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.
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?