On Characters #4: Description through a Mirror

5 04 2010

When you’re writing–especially from a first-person point of view–it can be difficult to throw in a description of your main character. Many authors, when faced with this conundrum of how a character should describe him/herself, will turn to a clichéd method for description: a mirror. The main character will stop in front of a mirror and describe what (s)he sees, which might look something like this:

Walking through the hall, I saw a flash out of the corner of my eye of where the light hit a mirror and reflected it back toward me. I stopped and slowly turned toward the mirror, subtly checking to make sure I was alone in the hall. I hadn’t taken the time to really look at myself in more than a month, so I was almost afraid of what I’d see there. I stared. A medium-height woman with muddy green eyes and slightly frizzy, long blonde hair stared back. I smiled. Her lips pulled up at the same time to expose slightly crooked front teeth and smile lines around her mouth.

I understand the temptation to do something like that, but as a reader, I’m tired of mirror scenes. If a character looks in a mirror, I want it to be because something is out of the ordinary. If the mirror is an excuse to describe the character as (s)he looks everyday, I get frustrated. If a mirror scene is the only way an author can introduce a character’s looks, then I start to wonder if the character’s looks weren’t really that important in the first place. I start to wonder if  some authors simply add that information in because they think they have to or they think readers have to have the same image of the main character as they do.

While complaining about using a mirror scene, I will say that well-done mirror scene can be totally justified. For example, compare the following paragraph to the previous one:

I ran out of the apartment, hoping I would make it to the next block before the city bus pulled away from the curb and left me with 15 blocks to walk to my interview. My feet pounded into the concrete sidewalk, and I kept my head forward, but I couldn’t help but notice the people around me turning to stare at me. What are they staring at? I wondered, running my hands down my outfit to make sure my clothes were where they were supposed to be. Nearly every day since I had moved into my apartment, I had seen at least one person running to catch a bus, but not once in those times had I seen everyone on the street turning to stare at the running person. “Wait!” I yelled as the bus at the end of the block roared to life. “I need that bus!” I ran closer to the curb when I passed the bus and turned to look at the windows to signal to any passengers inside to tell the driver to wait. What I saw in the reflective bus windows brought me to a sudden stop. My blonde hair was mussed from the run with little stragglers of frizz framing my now-red face, but I could deal with that. My cheeks flamed with embarrassment as my muddy green eyes stared at the dark streak of paint across my forehead. The bus drove away as I watched my reflection move down the windows and then disappear when the bus had gone.

Was that scene a perfect description? No. But it was an example of how a character might describe herself as she looks at her reflection for a reason. I don’t want the character to use the mirror as an excuse to tell me what she’s wearing–if her clothes are important, her clothes should be mentioned some time other than when she’s standing in front of a mirror.

Now I’m just starting to rant… What do you think? Do you mind the clumsy mirror scenes authors use to describe their main characters? What better examples do you have of how an author might describe a character without relying on a mirror?




2 responses

8 04 2010
Emily Marchman

I so agree–this is a major cringe factor for me!

8 04 2010

I’m glad other people feel that way, too!

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