Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Mirror, Mirror-Character Description


Every time a character looks in a mirror or sees their reflection in a lake and describes what they see, I cringe just a little.  It's boring. It's not very realistic. It's cheating.

When I look in the mirror, I don't notice hair the color of an Indian moon AND eyes that match my mother's jade pearls AND large, pouty lips AND cheek bones that...whatever, I don't think I've ever noticed my cheek bones.  No, when I look in the mirror, all I notice is that one wrinkle on my forehead that has now gotten bigger and if I don't smile, I can barely see it at all.  So, if a real person doesn't do this naturally, why would your character?

I know.  She is, after all, the protagonist, and you would like for your reader to get a visual early on.  But, as writers, can't we be a bit more creative and describe them in more interesting ways?  I think so. 

 
First: I suggest, don't give it to me all at once.  A bit here, a bit there, let the image come to me slowly and naturally, instead of giving it to me.  In fact, leave something for my imagination.  As a reader, I think I have a pretty good one, and enjoy combining the writers words and my own interpretation to come up with a visual that suits my idea of the character.
  
Second: Ask yourself what characteristics are even important.  Do her cheek bones mean anything to me?  I can't imagine how they would, and I'm certain I could read an entire trilogy without knowing that a particular character has perfect cheek bones.
 
Third:  Action speaks louder than words. Is there a way to 'show' a physical attribute through action or dialogue?  Of course there is, so use it.


Examples:

The Mirror Trick:
 I met Jim at the junkyard, anxious to see what he had found.  I caught my reflection in a discarded mirror and stopped.  My black hair complemented my blue eyes, and had a way of distracting from the scar on my chin.  I looked harder and shook my head. Even my face is fat.  (So boring, I almost fell asleep writing it)
 
Description through dialogue and action:

I met Jim at the junkyard, anxious to see what he had found. 
Jim laughed. "When did you dye your hair black?"  I glared at him, hoping my stare burned through him like a blue flame.
He waved his hand toward a drainage pipe, no more than three foot in diameter.  "Come on, it's in here."  I traced the scar on my chin with my forefinger.  "You know there's no way I can squeeze through that." 
Jim shrugged. "Oh, well, at least you have nice cheek bones." (Sorry, couldn't resist)

Of course, there are a zillion ways to describe a character without using the Mirror Trick and these are but a few suggestions.  What are some other ways to avoid mirrors?  

19 comments:

Tyler 2.0 said...

Good stuff! You're right on with how boring the mirror trick is - and I think we may have all used it at one point or another. When I'm writing character descriptions from now on, I'm going to think "what do her cheek bones mean to me?" :-)

Kelly Stone Gamble said...

LOL. Do her cheek bones advance the plot?

Justin Bogdanovitch said...

I seldom look in mirrors in real life, so why would any of my characters (okay, maybe that one narcissistic guy would stare for hours at his perfection, but that's about it). I totally agree, Kelly and this is really a wonderful lesson for anyone who wants to tighten up their creative engines.

Kelly Stone Gamble said...

I look for about 2 seconds, cringe, and move on. lol.

-RWWGreene said...

Saul Bellow did a lot of "info dump" character description, but did it as a way to establish character. The people he created acted just like they looked. The guy who looked like a toad was likely to be a toady, etc.
p.s. Can I borrow this for use in my e-text book?

Ciara Ballintyne said...

I know the mirror trick is off limits and evidence of bad writing so I got totally paranoid about a scene in my WIP which includes a mirror for a different reason! I had to run it past a few people for their opinion and thankfully got the green light.

The point of that scene is she looks different to how she usually does and she's not comfortable with it. Yes it does describe her a bit, because she notices because it's not normal, but the key point is her emotional reaction to it and the dark secrets she'd hiding.

So the flip side of the coin is don't go through and smash all the mirrors in your WIP if they might be serving another function. Don't let the paranoia creep up on you!

Kelly Stone Gamble said...

Please! Borrow anything.

Kelly Stone Gamble said...

Exactly. If a mirror advances the plot, it's fine. But if it is solely to describe a character, it's cliche.

debrakristi said...

LOL You crack me up with this, Kelly. "Oh, well, at least you have nice cheek bones." Love that! You’re so funny. Gosh, I think my protagonist finds herself in front of a mirror once so far, in all three of my books. But no mention is made of what she actually sees in it. I don’t use any reflective surfaces to describe my characters. Great post Kelly.

Charlieopera said...

You are a true Kindred Spirit, Kellinator. I tend to upchuck my Chivas when I have to wade through mountains of description ... even from writers I love to read ... sometimes the scenery in Rabbit Run reminded me of the drum solos at the garden when pretty much any band was playing ... i wanted to either take a nap, grab a beer or use the bathroom. And I loved that entire series ... but I do understand how some readers require a lot more description (whether it's a character's physical appearance or the friggin' wall paper ... me, I can live without it.

Kelly Stone Gamble said...

My protag in my new novel is in front of the mirror, too, but she's picking something out of her teeth. LOL.

Kelly Stone Gamble said...

I loved that series, too. But you could tell when he was getting ready to go on one of his two page descriptions---I just skipped those parts. :)

Bridget Bowers said...

Thanks for the tips. It is so much better if everything isn't dropped on us all at once, but I know that when I'm writing I often get in such a hurry to describe the character because I already know them that I forget to let the reader discover the character as we go.

Of course, now I'm always going to be wondering about cheek bones. LOL.

Darian Wilk said...

Great post and so true. I think I have my MC's in my novel and my WIP in front of the mirror once, but not to use it as a means for physical description. Another thing I try to avoid is the "gazing" and looking out the window bit. After reading a book where the MC spent most of her time thinking while looking out the window, I vowed to myself to avoid that at all costs too lol.

Kelly Stone Gamble said...

I've started keeping notes on character descriptions, then as I can refer back and reference as I go. Of course, we all dump some, but I really try to let the reader form their own mental picture.

Kelly Stone Gamble said...

I had a gazer, too. But then I added some hummingbirds and tied a metaphor to the hummingbirds later, so it worked. lol.

Suzanne Shumaker said...

OK, all I can think about is The Fall of the House of Usher and a critical essay I wrote as an undergraduate titled "Mirror, Mirror on the Wall, Window, Water, Sister, et.al" ... everything is a reflection of something in that story (including the brother/sister twins) ... OK, I'm wandering way off topic and far from the question you asked.

So I'm terrible with description. As Charlie said, it bores me to read it and it bores me to write it ... it's one of those things I put on my final edit checklist ... hmmmm is this story still taking place in a pitch black hole? Yep, well I better insert three descriptive details somewhere...

Kelly Stone Gamble said...

I am much better at that now than I was a year ago. :)

D.C. said...

In one of my favourite series, the writer describes her character in great detail in every single book. I groan, skip past the description to get on with the good stuff. I have an imagination, and I'm pretty good at putting two and two together, so I completely with you.