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?

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The Towel is Thrown

Remember when i said I’d gotten enough planning done so I could try to write a draft of a new novel this month for Camp NaNoWriMo? Well, it turns out I was wrong. I got almost 15,000 words in on a story, but stalled out completely at that point and have abandoned it, at least for now. Yes, I’m throwing in the towel on this one.

I’m not broken up about this, even though I still love the story I was working on and would have loved to have made it through a draft this summer. Sure it’s disappointing, but more important to me is that I learned a couple of useful lessons. Don’t we all love to learn new things, especially about ourselves?

  • I’m a plotter, through and through.
    • As I was gearing up for this project, one of my writer friends said he doesn’t like writing outlines, because then there’d be no surprises and no fun in the writing. In this my friend writes like E.L. Doctorow, who is famous for saying that writing is “like driving a car at night: you never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”
    • This is SO not me. If I’m taking a cross-country trip, I like to have the road map planned ahead of time. I can still take detours into side streets that catch my eye, and will discover the details about the towns and cities and shops I pass through.
    • I’ve always thought of myself as a plotter, but now I know for sure. The 15,000 words I wrote were scenes I’d planned and seen in my head ahead of time, at least in general. Once I stepped over the edge of that plan, I was stuck.
  • When I tried to plan the rest of the book, I realized I couldn’t.
    • The story I’ve finished and which is out for beta critique right now mostly takes place in the real world of cell phones and highways, with a fantastical overlay. The part of this new story I hadn’t fully planned and proved unable to actually write was going to be set in a fairly typical fantasy world.
    • To get myself in the mood for this I pulled up an old favorite, Barbara Hambly’s wonderful, if dated, duology The Silent Tower/The Silicon Mage. In it a woman from our world is pulled into a pre-industrial, magical fantasy world and has to fight evil there. Hambly has a graduate degree in medieval history and made that world come alive, from the cities where small boys earn pennies sweeping dung out of the way so their betters can cross, to the tiny hamlets where a bad harvest means starvation and death.
    • Sure, with enough research I might be able to do the same, but I’m not convinced I could and I’m certain I don’t want to spend the amount of time it would take.
    • To resurrect this story i need to go back to square one and figure out how to tell it here. There’s no way to pull that off this month, so I’ve got to set it aside. For now.

These two lessons apply to me and this project. However, they also reflect a larger message that applies to anyone who is a writer or any kind of creative person:

Find and follow your own process

You don’t need to write or create the way anyone else does. Listen to suggestions from friends and teachers and try them on for size, but don’t hesitate to drop them if they don’t work for you. Learn from work you admire, but if it’s not for you don’t force it. You have your own way of being and doing.

That’s always enough.

Do You Haiku?

If you’ve been following me for a while, you know I’ve used haiku puzzles for my theme in the April A-Z Challenge for the last three years. Haiku is an ancient Japanese form that’s been adapted to English in a few ways, but the most common is three lines of 5, 7, and 5 syllables each. It focuses on sensory images that conjure a specific moment in time, and traditionally contains two images with some form of cutting between lines to separate them, with the cut either after the first or the second line. My haiku aren’t so traditional, though I adhere strictly to the 5-7-5 format.

I find haiku a lot of fun to write, which is why I use it for the challenge each year. Just recently, though, I discovered another outlet for my haiku obsession. On Twitter there’s a daily haiku challenge run by @baffled. Each morning at 8:00 am Eastern time, they post a word, and people are invited to create a haiku that includes that word. People use different haiku forms and some post to the #haikuchallenge tag with different key words. If you like haiku, or any form of micropoetry, you should check it out. You can see my most recent offerings in the Twitter roll, which you’ll find either on the right side of the browser window or the bottom of the scroll in the mobile version. I invite you to join in as well.

Such tiny poems ~
To inspire such imagery ~
I haiku…do you? ~

Some Writing Updates

While we’re all anxiously awaiting the start of the WordWacker Photo Challenge, I’m going to take stock of where I am now and what I have planned regarding my writing.

  • My novel is out collecting beta reads. One has come in already, but I haven’t taken a look yet. Partly that’s because I want to wait until they’re all in. I think it makes sense to look at all of them together, to get a broader picture of how readers respond to the book. The other reason is …
  • I’ve started sketching out my next book. That’s what you are supposed to do while one book is out on submission, right? Well, this feels a bit like submission — people are looking at it and responding to it, and i can’t really make any changes until that’s done.

Yes – the next book! It will be another contemporary fantasy, with a character in our world who initially has no idea magic is a thing. I’m just getting started so I haven’t figured out yet whether the bulk of the action will take place here, in our world but with magical elements (that’s what the current novel is), or whether she’ll be transported Elsewhere, to where the magic is dominant. Although the current book has definite series potential, this new one is not a sequel. I don’t know yet whether I’ll be able to sell the first one, and if not then I obviously won’t be able to sell a sequel. If this new one sells, though, I’ll have the first one in the drawer and ready to offer.

There are three things I’ve noticed as I go about this process.

  • I’m really enjoying laying out a whole new story from scratch. It’s so different from the detailed focus of the editorial process. Everything is up for grabs.
  • Though I do all my actual writing on a computer, I find planning works much better on paper, in longhand. The image above shows just some of the notebooks I’ve used in planning out various stories. When I write on computer I can’t stop myself from going back to fix spelling, sentences, and paragraphs. With pen and paper, I just keep writing, pouring out what I’m thinking in a stream of consciousness. (Yes, I know the resolution is low on this image; I would be embarrassed for anyone to read these scribbled notes.)
  • I stumbled on a new blog that I’m finding really useful: Helping Writers Become Authors by K. M. Weiland. I found her series on story structure and on character arcs particularly useful. Everything in there is something I’ve heard before, but the way she lays it all out works well for me. Giver her blog a try; you may find something useful there as well.

I’ve given myself a challenge: I’m going to try to get the major plotting and planning done in another two weeks, and then write a first draft in Camp NaNoWriMo in July. That will be a tall order and I wouldn’t put a high percentage on it, but hey, it could happen! I’ll let you know how that’s going.

So that’s where I am with my writing. How are things with you? I’d love to hear from you.

Writing From Somewhere

I’m Internet famous!

One of the pics I posted here on WordWacker has found a life of its own. The good people at the A-Z Blogging Challenge chose my shot of the “Welcome to Somewhere” road sign as a writing prompt for the G entry in the challenge. You can see the original post here, and see how it inspired four great flash stories in their post here. Stop by and give them some love!

Homo Fabulum

I’m a cognitive psychologist. I study and teach about the mental processes that allow our minds to receive, process, retain, and use information. One of the things we’ve learned is that, in an important sense, our mind is all about stories. We might even think of our species as Homo Fabulum: story man.

Michael Gazzinaga is one of the big names in cognitive science. He’s the neuroscientist who looked at the separate functions of the two hemispheres of the brain (work that has since been processed into the depressingly simplistic right brain/left brain dichotomy). He described an important function of the left brain as primarily telling ourselves a story. We process our experience by building a narrative in which things make sense. When our experience doesn’t follow some comprehensible logic, we confabulate, making up details or rearranging the information until it settles into a pattern we feel comfortable with (see a discussion of this idea here). He goes on to say, “One reason we may love fiction…is that it enables us to find our bearings in possible future realities, or to make better sense of our own past experiences. What stories give us, in the end, is reassurance.”

Other people have recognized the importance of story to the human condition. Decades ago, Patrick Shannon told us how important story is to becoming human.

Stories are how people make sense of themselves and their worlds. In young children’s spontaneous stories that they act out as they play, we can see how they believe people relate to one another, who they hope to become, and how they will behave. We can see adolescents play roles in their own and other people’s stories in order to figure out where they fit into their ever-expanding worlds. As adults, the true and imaginary stories we wish to tell and believe suggest what we value most in this world. In a real sense, stories make people.

People are pattern-detection machines. We are so good at this we find patterns even when they’re not there, which I’ve written about before. Our ability to build patterns is how we learn about the world. We are driven to find stories as strongly as any other pattern. When we find patterns, they allow us to predict what might happen and how we can respond to it. Storytelling is one of the oldest forms of civilization. It’s how humans have passed on the knowledge and wisdom we all need to survive. It was probably an important driver in human evolution, making it key to becoming what we are: Homo Fabulum.

What does this mean for storytellers, including writers? It means we need to construct stories that embody patterns. Fitting the pieces of a puzzle together gives the brain a little hit of feel-good chemicals as surely as kissing your baby or eating that indulgent dessert. This is a core idea in Lisa Cron’s wonderful book Wired for Story (you can see her TEDx talk on this topic here). That’s why it really doesn’t matter if your story is based on real events, if it doesn’t feel consistent. Real life doesn’t actually have to make sense, but a story does.

The other thing writers have to remember is that the story has to have tension, conflict, and important stakes. Every story worth telling is a story about danger: recognizing it, avoiding it, and responding to it. When we read about people who overcome danger, we are taking notes, whether we realize it or not. We’re programming our brains to overcome danger. When we read about people who are overcome by danger, in stories with tragic endings, we are taking notes about what not to do. We learn through stories.

I write stories in which characters literally die, but even the most peaceful domestic tale is about life and death. It may be the death of an important relationship, of a dearly-held belief, of one’s own sense of self, but death must be on the line. Kristen Lamb expressed it this way in her recent blog post:

All forms of dramatic writing balance on the fulcrum of problems. The more problems, the better. Small problems, big problems, complicated problems, imagined problems, ignored problems all make the human heart beat faster. Complication, quandaries, distress, doubt, obstacles and issues are all what make real life terrifying…and great stories captivating.

How can a writer accomplish this?

  • If your story idea starts with a character, ask yourself: What’s the worst thing that could happen to this person? How would they react? How could they fight back and emerge victorious, or fail to learn what they need to learn and die?
  • If your story idea starts with a problem to be overcome, ask yourself: Who is the worst person to have to face this problem? How will that person change in response to the problem to fight to victory, or not change and die?
  • If your story idea starts with a setting or situation, ask yourself: What’s the worst thing that could occur in this setting? Why would it be so terrible? How would it affect the people here, and how would they respond to either overcome it or be destroyed by it?

Dear Writer, that’s your charge. Go forth and make life really horrible for someone in your story. Because that’s what story is all about, and what makes us who we are: Homo Fabulum.