Mirror, mirror

There are some clichés that I don’t mind in my fiction. Depending on the writer, sometimes they can carry it off without it being detrimental to the story or their integrity as a writer. After encountering this one in each of the three books I’ve picked up in the past week, though, I’ve decided that it’s one I can’t abide.

Describing a character can be hard. Regardless of the perspective you’re writing in, one character inevitably becomes the narrator for the scene. It’s difficult to express a physical description of your narrator without it seeming unnecessary or even contrived, but there’s nothing that seems more contrived to me than the standard fallback I keep seeing used: Mirrors.

The mirror description is the bane of a writer’s creative voice. Sure, I’ve used it in writing before – When I was sixteen and very inexperienced. Okay, that comes out a little harsher than it should, but it’s true. If you can’t think of a better way to describe a character to me in the first few pages, why should I have confidence in the idea that you can relay a deep and compelling story to me?

It takes longer to describe a character without use of a mirror, but being introduced to a main character should be a slow process anyway. You discover their motives and personality over the course of a few chapters, there’s no reason a description of their appearance has to arrive as an info-dump. Actions and description of other characters can be used just as effectively to give you a mental image of the protagonist you’re reading about. For instance, a line about the character having to walk twice as fast to keep up with their friend and their much longer legs. This is effective for several reasons – It describes the main character (short), their friend (much taller) and sets a picture of the mood, possibly frustration or irritation that it’s difficult to keep up.

Likewise, dialogue from other characters can be used just as effectively. A side character asking the protagonist to fetch something on the other side of a narrow gap implies that they are thinner than the character doing the asking, one that you can describe easily whenever the main character looks their way. Or maybe a character’s friend is letting her borrow a piece of jewelry, because said friend thinks it would help bring out the green of the main character’s eyes.

There’s countless other ways to go about it, but those are just a few examples. Not only do they give us the desired image of the protagonist, they do it while enriching the scene.
And, even better, they do it without having to rely on the crutch of a character’s reflection doing the talking.

What are your favorite ways to describe a character’s appearance?

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