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Character Self-Description

Here’s an interesting question from Anne:

I’m looking for clever ways to write physical descriptions of first person narrators. It’s just so awkward to have people describe their own looks. I’ve heard that editors are sick of the old “I stared in the mirror” approach. I’ve used the self-effacing “I wish I were better looking” approach, but that too seems overdone.

I have to admit, when I read some bad character self-description in a manuscript, it makes me wince. Never in my life have I, for example, “examined my dark brown locks in the mirror, giving my tall frame a once-over, and wishing, for once, that my blue-green eyes would just pick a color and stick with it.” Who thinks like that? The obvious problem is, of course, that we may think like this if we were seeing ourselves for the first time, but most of us are very familiar with what’s in the mirror. In this case, I feel like we’re all expecting the contrived, super unique self-description, and we’re already groaning about it. What you can do instead is stop trying to make the character’s self-description into a creativity moment and just tell us the details that we need to know.

“I swatted a clump of black hair out of my eyes and ran down the field,” or whatever.

Don’t be too precious about it, don’t put physical description in dialogue unless you can get it to sound organic (none of this “But gosh, that skirt looks really great with your hazel eyes” stuff, that doesn’t sound like authentic speech, we would just say “your eyes” because both characters know what color they’re referring to), and don’t think this is your big opportunity to revolutionize character self-description. Less is definitely more, so just tell us (yes, you can tell and not show in this case) and move on. That’s what I say. This is a frustrating question because I’ve seen it done very poorly, and most likely not noticed when it’s done really well, and would just rather have the necessary details out of the way. I’m guessing your character’s look isn’t the most important thing about the story, so all we need are a few details peppered in.

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  1. Steph Sinkhorn’s avatar

    I actually revealed a few (just a few) details of my MC’s appearance by having her compare her looks to her siblings’. As in (paraphrased), “My brother are easy to spot as our father’s children – ash blond hair, brown eyes, wiry builds – but my sister has dark hair and green eyes.”

    The actual line in my manuscript is, uh, a lot more eloquent than that. But I found it to be a pretty fast and easy way to give the reader an idea of what she looked like without getting all cutesy and overblown about it. At some point I also mention she has long hair and a scar, but that’s it as far as her appearance.

  2. Cari Galeziewski’s avatar

    This was a very timely question for me since I am going through the same issue with my first person POV novel. Thank you for putting my mind at ease about keeping it simple.

  3. Fabio Bueno’s avatar

    Hi, Steph, I did something similar! My MC describes his sibling and mentions a couple of differences. Other characters fill in the blanks later. Maybe because the focus is on the contrast, the information sneaks up on the reader. Diversion, diversion : )

  4. Jackee’s avatar

    This is a hard one and it bugs me when authors go on for a few sentences about what the MC looks like. Love that you bring up it’s not the most important thing. So true. Thanks, Mary!

  5. Catherine Johnson’s avatar

    Great post, Mary. And so funny. Pepper it in everyone!

  6. Franziska Green’s avatar

    Steph, that is genius! So clever. And my MC has a sister too… thanks!

  7. Diana’s avatar

    Great tips – from Mary and the comments :) Thanks, all.

  8. Lester D. Crawford’s avatar

    My question is why anyone needs to know or care about how the first person narrator looks. Such information needs to propel the plot or deepen the characters. (Every time someone tells me something is not necessary in my story, the excuse I use is that it deepens the characters and I like deep characters.)

    In my story, I have the following.

    “The alien looked at me. In the reflection of its eyes, I could see myself: a scruffy and haggard Human with ragged, unkempt hair and beard. I looked pathetic.”

    I also have a scene where the narrator mentions the scars on his body left by encounters with the Dragon, the aliens, and a wild animal.

    Thinking about how to work into a story via dialog, elements of description of a first person narrator, and having the dialog sound organic, reminds me of an experience that could be converted into that type of dialog.

    The theme of eyes recurs in my story. Searching for traits to use in my descriptions, I performed research by collecting pictures of eyes from the Internet and by making observations of people I met.

    One day, at a fast food restaurant, the eyes of the woman behind the counter attracted my attention. Her eyes were an incredible, intense, iridescent blue, the royal blue shade that is my favorite color. My pulse palpitated.

    I said, “You have the most incredible eyes.”

    She made a coy look and said, “Thanks. I got them from my father.”

    “You did? What’s he doing for eyes now?”

    A huge smile came to her face as she giggled and lost her ability to perform her duties. Several long moments passed before she pulled herself together well enough to finish taking my order.

  9. Jenn Thorne’s avatar

    I think the trick is to only include physical description of the MC if it’s relevant to the story. If the fact that her eyes are blue is never going to impact the story, why include it?

    Narcissistic aside: when I was little, I would reread the MC physical descriptions, mentally substituting my own features: “blonde…um BROWN hair…” etc. so I could picture myself in the story. Everybody does that, right? Heh.

  10. Melissa K’s avatar

    Thanks, Mary. As always, I like your thoughts here. I agree that writers tend to overdo the creative description of physical details. I think the main problem, in these cases, is that the description interrupts the action of the story rather than enhancing it.

    Generally I want to know what a character looks like if it advances the plot. If the MC has a limp and that matters because she’ll get teased or have trouble running away during a chase, then mention it early. If the MC suffers somehow because he looks different from everyone else at his school, then we should know about the differences. But all that comes through with the action and dialog.

  11. Lu’s avatar

    This is a really good discussion. I didn’t think about it and I use the description only as required by the action in the scene (or if necessary to advance the plot). Many times another character may comment on an appearance.

    I think that is why I like Jenn’s comment. As I read, I put myself in the character’s position. Great post Mary.

    lu

  12. Gwen’s avatar

    I like the idea of describing looks through action. My MC is described when his police sketch shows up on the evening news, but I might try it with some of the secondary characters.

  13. Alice’s avatar

    I hate description of anyone. Why can’t the reader just imagine what the character looks like in her own head? Pushing “my red hair out of my eyes” sounds totally absurd. Who thinks what color their hair is if its in their eyes? Just get it out.

    Just my opinion. I gave up describing my characters looks. So maybe I’ll get rejected.

  14. Luvina’s avatar

    There are a lot of ways to tackle this. My favorite is to have other characters help out by making jokes or giving compliments (“Ugh, I thought you were getting a haircut over break? You’re starting to channel Cher.”)

  15. Kelley Harvey’s avatar

    I did as a previous commentor did and used the MC’s description of his brother to describe him as well.

    ‘With his jet black hair, clear blue eyes, and lopsided grin hovering over the cleft of his chin, Carson was a tiny carbon copy of Dad and so was I, according to Mom.’

    Good luck to the rest of you trying to figure this one out. That’s why multiple POV is cool; you can let the other MCs do the dirty work for you. :)

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