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

Sign Up Today

hwba sidebar pic

Sign up to receive K.M. Weiland’s monthly e-letter and receive her free e-book Crafting Unforgettable Characters: A Hands-On Introduction to Bringing Your Characters to Life.

About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

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. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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!

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

  8. 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.

  9. I do like to add a little character description. Maybe if their hair changes color or something like that. You’d want to know what they look like normally to know how different it is. Maybe.

  10. Miranda says:

    I honestly love it when the main character describes him or herself! I like to know what the protagonist looks like. To me, it’s runner that way. Like watching a movie.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I like character descriptions as well. But there are almost always going to be more efficient ways of accomplishing than using the “mirror” technique.

  11. Looking-in-the-mirror descriptions have been done two jillion times–it’s a total cliché. No other reasons needed. If you must do it, at least make it a side mirror on a Lamborghini…whoops, no, that’s been done, too. If there’s a need for him/her to look a certain way, don’t wait until we’ve already imagined him as Homer Simpson. Protagonist descriptions should be done, if at all, early. There’s always a better way than a mirror:

    I told her, “Meet me tonight at eight. Hoff’s Tavern, 52nd and Broadway.”

    “What do you look like?”

    “Irish. Red hair, rosy cheeks.”

    A pause. “You a lush, Mr. Blakey?”

    “Look, smart-ass, who’s the detective here, you or me?”

    “I’ll get there promptly at eight.” The client hung up.

  12. Thank you, thank you, thank you! You have provided a perfect summary of why this bothers me so much. For me such descriptions often make result in writing coming off as amateurish and the characters as, like you said, self-obsessed. It’s a technique you expect from those who are just starting out but when I see it in a published book (and I have) I cringe.

    I’m in my last year of high school and while I condoned, and even enjoyed, this method of describing someone when I was – say – thirteen, I’ve long since seen it for how awful it is. Yet I look around and see, for the most part, that the rest of my age group has yet to notice how incredible annoying it is when a writer starts listing the hair colour, eye colour, complexion, height, weight and entire outfit of their main character (and in some cases, every character that turns up throughout the book/story).

    Of course I realise that I’m not ranting about characters looking in the mirror so much as the listing of (often perfect) features. Which I felt was more what you were getting at. For example, “Alice in Zombieland” by Gena Showalter didn’t used a mirror but still ended up providing extremely irritating descriptions. I started reading the book only to stop ten pages in when the main character started complaining about how her long blonde hair, milky skin, startling blue eyes and mile-long legs weren’t anywhere near as pretty as her gorgeous mother’s coal-black hair, petite and curvy figure, topped of with honey-golden eyes that were lined with thick lashes.

    I’d also like to make a note on your last point about how readers might not notice but it would surely annoy fellow authors. Upon reflection I now notice that this habit only became annoying when I became serious about creative writing.

    Sorry for going off on a tangent, I’ve never really had an opportunity to vent about this before and I think I went overboard (Whoops!). Thank you for making such a great video, I will definitely be directing some of my writer-friends here.

Trackbacks

  1. […] loved K.M. Weiland’s post: 5 Reasons Not to Describe your Character in a Mirror. My favorites: #4 and #5 — it’s contrived and will, without fail, annoy your fellow authors who […]

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.