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?


On Characters #3: Change

4 01 2010

Every year, I sit down either on January 1 or shortly after to make a list of resolutions/goals for the year.  Most years, I’m rather ambitious and hope to complete some radical changes in myself.  And yet at the end of each year, I realize that I accomplish some goals while pretty much ignoring the goals that require me to change from being me.  When I looked over my lengthy list of goals from last year, I realized something: the only things I’ve accomplished over the year are the goals I listed that were measurable.  For instance, one goal was to get a real job.  I got a real job this year.  However, another goal was to spend at least 30 minutes a day practicing the piano.  There was no real measure, and I dropped the habit shortly into 2009 when my work schedule got hectic.  This year, I learned from my mistakes and only wrote down measurable goals; for example, instead of saying “practice the piano daily,” I said, “Learn one new song on the piano.”  For my playing skills, that will take the majority of the year, especially since I tend to pick difficult songs to learn.

What does all this self-reflection have to do with writing and creating characters?  Too often, I come across characters in books (and movies/TV shows, for that matter) that experience an enlightening moment and change “from the inside out.”  While I do think people change on small scales, I am a skeptic when it comes to people’s ability to completely change themselves.  I know I’ve yet to become a new person and eradicate my flaws that I point out to myself year after year.  I yell at myself for being a procrastinator, yet the next time I have a deadline looming, I know I’ll still wait until the last possible minute before I get any real work done.  Why?  Because I know me.

Do your characters know themselves?  I think it takes a special type of reflection to get inside your characters’ heads and let yourself see their good and bad parts and accept them for who they are.  Then, when your characters go through “life-changing” moments, I think it’s imperative that authors further reflect and ask themselves, “What changes are reasonable to expect after such a moment in a human’s life?”  Characters who are “bad” to begin with shouldn’t immediately switch over to being “good” after seeing the error of their ways.  How likely is it that one dream will change the way Ebeneezer Scrooge views the world on a daily basis?  Sure, for one Christmas his heart might be changed.  But what about the next Christmas?  And the one after that?  I think people like to fall into the trap of thinking that massive change is something that is reasonable and attainable, but I guess I’m more of a realist who wants to see characters coming to terms with themselves and making the changes they can while still keeping what makes them them.

So the next time you find yourself writing a scene that will change one of your characters, take the time to ask yourself how that character can actually change.  Take the time to reflect on the possibilities while being realistic and true to the character.  Don’t rip off your character (and readers) by simply letting him/her wake up one day a brand new person.  Even the simple changes are journeys rather than instantaneous.

On Characters #2: Showing, Not Telling

18 11 2009

As I am working my way through my rough draft for NaNoWriMo (which, believe it or not, is already close to being over), I know that my next two (or three) months should be dubbed “National Novel Revising Months.”  I still have “National” in the title because the majority of writers do not write a final draft in their first shot through the material.  One of my strengths as a writer is that I already know my biggest weaknesses, so when I revise, I know what to look for: flat characters, forced dialogue (goes hand-in-hand with the flat characters), and instances where I tell instead of show.  In today’s post, I am focusing on the showing-not-telling angle while looking at characters, but the same principle can be applied to any aspect of the story: plot, setting, etc.  I will explore the dialogue and flat character issues in other posts; the “On Getting to Know My Characters” post is what I am considering to be my “On Characters #1” post and focuses on taking a new angle for using questionnaires to get to know your characters better.


In my non-writing life, I teach college students; as a member of the English department, I teach freshmen composition along with my specialty (linguistics).  When I grade compositions, I notice one problem over and over again: students tell their readers what is happening rather than showing them.  For example, I see a lot of essays where an idea is introduced but never explored in sentences like, “My dad has always been there for me.”  The student then assumes that is all that needs to be said and moves on.  In cases like this one, the writer is choosing to tell the reader about her dad’s continual support without showing examples or providing details about the support.  It is difficult for my students to get over this habit (and sometimes difficult for them to even see that they’re doing it), and I can understand why: It’s a bad habit many writers have, even writers who have been working on their craft for a long time.  I know when I go back to read through my NaNoWriMo work, I will cringe when I see how many times I summed up what could have been a really descriptive paragraph into one sentence.


In the case of developing characters, using full descriptions can be so much more telling than simply summing up what the character is feeling.  For example, let’s say I have a character who is nervous while a conversation is taking place around her.  I could just write, “She was nervous,” and move on from there.  But that would be telling my readers the character is nervous and not showing them she is nervous.  You may be asking yourself why I would want to show the details of being nervous; my answer is that by showing the details, I can better build my characters into round characters (thus touching on one of my other weaknesses).  We all have our own bad habits when we’re nervous–it is up to me to build those habits into my character.  Compare the following two excerpts and judge for yourself what sounds better:


Excerpt 1

She was so nervous that she couldn’t concentrate on the interview.


Excerpt 2

She tapped her foot.  The sharp click from the tip of her new pointy-toe heels meeting the concrete floor beat out notes with staccato precision.  She tried to focus on the words coming at her, but cotton filled her ears; she instead watched his mouth move around the words she couldn’t hear.  When he glanced down at his notes on the table in front of him, she quickly turned her wrist to see her watch.  She raised an eyebrow in surprise and flicked her eyes to the clock on the wall to her left to confirm the time.  Something is wrong, she thought as she looked at her interrogator and realized his mouth had stopped moving.  It was her turn to talk, and she had no idea what she was supposed to say.


Which one would you rather read in a story?  Excerpt 1 tells while Excerpt 2 shows.  Notice that Excerpt 2 doesn’t even contain the word “nervous” but still portrays the feeling of nervousness.  When I read through my rough draft I wrote during NaNoWriMo, I already know I will find many instances of excerpts like Excerpt 1; my job then is to figure out how to take those excerpts and turn them into something more informative and interesting.  If you, too, share that weakness of mine, one thing you might consider is asking yourself the age-old journalistic questions: Who? What? When? Where? Why? How?  Decide which question(s) best fit the scene you’re trying to better describe and then answer them.  In the case of the examples above, I already had the who and what, but I was missing the how.  How did her nerves affect her?  Once I answered that question, I could fill out the excerpt to make it more appealing.  If I wanted to add a bit more of a back story to the excerpt, I might explore the “why” angle.  Why is it that she was so nervous about this interview?  Had she been out of work for ages?  Was it going badly?


How would you work the “why” into Excerpt 2?  I’d love to read what you come up with; if you feel inclined, leave your version in a comment to the post so we can all share in on the fun of revisions.

On Getting to Know My Characters

12 11 2009

Secretly, I love those surveys that are circulated, usually via e-mail, that ask questions about yourself.  I’m not sure if I like answering questions in general or if the thrill for it is getting to answer questions about myself.  Sometimes the questions are silly, bordering on ridiculously shallow, but sometimes the questions probe at something deeper.  I tend to answer the questions but only send the survey back to the original sender.  I figure if they wanted me to know all that information about them, surely they would want to know it about me, too.


Thinking about questionnaires and surveys got me thinking about what questions I could ask to better get to know my characters.  One of the first impulses I had was to ask how my characters would answer the questions James Lipton asks all his guests on Inside the Actors Studio.  At the end of each of his interviews, he poses a set of 10 questions to his guest; those 10 questions are based on the Proust Questionnaire.  Here are James Lipton’s questions:


  1. What is your favorite word?
  2. What is your least favorite word?
  3. What turns you on?
  4. What turns you off?
  5. What sound or noise do you love?
  6. What sound or noise do you hate?
  7. What is your favorite curse word?
  8. What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?
  9. What profession would you not like to do?
  10. If Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates?


The questions are short and quite simple, but if you take your time in answering them, a lot of interesting information can be gathered based on your answers.  For that alone, it would be helpful for any author to ask their characters these questions.  And yet, I know that my own answers would change for these questions frequently–my favorite word today may not be my favorite word tomorrow.  Maybe later on today I’ll hear the most annoying sound in the world, which will take the place of what sound I currently hate the most.  Experience changes these answers.  Perhaps it would be more useful if authors asked their characters these questions after major events in the novel to find out what changed and what didn’t change.


As I tried to get all my main characters in my novel to answer these questions, I found something else rather helpful about the questionnaire.  For me, it didn’t matter as much what my characters answered but how.  I found out that one character resented having to answer the questions and really had to be pushed.  When she did answer, her answers were all one-word answers thrown out there, just to get it over with.  Another character wouldn’t answer right away, telling me she’d get back to me later.  For her, pushing off answering wasn’t an act of “I don’t want to do this” but an act of “I want to do this right.”  I learned just how deeply she cares about the language she uses and why she is so reluctant to speak aloud in conversations: She wants to think through her words first to foresee any possibly consequences of saying what she’s thinking.  Her words reflect her inner self.  Yet another character thought the questionnaire was great fun and came up with answers that were semi-truthful but hilarious.  I learned more from how my characters approached the questions than from what they actually ended up providing as answers.


If you feel your characters need a bit of rounding out, perhaps you, too, could benefit from posing the short questionnaire to your characters.  How do they react when you tell them you want them to answer the questions?  Once they do answer, how do they answer the questions?


And then, of course, if you’re anything like me, you’ll reserve a separate document for yourself so that you can provide your own answers to the questions.  You know, just in case James Lipton ever comes knocking on your door to interview you.