A. L. Buehrer What I Write and Why

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Don't Do The Mirror

People really struggle with figuring out when and how to describe their characters’ physical appearances. Some people just throw it in there in the middle of the narrative as a rather long, off-subject aside. Others skip it altogether. But one of the most common and lazy ways to get the information out there is the mirror.

So, you’re in the first scene of your novel. Your character is getting ready to go somewhere, or just waking up in the morning, or something convenient like that. So, of course, he or she looks in the mirror. How natural is that?

  Well, here comes the unnatural part. For some reason, we readers are forced to look in the mirror too, and are subjected to a detailed report of what is reflected there. And (voila) we have our physical description of the main character.

  Here’s what makes it awkward: when you look in the mirror, what do you see? Of course, you see a rather sickly-looking sandy-haired girl with long bangs, light freckles and denim-blue eyes, if you happen to fit that description. But you’ve seen that for years. You’re not checking to see if your hair-color has changed, or if your eyes are now brown. You look in the mirror to see if you’re presentable. Or to find out of your eye is still swollen, like it was yesterday.

  You could approach a mirror scene in this more realistic way, but it still doesn’t solve your problem of trying to describe your main character. You have to find other ways to do this.

Really, you have to rely on your own imagination and judgement to make this work out right, but here are some tips.

·         You can get away with a brief couple of physical attributes mentioned on your character’s first entrance. Just keep it quick.

·         You can be sneaky and compare you character to somebody else in your story, or outside it

·         People tend to complain about how they look. Take advantage of this.

·         It’s almost always fine to mention any physical attribute that would be relevant to the action.


Along the lines of that last one, as a reader, I’ve always been bored to death by descriptions of clothing. However, if your character just donned a knit-cap, or needed a raincoat on a wet day, this is an exception. Likewise, if they have some reason to be thinking about clothes at the moment, it’s okay to bring attire into the narrative then, as well.

  Really, timing and relevance are important here. Keep in mind that everything you write in a novel has to have a reason to be there. Don’t let awkward description scenes trip you up.  

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