5 Reasons Not to Describe Your Character in a Mirror

5 Reasons Not to Describe Your Character in a Mirror

This week’s video offers five good reasons you shouldn’t describe your character by having him look at himself in a mirror.

 

Video Transcript:

Today, I want to discuss a simple but important “don’t” of how to describe your character. And that’s simply this: Don’t describe your character by having him look at himself in a mirror. On the surface, this may seem like a great way to give your narrating character a reason to describe himself, while staying in POV. But it’s really not, and here are five good reasons why:

1. More often than not, it’s going to make your character sound really self-obsessed. How many of us get up in the morning, look into the mirror, and take note of our hair and eye color, much less study every minute feature?

2. Frankly, this kind of character description is boring. Most readers simply do not care that your protagonist has ivory skin, big blue eyes, and gobs of silky black hair. They’re going to appreciate a few physical details, but what they really care about is the character’s personality.

3. The reason it’s boring is that it’s often nothing more than an info dump. Usually, it ends up as a grocery list of descriptors that fails to add any kind characterization or plot advancement.

4. It’s contrived. To anybody who’s got his thinking cap on, it’s going to pretty obvious that the only reason the character is looking in the mirror and describing herself is so that you, the author, will have an excuse to spout off this misplaced description.

5. Finally, even if some of your readers fail to notice this clumsy technique, you can bet you’re going to magnificently annoy any and all fellow authors who happen to be reading your book—because they will notice.

Tell me your opinion: How much character description do you like to include in stories?

5 Reasons Not to Describe Your Character in a Mirror

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K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. I don’t know if it’s true of most readers, but I always come up with my own image of a character, regardless of how the author has described him. I can’t be alone in this thinking because I’ve read great novels where the author never offers any description of the charcters. I try to keep any description to one item, two at the most. As far as self-descripton of my protag, I might try something like “He always hated the way women complimented his pretty blue eyes. It was akin to ‘he has a nice personality’.” But honestly, I think you could write an entire series without dropping one descriptor and I woldn’t notice.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Readers vary on this, I think, but most are in the “less is more” camp. Personally, I like to align my vision of the characters and settings as closely as possibly with the author’s, so I always appreciate a nice handful of descriptors. But, of course, my vision can’t help being unique to me. I’m sure most authors would be appalled at how differently all their readers seen their characters!

  2. Otilia Tena says:

    I prefer to let readers create their own image of the characters. The character’s way of speaking and his actions convey much more about his physical appearance than boring descriptions.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Definitely. Nothing wrong with physical descriptions, but they’re far from being the most important aspect of a character.

  3. Hector Morales says:

    Am an amateur on writing, but it has always been my dream. My mentality on describing a character is to integrated in a narrative of the story instead on having a complete page or section on the story to describe the character physically. Blending it with actions on the story can make a description to have sense in the narrative, and less boring.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Your instincts are spot on. Authors can share a huge amount of description in a non-invasive way by scattering details throughout otherwise meaningful scenes.

  4. A character doesn’t need a mirror to know him or herself. If a character thinks about the way they look they will also not think look at my gorgeous hair/ eyes etc that is just unrealistic, unless they are horribly vain. Also if another character is thinking about the appearance of your main character it should not be without reason. It is alright when they first meet but you are right then its still a matter of less is more. We don’t need to know the exact shape of whats his names fingernails.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Exactly. Authors always need to consider why they’re including certain details. How does the shape of the character’s fingernails advance the reader’s understanding of either character or plot?

      • Thats the thing isn’t it. Some people just seem to think that the reader has a burning desire to know this, while in fact they would most likely be irritated because they have a different picture in their head.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          Always consider what *you* would like to read. If descriptions bug you, then do your readers a favor and “do unto others.”

  5. Ah! Thank you for saying this – it’s a pet peeve of mine. I definitely fall into the “fellow writers will notice” camp. :)

    ….But in the interest of full disclosure, I should say that when I look through all my early manuscripts I see a lot of mirror descriptions. :)

  6. P.S. I was just thinking…..I try to use physical descriptions in the same way that some others in the comments above referred to; scatter throughout the scenes of the book, in common-sense places. However – correct me if I’m wrong – I think it’s important to do that in the first few chapters of the book, or else it’s rather jarring. For example, if I’ve been picturing the hero as tall dark and handsome for the first 12 chapters, it’s going to really pull me out of the story to read that he is in fact blond, 5’2″, and uncommonly homely. It makes the reader feel unsettled or betrayed somehow, I think. Do you agree, or is that just me? I’m of the opinion of you’re so far along in the story that the ready already has a firm picture in their mind, then it’s just too late for description.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Yes, you’re absolutely right. The only thing more annoying than an author who over-describes his character is one who neglects describing him until long after the readers have already cemented an image in their minds.

  7. I tend to scatter physical description throughout narrative as best I can, usually keeping it brief and somewhat vague. The exception is when I have a main character who possesses one or two traits that are extraordinary in relation to the culture or other characters around him. I feel sometimes calling attention to those traits helps the character stand out more in the reader’s mind (though, obviously, overstressing isn’t a good idea).

    I’m somewhat of an illustrator, so I tend to nail down what my characters look like outside the context of the story. Not sure if that’s for better or worse.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      This is the best approach. It allows readers the details they need to bring the character to life in their own minds, without overwhelming them with info dumps of description.

  8. I generally only ever describe the characters if it’s at least somewhat plot relevant, though I don’t come out and tell the reader that, necessarily. In my current WIP, how a few people look is a key element that pertains to (mis)identifying some individuals. But yeah, I’m not a fan of detailed character description, when writing OR reading. Let me envision whoever I want for the role you’re writing, if possible.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      An excellent rule of thumb, in regards to any facet of writing, is to pay attention what you like as a reader and try to recreate it.

  9. Interesting post. I really don’t care for long descriptions of characters. I prefer a few descriptive words and lots of actions which make the character real to me. I don’t care if the character has blue eyes or a bump on her nose (well that might be an interesting characteristic). The mirror image…cliche. I truly appreciate the comments your received on this post. Most helpful in drawing my own characters. Thanks.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      The most interesting physical characteristics are always those that in some way illustrate or help define the character’s personality. Readers really don’t care if your character looks like Paul Newman; they only care if he acts like Paul Newman.

  10. Would it be proper if he looked in the mirror for another reason, such as cleaning blood from his face and examining a nasty slash he had just received in a fight? I mean as long as he didn’t say something lame like “That’ll probably be the first thing women see now instead of my deep blue eyes.” :-)

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Really, the major problem with this technique always comes down to lameness. If it’s not lame, then it probably works just fine. There’s absolutely no reason a character can’t look in a mirror and observe what he sees–so long as it makes sense within the story.

  11. For my protagonist, I provide no description unless it has purpose. For example, in the eyes of his capturers, he sees the reflection of a “defeated human, scruffy and haggard with ragged, unkempt hair and beard.” He vows to stop looking that way by sitting up straight and dignified, and he does what he can to comb his hair and beard. This also sets up a scene later where he gives himself a haircut and beard trim that leaves him looking like a bearded five-year-old who had found a pair of scissors, and leads to some fun banter with the Dragon.

    Going beyond the protagonist, the descriptions of other characters also have purpose — to reveal what they are, to deepen who they are, and in the case of the romantic interest, to explore the protagonist’s perception (her camouflage pattern of browns, tans, greens, and blues was the most beautiful display of ordered chaos I had ever seen).

    Even descriptions of locations have purpose, such as providing a sense of place, setting the mood, or preparing the stage for future events.

    If descriptions of characters or places serve no purpose other than flowery prose, they are proverbial “darlings” that should be removed. Purpose, purpose, every word needs purpose.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      This is the kind of approach that not only *doesn’t* annoy readers, but that also ends up creating perceptions of characters and settings that are all the more vivid for their choice sparseness.

  12. Heather Marsten says:

    I’m writing a first person memoir – starting with age seven. A seven year old notices different things in a person than an older kid or an adult. So the descriptors have to be age appropriate. Haven’t solved the problem of describing myself – a hint here and there like my mom makes me get a perm, I’d rather have long straight hair. A lot of what the reader sees in me are actions like digging fingernails into my palms, etc. Or my father’s description of me and how that impacts. It’s hard to describe myself in first person. Any suggestions?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Check out some of the basic suggestions in my response to Helen below. One of the great things about first-person narration is that it allows us to take full advantage of the narrator’s voice, so that everything she describes is also characterization *her.*

  13. Another good post – as usual! :) I’m in the “sprinkle a few descriptions throughout the manuscript, as they make sense and move the plot or characters along” camp. I don’t dislike physical descriptions (unless it’s the mirror thing or otherwise lame), but if the characters are well-developed, I find I don’t miss descriptions if they aren’t there.

    I also agree that any descriptions – especially important ones, like if the swashbuckling hero has a shriveled hand – should be introduced early on, with occasional reminders as appropriate, so as not to jar the reader’s mental picture.

    In my current WIP, the human characters are in a magical world inhabited by smaller, hobbit-like people, and so most of my physical descriptions refer to height, reach, broadness of shoulders, etc. One of my human characters is shorter than all the others (though not unusually short), which makes her closer in height and build to the non-human folks.

    With that as a (hopefully appropriate) example, I think physical descriptions of characters should really fit the story, the narrative style, the story’s world, and the genre itself. I’ve noticed that a lot of romance sub-genres have a lot more physical descriptions than something like a psychological thriller.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Good point. It really does depend on genre, to some extent. Romance, with its emphasis on physical beauty, has readers who are much more interested in character appearances than readers of, say, historical dramas.

  14. Great reasons! I like to formulate the look of a character in my mind. I don’t need the author telling me what she looks like. Unless it matters to the character, like Anne’s red hair in Anne of Green Gables :)

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      The thing about a character like Anne, who is known for a specific physical characteristic, is that her description still leaves all kinds of room for each reader to envision her differently. Good example.

  15. K.M.
    I absolutely agree with you about mirrors: using them to describe a character is a sure giveaway that the writer is an amateur. I would add to this: starting anything with people waking up, or misusing weather to create a sense of atmosphere.
    And honesty requires that I admit to having committed every one of these no-nos. But of course in THOSE instances it made perfect sense.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I agree with you. The book that inspired this post also opened with a very long and boring segment of the character getting out of bed and preparing for her day.

  16. This is something I’ve struggled with. I tend to have too few descriptors and since I write in first person it can be interesting to find ways to describe the character. I’ve found a couple of ways around this and tend to do as others have stated and splatter them through the book, but mainly in the first two chapters.

    In my novel ‘Sorrow’s Fall’ a description of the main character Sorrow comes in the second scene and is given by secondary characters remarking on his appearance. Their attitude characterizes not only his treatment but the general feeling toward him. The second description comes early in the second chapter as he compares himself to another character. It’s only one sentence but tells us a lot about how he views himself.

  17. Great post! The mirror description is definitely a fall-back option used by a lot of inexperienced writers, but there’s no doubt that ‘self-description’, in first person particularly, is challenging.

    I was wondering if you had any tips on how to subtly introduce physical descriptors when it comes to first person narratives?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Three factors usually come into play in first-person narrative (and, to a large extent, any other narrative as well):

      1. When in doubt, skip the description. Readers need it less than we sometimes think.

      2. When description is necessary, stick it in without fanfare. Although some authors will complain that having a character mention her own hair color is out of POV and/or contrived, I have no problem with a casual mention of a physical feature, e.g.: “My red hair blew in my eyes, and I pushed the curls back.”

      3. Focus on only the descriptors that are important or pertinent to the scene. For example, if the hair color *needs* to be described for some reason, you could use the wind (which, hopefully, is also useful to the scene in some other way) to give your character an excuse to think about or interact with her hair.

      Subtlety is king in descriptions of this sort. If you can stick in a few details here and there, readers won’t even notice you’re feeding them information.

      • For the first person pov description thing, would it work to slip in some of these details through dialogue? Subtlety, as you said, of course must be king – nothing like “Hello, dear,” he said to me. “I love your red hair and your blue eyes and your porcelain skin this morning.”

        I was thinking something more like “Didn’t you see her sneak out the back?” he said to me. “She looked a lot like you – same shade of red hair, even curly like yours. I could have sworn it was you at first.”

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          As long as the dialogue makes sense for the character and the situation, then this can often be a good approach.

  18. I agree with you on all of these points.

    Except…I accidentally did it.

    Alright, not accidentally. I knew full well what I was doing and I knew it was wrong, but my protagonist just got punched in the face and she was examining damage as her friend bandaged her up. Does it count? (I did sneak in her eye color. So I’m thinking I should cut that out.)

    Great post. Cut to the point and it made me smile.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      If you’re describing the damage more than her features, you can almost certainly get away with it. And I won’t call the editing police on you for sneaking in one little extraneous detail. ;)

  19. This is a really good topic (because I have done this before). I personally like a lot of imagery and description with the characters’ appearances, but now I know not to describe them with a mirror.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I like character descriptions as well – but only when they’re well done. So skip the mirror, and you’ll be good in my book. ;)

  20. I have almost always felt that way about “mirrored” descriptions. However I believe it is a bit better than a random stranger coming up and exclaiming, “Oh, how beautiful are your dark brown eyes that match your olive completion! Oh, and your locks of black crinkled hair, so thick. Oh yeah, and you’re a bit on the chubby side as I do say so myself. Well, toodles!”
    Anyways, I like some description of characters, but mixed throughout the story not just in a big blurb that interrupts the story for a paragraph or two and then continues on with the scene.

  21. The mirror description technique is one that always jumps out at me. It’s used so often that it calls attention to itself. Even the “checking damage” excuse to look into a mirror doesn’t seem to be that rare. This technique is almost excusable in a 3rd person narrative, but in a 1st person narrative it screams vanity.

    When it comes to the fictional characters I connect with and remember, it’s their personality or story I remember, not their appearance.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Even when the person is insisting they’re not that good-looking (even though all their features seem to be on the quite-nice side of the scale), it’s hard to keep them from sounding vain after a lengthy perusal of themselves.

  22. Although I think a physical description of the main characters helps the reader, I would say that having one of the other characters describe 1 or 2 things would make it more believable. I’ve also used action to help physically describe a character — like saying the character’s stride was long because of his tall slender build — or something like that anyway.

    Still, this was a good point to bring up because I might have considered using this failing strategy in the future. Thanks for the heads up. :)

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      There are lots of great (and pretty easy) ways to stick in important character info – such as height, hair style, etc. What you mentioned about “stride” is a good one.

  23. I think a big point in this is that you want any physical descriptions to be totally meshed and integral to who the character is in their entirety, inside and out. Generally I choose the descriptive sentence here and there technique-the little tidbits that can illuminate character-“his quirked smile flashed”, etc.

    However for one character in my current story I did choose to use the mirror method. In this case the character is NOT beautiful (at least in the beginning) and she’s self-obsessed-not really even about her beauty, but a lot of other personal aspects. To me it seems like the whole mirror thing can be a reflection (no pun intended) of who she is at the time-looking into and at herself and stagnating in what she finds there. Do you have any thoughts on how that all sounds?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      In instances where the mirror itself plays a role in the story (literally or symbolically), we have a little more leeway for using this technique. Knowledgeable readers still may wince a bit, just out of habit, but since you’re using the technique in a story-centric way, there’s nothing wrong with it.

  24. Not to do this. Pointed. But I think it can be usefull sometimes. Maybe it doesn´t have to be an actual bathroom mirror, maybe just a glass, but I kind of feel like a carácter with a burned face, a scarred face of something similar will need to see it to start thinking about how he or she feels about se. Or, at least, see someone else´s reaction.
    Thanks for the post!
    M.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      This post isn’t at all a condemnation of description in general. But although it will at least make more sense for a disfigured (temporarily or otherwise) character to observe his appearance, it’s still good for us to be aware that, if nothing else, this is an overdone technique.

  25. Kay Anderson says:

    I’ve actually used this mirror technique, but instead of describing every little physical detail of my character’s appearance, I focus more on her private thought process; or how she mentally sees herself through her reflection I don’t like to describe a character’s physical appearance too much, especially if he or she is looking in a mirror.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      How a character perceives herself – or is perceived others – is always more interesting than the objective facts about her appearance.

  26. I think it depends.

    In Divergent, Veronica Roth uses the mirror and often has Tris comment on her own appearance, but it’s well-developed as a “forbidden” thing and her own self-consciousness (something she was raised not to have), so it works.

    I generally like description. When writing, I skip the mirror but I try to get important “deal-breakers” in as early as possible to try and get ahead of the reader’s mental image. Particularly, skin-color and any personality-related descriptors are usually at the top of my list. I have a detective with copper skin, loose black curls, and a bit stocky but rather pretty. That’s such a non-default I try to describe her very quickly when I write her.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I agree: it totally depends. If there’s a reason for the character to pay attention to her appearance, that makes all the difference.

  27. I’ve got two “mirror scenes” in my various WIPs, which I think I’ve handled okay. Comments?

    In the first scene, the POV character has just been brought out of a century-long suspended animation, during which her brain was patched into the computer system of the derelict spaceship she was on. Now awake, she’s confused and disoriented and not entirely sane, and is studying herself in the mirror because she needs to take stock of who she is and how she appears. Then she notices the necklace she’s wearing, which triggers a memory and leads directly into her next actions.

    The second scene, in a separate story, doesn’t involve a literal mirror. The POV character is a telepath, and she’s meeting another character for the first time and picking up his first impressions of her from his mind. There’s a bit of subtlety in the description I used – the details of her appearance are what he’d notice about her, not what she’d notice about herself. He’s around forty and she’s a teenager, and he’s thinking “just a kid,” which is certainly not something a teenager normally thinks about themselves!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      The first example is the kind of scenario I would be careful with. Mirror scenes work best when the character is noting something new in his appearance, not reaffirming old appearances. Not that it *can’t* work, but it gets very close to that edge of contrived.

      The second scene, however, is an awesome example of how to riff off the mirror technique in a unique way that comments not just on character appearance, but on *both* characters’ inner workings.

  28. I like it best when the other characters point out the main characters looks. The one that springs to mind is Harry Potter, where his fathers dark hair and his mothers green eyes and his scar were brought up by everyone so often that he became iconic. I dislike it when I get halfway through a novel and realize I don’t know what the character looks like. A mirror scene near the beginning doesn’t solve that problem, though, since the characters description needs to come several times for it become ingrained, and having the characters looks change how people treat them is the most economical/interesting way to do it. For longer works, I’d rather have several lukewarm description scenes for the characters appearance than absolutely nothing as a reader, though I know that puts me in the minority on a writer’s blog.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I appreciate character description as well. I want to know how the author sees the character. But, you’re absolutely right, the description needs to happen early, so readers can implant that image in their minds before they come up with their own.

  29. Thank you for this interesting and insightful article. I found it really helpful, as always, and the comments posted here were also great to read.

    As a reader, I appreciate when the author describes the characters. I like to have a physical description early on as it helps to bring the characters to life, it makes them become *real* to me.

    I’m a newbie, unpublished writer, and looking back on some of my old, earlier efforts, I realize I too have done the “looking in mirror” thing to describe my protagonist, heh.

    I have a firm idea in my mind of how my characters look but I find it tough when writing in first person in particular, to describe my protagonist in a way that comes off as natural. In one of my WIPs my protagonist is a beautiful femme fatale, and vain with it. It’s an SF/comedy/action/adventure, and her vanity is a major part of her character – so I’ve been having some fun with that =D

    My question is, is it ever okay to do the mirror thing? In the WIP I mentioned, I don’t give any physical description, just that my protagonist senses something a little off about herself, and scrutinizes her reflection, but finds she looks the same as usual. Is something like that considered a big no-no in the writing world?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      People look in mirrors. Nothing unrealistic about that. If you’re not using it as a gimmick to squeeze in character description, there’s no reason your character can’t observe herself, just as we do every day in real life.

      • That was very helpful, thanks very much. I’ve been subscribing for a while but only just started to participate. I love your blog and thank you for taking the time to help other writers in a patient, and easy to understand way. Your encouragement really means a lot.

  30. Interesting article. I recently used the mirror scene in one of my short stories but it wasn’t used in the cliché way that you mention. The MC, after having a secondary character point out a scar on his face, ends up in a restroom shortly after and, of course, since restrooms tend to have mirrors I found it to be the perfect place to describe the scar in detail–which is actually important to the plot as a whole and the MC’s characterization.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      The key to character descriptions – however they’re executed – is always “is it important?” As long the details we’re sharing are important to the plot, all is well.

      • I agree 100%. Just to add a mirror scene to your work for the sake of describing the character from head to toe is definitely contrived and inorganic.

        Example of a contrived mirror scene:

        Sally walked over to the mirror hanging from the door and peered at her reflection. Her short brown hair looked like something that came out of a cat’s mouth. She turned and slapped her hands on her balloon sized belly. One too many beers, she thought.

        Example of an organic scene that just so happens to have mirror in it:

        Michael went into the restroom and placed the bag on the sink. He removed the lid from the cup, then reached into his pocket and pulled out the sedative. He poured the clear liquid into the Coke and stirred it with the straw. Once he’d finished, he looked at his reflection in the mirror. The twisted mass of scar on his left cheek overshadowed his dark hair and hazel eyes. He passed his fingers over the pitted flesh. Still hurts.

        You can see a big difference between the first example and second example without even having to read what comes before and after. Sure, I guess a case could be made that Sally having a beer belly can be integral to the story as a whole. But where the two really differ is that Michael’s actions is what leads him into the restroom and in front of a mirror, whereas Sally just walks up to one for no apparent reason.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          Yes, the second is a great example of how to do it right. Although I will admit, Sally sounds like an interesting character!

  31. I couldn’t resist commenting. Perfectly written!

  32. The mirror description is too easy and overly done, so I agree completely with your post. I like descriptions that fit with the rest of the story, as long as they are towards the beginning. By the middle, I have an image in my head and can’t make it fit with new physical descriptions.

    If characters are described, I realized I don’t like when they are compared to a real person. “Handsome, the spitting image of so-and-so” is a turn-off, especially if I don’t think that real person is overly handsome.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Totally agree. I remember reading a YA book (from the ’70s) that described a character as “a cross between Paul Newman and Robert Redford.” Never mind the fact that I’m still not sure what he *looks* like, that made me snort in derision even as a teenager.

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