Conversely, the MC describes the woman he loves in all kinds of detail, most of it physical and visual.

I admit, I’m a little bit in love with Amber, myself.

Some folks say the mirror is an overused (bad) convention and shouldn’t be used for describing your main character. But what’s a good middle ground between overused and imprecise? What conventions do you use to describe your MC?

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10 thoughts on “In the mirror

    • I sympathize, Jenny! I like description (and I like writing it), but in recent months, I’ve come to understand a little bit better what is interesting or important for the reader to know, and what is just me indulging myself. 😀

      I’m sure you’ll find the right balance. If you find it boring, though, you should probably move on to more interesting things! 🙂

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  1. I like descriptions that are spread throughout the novel, rather than dumped on me in one sitting. I don’t feel like I need to have a character fully described at the outset, and I’m okay waiting a few chapters to find out that he’s left-handed or is a preppy dresser. I like physical details such as eye and hair color, but I don’t like a lot of that because I want to use my imagination. The descriptions I find are the most effective are the ones that come through body language and mannerisms and actions. When a writer can find the right balance/combo of all of it, then I think nothing is overused or imprecise.

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    • That’s probably the right attitude to take about description, Kate. Spending a lot of time in fan fiction, I never really worried about describing how a character looked. When I started writing my own fiction, though, I wanted readers to know exactly how this person looked, and that person looked… I’m starting to realize what’s important for a reader’s enjoyment, and what is merely me pushing my own preferences. Definitely something for me to remember when I’m editing for the audience.

      Thanks for taking the time to read and comment! I know you’re busy! 🙂

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  2. I think it’s good to describe a character as seen through one of the other character’s eyes, rather than as an objective outsider, which is exactly what you’ve said in your example – it’s more interesting that way, and it helps to build up a picture of the character whose eyes we are looking through as well.

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    • Thanks, Vanessa. This writing for an audience thing has gotten trickier the more I think about it, so it’s always good to know I’m doing something okay. 😀

      Thanks for taking the time to read and comment, too; I know you’re busy with your own stories!

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  3. I usually just give a brief description of the character’s appearance and let their actions and words give more insight on what kind of person he/she is. For example, “He scowled in annoyance at her foolishness, but the tiny glimmer of a smile in his dark blue eyes let her know that she did quite well.”

    Whoops, I think what I said and the example didn’t line up how I wanted.

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    • I don’t like relying too much on physical description to bring a character to life, but I do like the reader to “see” what I “see” when I have the character speak or act. I think your example works just fine to make your point. 🙂

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  4. Character descriptions are quite the balancing act, aren’t they? Especially in original works. When I started out, I wrote far more factual and visible descriptions, and let their actions fill in how then that description would change. But this meant I was accused of writing a lot of Mary and Gary Sues, which I really don’t like doing.
    And I really like how you slowly described Ross, with one minute detail at a time in both the physical and personality. As the old saying goes; “It’s whats on the inside that counts,” right?

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    • Thanks, Shade.
      I don’t see how anyone could accuse you of writing Mary Sues with your characters – you’ve got a nice balancing act of mystery and forthwithness (that’s a word, now 🙂 ) with your characters.
      I enjoy subtlety with description, but writing a lot of fan fiction over the years, I’ve found myself pandering to the lowest common denominator; I struggled a lot with that in 1MC!, especially in the last arc.

      Agreed that a character’s actions – rather than how he looks, even in my writer’s mind – should speak more clearly for who he is.

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