|Jeune femme au Miroir, by Jean Raoux.|
Saturday, August 6, 2011
I'm looking in a mirror. Now I'm describing myself. I'm annoying.
First person point of view is great. It enables the narrator to get inside one character’s head and stay there. The POV character is the lens through which the reader views your world, and it can be as warped or shadowed as you like. First person is the most personal of all points of view. One character, one voice, one focus.
But what does my character look like? In the thirty-odd-thousand words of my current WIP, I’ve mentioned very little about my character’s appearance. He sees it everyday, right? It’s not noteworthy to him. He’s got more to worry about.
Unless your character’s appearance is somehow crucial to the plot -- the serial killer only likes redheads (sorry, Miss Cole!) -- or if your character hangs around with the sort of people where looks matter (hello, high school cliques!), chances are he/she won't spend too much time detailing his/her own physical attributes in his/her mind.
Because readers still want to know what your character looks like, way too many POV characters gaze into mirrors and contemplate their own reflections. And holy crap, that is so annoying. For me, it’s an immediate turn off. It’s so contrived, and so blatant that I can feel my lip curling just thinking about it. Don't get me wrong: it can be done well. Just, usually, it isn't.
I’m not completely blameless. In my current WIP my character does actually catch his reflection at one point, but he doesn’t see the details. He sees this: a pale face with big, scared eyes and a bad haircut. A quick glimpse and it's back to the action.
A different option is to use another character to describe your POV character, but you can’t afford to be too blatant about it. In my WIP another character calls my POV character a “skinny white boy” but that’s it so far. I’m drawing it out. No info-dumps for me, because they don't belong in dialogue.
"Well, John, as you know it's a Tuesday, and I always collect my mail from the post office on a Tuesday. I have been in this habit since 1963, when, as you also know, I worked as a bank clerk next door to a post office. Ah, I see you have noticed my brown hair, grey eyes, and the dimple in my chin."
By far the best option for describing the physical characteristics of a POV character is to sneak it in:
Paul prefers blondes with hourglass figures, but you don’t always get what you want. In a perfect world he wouldn’t be coming home to a stocky brunette with freckles and frown lines. In a perfect world I wouldn’t be coming home to him either -- his jaw clicks when he chews his food and he has more hair on his back than on his head -- but I still said yes when he proposed.
Now, if I've done that right, you're thinking more about why I've agreed to marry a man I really don't like, instead of being smacked around the head by my description.
How do you slide a physical description of your First Person character into the narrative?