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?

Don’t Mean a Thing if it Ain’t Got That Swing

SwingRecognize Duke Ellington’s jazz classic? It’s been running through my mind lately.

I’ve been working on getting my swing on.

As I fill in the gaps in the first half of my middle section, I’ve found an idea that works well for me: highs and lows.

In any good story, you need to balance the moments of high tension, stress, and conflict against calmer, more peaceful periods. Let’s look at an example I’m familiar with: The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien. Here’s a way of analyzing that story, with the “down moments on the left and the HIGH MOMENTS ON THE RIGHT. Even if you don’t know the story, you can see the up and down pattern here.

Relaxing, smoking a pipe, joking with Gandalf


Peaceful travel on ponies


Beautiful Rivendell


Sneaking through tunnels (and finding the Ring)


Reconnect with dwarfs who now respect me


Beorn: safety, and horses


Lake-town people like us


Safety with the dragon hoard


Back home again, with treasure

Most stories have this kind of structure. It’s sometimes called pacing, sometimes scene and sequel (though that’s more properly applied at a smaller level of analysis). The point of this is that I’m using it to figure out how to find my missing elements. I know how many chapters I need in this section. What I want is for each chapter to go either up or down: start with a calmer moment and ratchet up to a crisis, or start at the crisis and relax down to calmness. It’s helped me to come up with a couple of good ideas to match that map. I’m not quite done yet, but I still have time in my schedule!

Another thing to notice about the Hobbit plan outlined above is that right through to the last crisis point, each crisis is more critical, more threatening, than the one before. The stakes keep climbing, from dwarfs trashing my house through fighting trolls, then orcs, then a dragon, then finally five armies fighting together against a common enemy. That kind of relentless climb is what I’m aiming for.

Have you seen this kind of see-saw structure in stories you’ve read, or written? Share some examples here!

Fun with Character Arcs

CharacterArc  A character’s life is never easy.

My next step in my NaNoWriMo prep plan is to get the arcs for all my characters planned out. This is actually one step in Randy Ingermanson’s Snowflake Method that I’m adopting because it’s helping me make sure everything fits together and that every one has a purpose and a role in the story. I’ve decided to work this out for six characters: the romantic interest, the mirror character who shows the error of the main character’s original view of the world, two secondary characters who contribute significantly to the plot, and two antagonists. The main character isn’t in this list because the whole plot has already been constructed around her character arc, so I don’t need to go through this exercise for her.

For each character I am giving the following things (loosely based on what Ingermanson describes in his system:

  • A one-sentence storyline summarizing the entire arc.
  • The character’s motivation (what he/she wants in an abstract internal sense)
  • The character’s goal (the external, plot-related things he/she wants to achieve)
  • The character’s internal conflict (beliefs that prevent him/her from reaching the goal)
  • The external complication (people and situations that block him/her from reaching the goal)
  • The character’s epiphany (what he/she learns through the course of the story that causes a significant change and allow him/her to achieve the goal and resolve the motivation) NOTE: some characters won’t have an epiphany and will not change, but they should have a moment when they can see their options laid out, make the choice not to grow and change, and suffer for that choice. This will highlight the positive change that the main character makes, allowing his/her growth to be more meaningful.
  • A one-paragraph summary of the character’s storyline.

I’m supposed to have this all done by tomorrow, but probably won’t. Yesterday was the last day of classes and I’m in crazy end-of-semester grading mode. I won’t be more than a day or two late, though. I expect to be able to catch up with my deadlines after next week, when all the final grades are in and I’m really done. I am SO looking forward to that moment!

How about you–how do you develop your characters? How to you give them stories of their own within your larger story?

Moving Exposition

Walk&Talk  The Walk and Talk

I just experienced an interesting example of synchronicity: when things suddenly happen together so that they seem linked, but it’s really just coincidence. It feels kind of eerie when that happens, but no matter what they always say, coincidences do happen! My example started when I went to the recent meeting of R-SPEC, where the topic was Revealing Backstory without the Dreaded “Info Dump.”  An info-dump is when an author brings the story to a limping halt to spend a chunk of words telling the reader things the author thinks the reader needs to know but that aren’t actually happening right now, in story time. We talked about various ways to avoid this, including things like creating a flashback that is its own fully-rendered immediate story or giving it to a character in a drunken diatribe. Another technique we mentioned was the Walk and Talk, made famous by the TV show The West Wing. Much of the show centered around witty, intelligent dialogue between the various characters working in the administration of President Jed Bartlett (Martin Sheen). To avoid having lots of scenes with people just standing and talking, much of this dialogue was filmed as people walked through the halls of the White House. The message here is to have some kind of action going on, even if it’s just people walking, while delivering the exposition. I immediately thought of an early scene in my story where the main character (and the reader) absolutely has to get the beginnings of an explanation about what the hell just happened? One character tells the other, and this is the first plot point that launches the actual story. I started to think about what these characters can be doing besides just talking, and it has to be something that advances the plot in its own right.

Now we get to the synchronicity: Just a couple of days later, as I was thinking through this issue, I watched this week’s episode of CSI: Cyber (hey, I have to give something so techy a try, right?). What jumped out to me was a scene in which the FBI Deputy Director Sifter (Peter MacNicol) and Agent Ryan (Patricia Arquette) are telling each other things they obviously must already know but that have to be explained to the viewer, and they did so while walking from place to place. Now that I’m thinking about this idea, I will no doubt be seeing it everywhere!

So I will take it as a Sign from the Heavens: give those people something to do besides talking! And I’m already seeing it in my head. Another idea that will make things better.

MyNoWriMo Step 5: Scenes

Step 5  Scene Sketches

I made it through the whole book, sketching out all the scenes from opening to The End. I’m pretty happy with the shape of the novel so far, but I can already see places where things need to be tightened up and moved around a little. I’m counting this as a completed step, on time, even though it will spill over a little into the next step. I figure I’ve still got more planning done than all my no-pants colleagues have, so I can relax a little if it’s not as completely complete as it might be. I keep telling myself that.

What’s that? Did I hear someone say “compulsive”?

Okay, I accept that, and I’m not ashamed of the compulsive person I am. I embrace my compulsiveness. I think it works for me!

I’m making good progress on my march up to my July NoWriMo. I have decided to make a detour, though, by changing what the next deadline is going to be about. I’m not moving it, just changing the target. Originally it was to complete an “idea bank” wherein I tossed all the ideas I have for setting, dialogue, jokes, tender bits, or other toothsome morsels that I don’t want to forget. Frankly, the way I did the scenes, that’s already there. My scene summaries frequently stretch onto two pages, including everything I can think of to go in there. “Mention Naia’s tattoo.” “Kay as a really lame Doctor Who companion.” I’m sure more ideas will come to me as I plan more things, and even as I write the actual draft in July, but when they do I’ll just drop them into the right place and keep going.

Instead, my next step is going to be something borrowed from Randy Ingermanson’s snowflake method of planning a novel: the character stories. It’s also related to an idea from Liz Michalski who posted on Writer (un)Boxed with a tip about revising, but which I think will work for me here. The idea is to look at the story from the point of view of each character separately. I won’t need to do this for my central character Kay, because the story is already clearly hers. It’s even in her first-person POV! But for at least the next 4 or 5 characters in the inner ring, I’m going to map out the changes and arcs that each one goes through. This will give me a clearer view of each person. That, plus the tightening of the scenes that’s spilling over from today’s deadline, will keep me busy for  the next two weeks.

Progress so far:

  • 3/1/15: Set the goal (a full 50,000-word draft, or half a novel?) – On time
  • 3/8/15: Develop my one-sentence pitch line – Early
  • 3/22/15: Establish major set pieces/beats – On time
  • 4/12/15: Develop a rough synopsis – On time
  • 5/3/15: Complete a rough outline or scene sketch – On time
  • 5/17/15: Map out each character’s story line
  • 5/31/15: Plan the beginning of the novel, from opening scene to first major turn
  • 6/14/15: Plan the middle of the novel, including all the twists and complications leading to the ending
  • 6/28/15: Plan the ending of the novel, including the climax and the final resolution
  • 6/30/15: Get all my logistics in place (word-count log, file formats, backups, and so on)

Gender Bending

ManWoman  Hey, there, Alex!

As I’ve been drawing up my plans, getting ready to try NaNoWriMo in July, I’ve been struggling with one particular character. I know what role this person plays in the story; as a mirror for the main character, as a balance for some of the action in the story, as an important turning point for my main character at a critical point in the book. But I keep going back and forth on this person’s gender.

When I first met Alex, she was a woman. She was elegant and poised and tough, made so by the struggles she’s faced in her life. This toughness was what pulled together the motley collection of people who form the core of the story. She’s not one of the two or three central characters, but she’s in the second ring. Without her it would definitely not be the same story.

Early on in my NaNo prep I tore my story’s structure apart, fitting it together again more tightly. Along the way I dropped a couple of characters whose functions began to seem redundant, folding some of their traits into other, more central characters. In the process the story became tilted more toward women. The majority of the characters were female (not a problem in itself), and all the male characters were suddenly either enemies or nincompoops. I don’t like stories where women are only allowed demeaning roles, and didn’t want to see that in reverse. So Alex became male. His name changed to Frank (for some reason Alex didn’t have the same gravitas, the same degree of near-pompousness I wanted for this character). He became more of a hearty, good-old-boy type, but still with that core of toughness and leadership needed to pull together the motley crew.

The weird thing is – I couldn’t completely believe in Frank. That person over there, doing that plot-related or character-related thing, persisted in being Alex inside my head. I kept reminding myself that I’d made this change, but it just wouldn’t stick. So I gave up. Alex wouldn’t go away, so there she is, pulling her weight in the story.

This meant another restructuring, and my story got stronger yet again. I pulled one of the male characters that had been mostly window-dressing into the heart of the story. Suddenly I had a romantic story arc, which I hadn’t planned on but which added an emotionally important layer. Some of the roles of some of the central characters shifted aside a little to make room, and everything clicked. Poor Alex; her determination proves too rigid in the end, and things don’t turn out well for her. But she held onto her place in the story by her neatly-manicured fingernails. and I’m glad she did.

I think this is what some people mean when they say that their characters come alive and take over the story. It doesn’t feel that way to me; I’m in charge of my story, not the characters. But if these people don’t have a certain level of reality in my mind, so that I really care about what happens to them, then they never will for my readers. The story of Alex’s attempted gender-morphing will always remind me of that.

Have you ever had a character come alive and take over? Was this a good thing for your story?

Dem Bones

Bones  Finding the Bones

[First – in case anyone’s worried – these are plastic castings of human bones, courtesy of my colleague who teaches Forensic Anthropology. No actual bones here!]

I’ve finished the first pass through my scenes. I have my goals, internal conflicts, external complications, stakes, and disasters all lined up in a row. I’ve checked to make sure each scene leads to the next, and each has its place in the story’s structure. Now I’m digging deeper, finding the bones.

For each scene I’m adding a paragraph or two about what happens in the scene. This includes descriptions the external action and dialogue, as in: Kay tries to run from the minions, but one of them grabs her by the leg. Or: Chase tells about his time of slavery in calm, objective terms, but his voice shakes and his hands won’t hold still. These paragraphs also include the feelings behind the action and dialogue. What is going through Kay’s mind when Jana dies? Why is this experience especially challenging for Chase? These descriptions help me to make sure the scene will work. How will I make the goal explicit at the beginning of the scene? How will I make the stakes, conflicts, and complications clear as the scene progresses? How will the disaster at the end happen, and how will it be a direct response to the goal? These are the bones of my story. Everything else makes it pretty to look at, decently clothed, but without these bones it will just be a blob that can’t move anyone.

The descriptions will also include all the little bits that occur to me as I work through this plan. Is there something in Chapter 3 that can set up something in Chapter 10? Make a note of it. What is the setting, and how does that setting look/feel/sound/smell? I can drop in pictures of what the shore of Lake Ontario looks like in autumn or maps with arrows to where action is taking place. This gives me the flesh, skin, clothing that drapes the bones to make them appealing. What I have to guard against is spending too much time playing around with details. Without the bones, they mean nothing; once the bones are there, I can always find the details I need.

Bottom line: I am so not a pantser. My hope is that when the time comes to write the scene, I’ll be able to see it play out in my mind. That should (fingers crossed!) make it easier to put it all down on the page. We’ll know in July!

Chain Gang

Chain  Only as strong as…. You know the rest.

As I work on sketching out the scenes for my novel, I’m trying to apply a universal piece of wisdom that I’ve seen in many places but which hit home to me when I read Lisa Cron’s book, Wired for Story. In a story, each step of what happens needs to leads inexorably (but surprisingly) to the next step. It’s not a series of things that happen one after the other: I talked to my friend. I went for ice cream. It’s a series of things where one causes the next one to happen: I talked to my friend and learned something distressing, so I went for some serious ice cream to make myself feel better. As I draft my scenes, I keep asking myself, “How does what happens in this scene set up the next scene?” I’m building a chain, and I need to make sure there are no broken links.

Here’s the system I’m using to make this happen. I’ve got a page for each scene (as I discussed in my last post). I’ve also set up a separate page for the “scene chain.” It’s a bulleted list, with each scene described very briefly (no more than one line per scene). The bullet I use for this list is the three-dot “therefore” symbol you may remember from geometry class. So the list is saying “This happens, therefore this happens, therefore this happens…”. As I build this list, I hear that word over and over in my head, focusing me on these links. I hope this structure keeps me well connected!

Oh, and progress: I’m 75% through the first pass at sketching my scenes. I should finish that first pass in a couple of days, and then I can go back and polish the rough edges (tighten up that chain!) and put together a one-paragraph summary of the action in each scene. I have two more weeks. It should work!

Hook, Line, and Thinker

HookLoglineThinker   So I was thinking.

I was rethinking the character mix in my story. This got me to rethinking the overall story arc, which brought me back to the scene worksheets and beat sheets I’ve been using to plan. And I ran into something I’ve never really had a good answer for: What is the logline for my story?

Now, logline means different things to different people. Some think of it as a comparison (My book is like Harry Potter, but with murderers instead of wizards). Others as a simple statement of high concept (Wagon Train to the stars – that was the actual concept for the original Star Trek TV show). What seems most useful to me, though, is the one-sentence summary, identifying the protagonist, the story goals, and the antagonist. That is the most useful idea, it seems to me, and something I want to get clear before I go any further. I haven’t been able to pin it down, though, so I have work to do!

Once I get that – my hook, my logline, and my thinking cap warmed up – I’ll be ready to go!

Lessons from Rom-Coms

Hearts Hubby and I watched a couple of movies over Valentine’s weekend. They were both, appropriately, rom-coms – romantic comedies – recommended to us by friends. We enjoyed them both as good examples of something light, fun, and sweet to watch while cuddled up with someone you love. But I liked one better than the other, and I think I’ve figured out why. NOTE – there are some spoilers here if you haven’t seen the films, but nothing that should really ruin it for anyone.

First up: Letters to Juliet (2010, Amanda Seyfried, Christopher Egan). Sophie, who wants to be a writer, visits Italy with her fiance. She learns about the tradition of young women writing letters to Juliet (of Shakespeare’s play) for advice, and turns her hand to writing a response to a letter just found that was written 50 years ago. This draws her into an adventure with the original writer who has come back to Italy to find her long-lost love, and the woman’s grandson (Charlie) who thinks this is a bad idea. He comes around, though, and Charlie and Sophie wind up together, as do the two long-lost loves. The message of the movie is that it’s never too late to find love, and once you find it you must never let it go.

Next: Music and Lyrics (2007, Hugh Grant, Drew Barrymore). Alex is a relic from an 80s pop band, living on his past as a kind of impersonator of himself. He has the opportunity to write a hit song for a hot young talent, but while he’s great at the music he can’t write lyrics. He stumbles across a young woman (Sophie) who has a brilliant way with words and convinces her to work with him, and they are successful despite her fears and his desperation. Along the way they find romance and also find the courage to be themselves without apology.

Here’s why I liked Music and Lyrics more than Letters to Juliet: because the characters and their relationship felt more real and more trustworthy.

Let’s take the two Sophies. In Letters to Juliet, she is engaged to a chef who is opening his new restaurant in New York City in 6 weeks. They go to Italy because it will be the last chance they have to go on vacation for a long time. He is passionate about food and cooking; she is less so, and winds up feeling left out and ignored as he travels around visiting suppliers and wine auctions. This annoyed me. If someone is about to open a restaurant in New York, where else would his focus be? If she’s so uninterested in food and cooking, why is she engaged to a restaurateur? At the very least, she should have come to peace with their differing passions and have expected them to spend time apart.

In Music and Lyrics, Sophie is timid and self-effacing at the start, because of a bad experience in her past. She spends much of the movie learning to have faith in herself and to be open to taking the risk of trusting others. This is a straightforward need and character arc that is rewarding to watch. At every step her character is acting in a way that is believable for her, and that kept me rooting for her the whole way.

Then there’s the male lead character. Charlie, in Letters to Juliet, is a jerk the first time we meet him. He specifically searched out Sophie for the sole purpose of scolding and insulting her, because her letter sent his grandmother on what he is sure will be a heartbreaking quest. That brow-beating, nasty facet to his personality couldn’t just have evaporated, and I didn’t see any convincing change to his true nature. And how do we know he loves her? He says he does, but we don’t see him do anything that shows this love. Finally, I can’t conjure up any image of the life they might have together. All they’ve shared is his grandmother’s quixotic romantic journey, which is nothing like the real life they will have to go back to.

Alex, in Music and Lyrics, is charming from beginning to end. There’s something sad about him hanging onto his long-past moment of glory, but he is comfortable with himself and never pretends to be something he’s not. From his first interactions with Sophie he is gentle and encouraging. He’s kind first, in love second. He shows his love for her by doing the thing that’s hardest for him: writing lyrics. They also have something they share besides just being in love: they write hit songs together. It’s easy to imagine them living a contented, rewarding life for years to come.

Let me repeat: Both movies are fun. They both do what they set out to do and do it well. I don’t want to discourage anyone from watching either movie. See them. If you like the genre, you’ll like these examples.

For me, for the writing, I take away two important lessons about character and relationships:

  • If I want readers to root for a character, I need to show why, especially at their first appearance. Show whatever it is that makes the character rootable – is he kind, is she smart, is he funny, is she generous? This is what Blake Snyder calls the Save the Cat moment – the hero is first seen getting the cat out of the tree, so we know he’s the hero.
  • If I want a couple to wind up together romantically, I need to show that they are in love and can have a life together after the final curtain. It’s not enough that they say “I love you,” there have to be actions, especially sacrifices, to back it up. And they need to have enough in common for this relationship to hold.

So that’s what I learned this Valentine’s Day about character and about love. Not a bad way to spend a weekend.