The Empty Mirror: Challenges in Describing First-Person Characters

A mirror reflecting some flowers but otherwise nothing but a blank wall. Text: Something for Sunday; July 28, 2019; The Empty MirrorThe book I’m writing has a first-person narrator. In other words, she describes what she is doing and thinking from inside: “I did this,” not “She did this.” To me, for this story, it’s a choice that works to draw the reader into the immediacy of her experience. There are lots of complex factors involved in making a decision about which point-of-view (POV) to use for a story (read about this choice in K. M. Weiland’s blog), but that’s not the topic of this post. I’m going to focus on one specific issue: How do I give the reader a sense of the character’s physical appearance, when all I have to work with is what’s going through her head at any given time?

A recent article (“Death to Character Descriptions,” P. S. Hoffman, in the February 2019 edition of Writer’s Digest magazine) suggests leaving out character descriptions entirely. The article describes other ways to give the reader a strong sense of a character’s individuality without a checklist of physical characteristics:

  • Habits and behaviors: A character who spends a lot of time looking down her nose at others, or one who can’t sit without tapping his feet nervously
  • Environments: A character whose voice is hoarse from shouting over the din at the forge, or one who outshines all the others at the Embassy ball
  • Professions: A character who stocks shelves overnight at a grocery store, or one who manages new accounts at a bank
  • Possessions: A character who has a room full of carefully catalogued Chinese artifacts, or one with a room full of moldy newspapers

These are excellent techniques for strengthening a character. Still, many readers need some sense of the individual’s physical appearance, and are uncomfortable when they can’t conjure up a mental picture. So how do you accomplish this without the mirror?

The obvious solution is to have the character look into a mirror and describe what they see. This is not a good choice. For one thing, it’s so obvious that it’s a cliché, but it’s problematic for other reasons as well. I don’t know about you, but when I look at myself in the mirror I’m not thinking about my general physical description. What’s in my mind is not my height or hair length or eye color. It’s whether I should talk to the doctor about that spot, or do I have something in my teeth, or did I get too much sun yesterday. In a first-person POV story, I have to stick with what the character would actually be thinking.

So, let’s rule out the idea of looking in the mirror. What does that leave us with?

This article from Janice Hardy’s Fiction University blog describes some good ways to deal with describing a first-person character. Some of the ideas:

  • Compare the character’s traits with another person (“He was even taller than me, which took some getting used to.”)
  • Use some self-deprecating humor on the narrator’s part (“I wonder if the world would look nicer through pretty blue eyes, instead of dark brown. I guess I’ll never know.”)
  • Have a trait affect some action as it happens (“I felt each jagged, broken nail catch on the towel.”)
  • Have someone else comment on the character’s appearance (“Mother said, ‘I’ll just move the chocolates over here. You’ll need to let that skirt out again soon, I see.’”)

One interesting take-away is that the description of a character shares some important characteristics with other descriptions, such as a place or an object. What matters is not the actual, objective appearance. What matters is how the character responds to the appearance, emotionally and physically. The reader doesn’t care if there’s a statue of a horse on the mantle. However, if a character is proud to see that the gift they gave is displayed so prominently, or if they’re annoyed at yet another sign of someone’s obsession with horses, it matters. In the same way, it’s more important to show how a character reacts to aspects of their appearance than just the appearance itself.

My book is still in the revision stage, but I’ve worked hard on this question of how to describe Kay, the first-person protagonist. Here’s how I’ve handled it so far. In the first few pages, Kay has been hired to clean up after a community party. She’s looking at a group of teenagers who were also working at the party and thinks, “They hardly noticed me, the old lady in the room, though I wasn’t much older than them. Maybe ten years.” Then, a little later: “Being around them made me feel like a fairy-tale witch: tall, pale, thin, with ragged dark hair down to my shoulders and a scowl. All that was missing was a wart on my nose.”

From these few lines we know Kay’s approximate age and a little of her physical description. We also get a sense of her voice and her attitude toward herself. Not bad for just 54 words! And it works because she’s not thinking about how she looks. Instead, she’s thinking about how she looks to others. She’s using the teens as a social mirror, reflecting her image in relationships and feelings, not just appearance. That’s a much more effective mirror.

As a reader, how important is it for you to get a sense of someone’s physical appearance?
As a writer, have you struggled with how to describe your characters?

2 thoughts on “The Empty Mirror: Challenges in Describing First-Person Characters

  1. This is a very interesting and thoughtful post. I rarely describe my characters, even though I write stories in third person. I think a story needs a physical description of a character only if it affects the plot or the character’s behavior in some way. If my character is self-conscious because she is obese, it would affect her behavior, so it should be mentioned somewhere. But her hair color isn’t important, if it doesn’t affect the story.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I know many people who agree with you. That’s the position of the Writer’s Digest article I referenced, after all! But I also know people who need to *see* the people in the story, and aren’t satisfied with coming up with the picture on their own. I think, like so much else, it’s a matter of choosing what works best for the writer and the story.


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