Updated: Sep 26, 2021
You've started a story and either begun to write instinctually or have considered it and decided that you will write this piece in first person narrative or third person close limited. You've been bumbling along just fine writing until suddenly you stop and wonder: How on Earth do I convey what my character looks like?
Most newbies' go-to option is to employ a mirror or some sort of reflective surface. Thing is, you've read somewhere online that this technique has been done to death and hits many editors' auto-reject list. So, the next most obvious alternative is to employ a secondary point-of-view character (POVC) to resolve the problem, but then you realise that comes with its own set of problems, not least of all having to create a whole plotline for them in order to justify their presence. In short fiction, it's much easier to get away with and quickly swap into another POVC simply to provide the reader with a physical view of the character and/or to tie up some necessary loose ends that don't happen within the main POVC's presence.
All I'll say for today about the latter is, it often doesn't transition smoothly when swapping POVs halfway through, or - worse! - right at the end of a story, simply to depict what happens in a scene once the main POVC has left the stage.
Today, I want to address depicting to the reader how a character looks from a first-person or close third-person narrative, and why the using-a-reflective-surface trope rarely works well in fiction.
Aside from it being overused, it often reads a little something like this:
I stood in front of the mirror, admired my glossy blond hair, even lips and straight, white teeth that effortlessly switched on my sexy-kitten smile whenever I needed it. My stunning blue eyes sparkled under the bathroom light, set off nicely by the equally sparkling sapphire stone hanging from my neck and matching sapphire studs twinkling at my earlobes - a birthday gift from Mike on my twenty-sixth birthday. My face was without wrinkles, with a smattering of freckles across the bridge of my petite nose.
This kind of description often also features in narratives that don't even incorporate a reflective surface. Thing is, nobody realistically thinks of themselves in that way when they look in a mirror or at any other time. Not unless they are up-their-own-backsides-in-love-with-themselves, but even then..? And so, the narrative voice takes on an 'otherness' outside of the character's POV, like someone else is observing them from over the character's shoulder. If you're using omniscient or distant third-person narration, then that wouldn't necessarily be a misstep. The problem arises mostly when writing in first or close third-person limited narrative mode. It breaks POV.
Breaking POV is like an actor breaking character. The silhouette of the puppet master can be seen beyond the veil and the tinge of inauthenticity creeps in. It adds a secondary, contrived voice into the mix. An intrusive, authorial voice.
What might POV have to do with writing descriptions? Well, I like to approach character descriptions from the angle of characterisations, of creating a sense of the character first and foremost, which rarely allows physical attributes to take the forefront. POV plays an intrinsic role in that approach.
Think of your POV character as a real person. Rather than describe ourselves as per the example above, I favour the notion that we view ourselves from the perspective of our insecurities. It makes the character more accessible and human. Even on days when we are looking in the mirror, dressed up to the nines and feeling pretty positive before we go out for the night, we all view our bodies from what makes us anxious about them and style our choices in line with our prejudices:
God, this dress/shirt makes me look fat,
Okay, my makeup/skin/hair looks good, just try not to think about my huge conk!
My boobs/thighs are too big/too small/too weirdly shaped.
Look at that huge spot on my chin, like a giant volcano about to erupt.
I just can't get my eyeliner/my hair/ my clothes to sit quite right.
You wouldn't catch me dead wearing that (stripes/floral/disco/punk/etc).
The above examples could be completely unfounded in fact, but our psyche of the moment and of our self-esteem dictates how we perceive the apparent incrimination.
Even if your character is up-their-own-backsides-in-love-with-themselves, that arrogance is likely coming from a place of insecurity that they don't acknowledge and that has been created from a false narrative in their lives. Maybe an over-critical or over-appraising parent made them need to over-inflate their own egos, for example. Maybe they've been brought up to believe that material things make them beautiful and that internal beauty isn't a consideration for them. Maybe they are just too damned terrified to truly look in the mirror and see their real selves for fear the mirror will crack, and so live in a bubble of self-delusion that they are perfect.
But even the most confident people still suffer from self-doubt at times. We all have days where we feel ugly and days where we feel like we could go out and pull Tom Hardy (or whoever is your secret crush), so -- again -- the POV filter in how the character views themselves is also steeped in what mood they are in on that particular day.
How they view themselves is also not set in stone for the whole of their lives. We age. Our appearance changes through the years, so do our life circumstances. Depending on what stage of life the character has reached and what experiences they have lived can affect how they actually look. Decades of alcoholism can haggard a person, so can too much stress. Additionally, those experiences can affect how they view themselves. You must know of at least one acquaintance who believes they are nothing special but you recognise how wonderful they are. This is because you don't have the same psychological filter about them as they do about themselves.
So, how does the writer execute this kind of characterisation to 'describe' or create a sense of the personality they want to depict?
It's all embedded in their emotional identities. Bringing those identities to the fore. Understanding their insecurities, their confidence boosters. What constitutes a punch in the guts and what constitutes para-gliding through the day with joy. How do their egos operate, too? What kinds of activities and habits do they partake in that demonstrate the kinds of people they affiliate with or what kind of person they want others to believe they are?
The environment surrounding the character through circumstance and the environments the character chooses to involve themselves in can reflect so much about them.
Mrs Wade gets back early tonight. I can still hear some of the older kids outside when she opens the door, wearing the most fabulous stilettos. I look down at my scuffed-up Converses, frayed around the edges, sticking out of my jeggings like two long narrowboats.
I hate my body. It’s knobbly and clumsy, yet my thighs are too chunky. I wish I could wear shoes like hers, be elegant like her. Maybe I will one day, when I’m out of here.
In the example above, our narrating character has some major self-esteem issues – probably more so than your average person – and her own self-appraisal demonstrates that. This is a representation of her circumstantial environment and how she feels encumbered by it. Her envy of the stilettos and aspirations of owning her own, of one day being elegant like Mrs Wade, represents the environment she would choose to be in.
But let's swap it around. Let's say Mrs Wade is the narrating character and she is not dragged down by such a leaden crisis of confidence:
I'm back early tonight - thank God. These new heels are killing my feet. I want to rip them off, wiggle my toes, grab a nice glass of chilled Sancerre and watch TV, but even the babysitter's eyeing them up, so I leave them for now. They really make my legs more shapely in this skirt, and all the girls at work asked me where I got them, so it was worth it. Kinky, Georgia said. Ha!
In fact, they've all made remarks recently on my improved image, said divorce must suit me. I hope that new guy, David, heard the D-word. He hasn't seen the old, dumpy me – the lump of cellulite who sagged at her desk in drab trousers and frayed tops, and couldn't type properly because she spent more time scratching off her nail varnish, wondering what drama awaited at home.
But that was then, and all David knows is confident, curvy Sarah. Oh, God, what if I seem OTT? Would that put him off? Maybe I should invite him out for lunch.
In this second example, the character is evidently feeling a boost after a long bout of marital troubles. In both excerpts, other characters are employed to reflect how the narrator looks and an
impression of what kinds of fashions they wear. Both incorporate insecurities of a different kind to portray a sense of who they are. In this second example, the character's circumstantial environment has been heavily punctuated by divorce, but her new look is the environment she chooses to place herself into and conveys the type of boyfriend she hopes to one day meet. Equally, she could have opted to go all Sporty Spice – jog to work, go the gym, etc. – or her transformation might have worked in reverse: her husband always insisted she dress a certain way and after the divorce she opted to wear what she was most comfortable in. Neither way is wrong, but both ways speak about the type of person she could be or wants to be.
Drip-feed this throughout the story and your reader will have a constant sense of how the character looks without going all cardboard cut-out on them or breaking POV. I can guarantee, the reader will form their own image in their mind about how your character looks without your telling them the colour of their hair. If you don't mention they are brunet until chapter five it won't change the image they already formed in their mind from chapter one of someone who is blond. It could even be argued that even if you mentioned it as the very first item on the first page, the reader's mind will form their own image for the most part. That's because, when reading, the sense of the person clings to the mind more than mere surface details.
What is it Stephen King says in his book On Writing? Something like, if you stated that the table has a cloth over it, does it matter if that cloth is red or white? Maybe not, unless the colour is symbolic or tonal for the scene. But when it comes to character, I try and use descriptions that speak of deeper traits.
Using insecurities is one way to approach character descriptions. What's your favoured approach?
Related article: Emotional Context