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.  

Jeune femme au Miroir, by Jean Raoux. 
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?


31 comments:

  1. Do u think u can come and explain that to my yr tens? Love ur work- as usual!

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  2. I will, Lara, if you can explain to Kath how to leave a comment on this blog. She's hopeless.

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  3. I agree that this is almost universally annoying. I've only seen one author's take on it that didn't bother me. In Nine Princes in Amber by Roger Zelazny, the main character finds an elaborate deck of Tarot cards each depicting a man or woman. One of them is him, the others are his brothers and sisters. It's interesting because at the time he's lost his memory and doesn't really know who he is so it's very odd for him to find his face there. He describes each of the pictures, but doesn't ever go into too much detail, just a few telling details for each one. Which may be the key. It seems like most authors who do the mirror thing want to spend an entire long paragraph describing every little thing about the character when I'm sitting there thinking "why should I even care yet?"

    I usually sprinkle little details throughout the narrative in key places. Though I also don't think that too much detail is necessary. A few important, telling details, and that's it.

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  4. Thanks, Sarah! I think the new look is working...

    Nine Princes in Amber sounds interesting. And I agree with your "why should I even care yet?". I'd much rather get to learn a character's personality first.

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  5. Yes, you've redecorated again. Nice.

    Also, the mirror thing is so annoying. I saw it in a book I was reading not long ago (actually it was a man catching his reflection in a window) and I think I groaned out loud. The book was so well written, but that did annoy me.

    I'm not one to care much about physical descriptions of characters. I have no trouble filling in the blanks with my imagination. All I really need is a trait or two and I'm good.

    I forget sometimes that other people do want a lot of description. It is difficult to give in first person, which is what my last two WIPs have been in. I generally handle it by having another character comment about the MC. So far I've avoided using the mirror for introducing my character. :)

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  6. Great examples. What I've done is pasted a photo of myself on the first page, 'cause I've based my heroic Viking narrator on myself. With my long beard and authentic horned helmet, my readers will know I'm the real thing and I won't have to explain how ruggedly handsome I am.

    But really, I just mention something about his hair. Sam Spade is never described, and neither is Scarlett O'Hara.

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  7. I think the main problem that I have with first-person characters describing themselves in mirrors is that they always have a tendency to describe themselves in excrutiating detail. How far apart their eyes are, the exact shape of their lips and their nose--I like the way you did it. Just a glance, just the basics, because I don't know anyone who sits in front of a mirror and explains the measurements of their own face to themselves.

    Also, this: "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."
    Made me laugh. XD

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  8. I think your example "Paul prefers blondes" is an amazing example of sleight of hand. It brings in the detail in a natural way under cover of a more important thought. Nice & sneaky!

    I don't write 1st person, but I do use close 3rd which is very similar as there's no external narrator to describe what the character can't see. I don't bother much with physical descriptions of my MC's, except where it matters. This sometimes annoys my critters, but I think - hey, that's what imagination's for.

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  9. I don't write first-person much. However, I don't really think a description of the character is necessary in first-person. I think the whole idea is to create an empty case that the reader can slide into (like a life condom--bad metaphor?) I dunno. Take Step Meyer's Bella...she's basically a pair of empty pants that anyone can slip on.

    The reason I don't write first-person is that it doesn't give me the control that I want on the world I create. I tend to think that first-person belongs in a more character-driven, emotionally driven story and not necessarily one where there are all kinds of complex things going on in the world.

    Can you imagine Tolkien's world told from first-person? There's just no way. There's too much going on and the reader would miss out on so much.

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  10. Noooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo!

    ...If I fail to update my blog, you know what happened to me.

    Before I am serially murdered, I just wanted to say this was a very good post and first person narratives should either be very clever or leave it to the reader to decide what the character looks like.

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  11. Jen, I loved the Amber series--the original books. When Zelazny got into the second generation, he lost me.

    Anyway, I agree that your example "Paul prefers blondes" is brilliant! Less is more.

    The mc in the novel that just came out is 80, which she flatly states in the first paragraph. She's referred to by another character as "a scrap" and "dried meat". When she has a sink bath in the next chapter, she mentions washing her gray hair and remarks on how much dust wrinkles can hold.

    No mirrors. lol

    Marian Allen
    Fantasies, mysteries, comedies, recipes

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  12. I love how you did it--too funny!
    I think I drop details along the way. My character critiques herself: "I was considered pretty by many. My best features were my auburn curls and emerald green eyes--the result of my father's Irish heritage. Given that I was not unfortunate looking, most boys were befuddled by my utter lack of feminine wiles. Which preserved me from a hasty marriage, and most likely, an early widowhood."

    Apparently some don't consider that enough--one of my readers said that he couldn't identify with her because he didn't know what she looked like. Typical guy! :-)

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  13. LG, I don't care much about physical descriptions either. That's why I'm often totally surprised when movies come out.

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  14. MC,

    Yes, I pictured you a Viking this whole time... Is your middle name Forkbeard? Because that would be awesome.

    I didn't realise that Scarlett O'Hara is never described. Firstly, I will always picture her like in the movie. Secondly, I suppose we know she's attractive (and a spoiled cow) because of the way that others react to her.

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  15. Hi Francesca! I completely agree with the too much detail. It's like they're sitting in front of their mirrors with a tape measure and callipers. Which would work if they were an amateur phrenologist, but not really anywhere else...and now I want to write a story about a self-diagnosing amateur phrenologist.

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  16. Thanks, Botanist. Yep, that's what the imagination's for!

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  17. Hi Michael! Life-condom? Lol! I like it! And absolutely there are places where first person doesn't work - sometimes you need the larger scope of third. I think that first person is great for immediacy and for really getting inside a character's head, but if you're telling a Big Story, you have to use a bigger canvas, for sure.

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  18. Miss Cole, I should have mentioned that you are of course the plucky heroine who outwits the serial killer! Obviously!

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  19. Hi Jen. New follower here. :D

    I write first person and I tend to leave out description of MC unless it's important to a scene a writing. If MC is tall and it just so happens that can help her in a scene, then yeah, I'll use, but otherwise, I like to let the reader create their own image.

    In Divergent by Veronica Roth, it opens with MC seeing and describing herself in a mirror. At first I couldn't believe it, but then came to understood the relevance it had to the plot. (I really liked that book, btw) But it did jar me at first, since generally it's such a big no-no.

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  20. Marian, I love those descriptors! "Dried meat" is brilliant.

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  21. Thanks, Caroline! See, I think you've been a bit sneaky with your description. While your character has been upfront about it, the point I'm getting from the paragraph is that your character has no feminine wiles, boys don't get her, and she doesn't want to get married yet anyway. So I'm already interested!

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  22. Hi CherylAnne, thanks for following!
    Confession time: I have Divergent on my shelf but I haven't started it yet.
    I also like to let a reader create their own image. I think a lot of this is because I'm a pantser at heart, and only have the basics figured out myself: age, sex, hair colour, and that's about it!

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  23. This made me laugh so hard! I do like a bit of description, but it is very difficult to do in first person without making the character seem narcissistic. It's just nice to know that writing is a challenge for all of us, sometimes! :)

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  24. Thanks Maggie! There is a very fine line between descriprion and narcissism!

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  25. I used first person but with 2 POVs. Each describes the other.

    Ugh! The mirror thing really irritates me. All the agent blogs say NOT to use it. Then comes this book that everyone gushes about called Divergent and what does she do? Yep, describes what she sees in the mirror, and within the first chapter, no less. Yet that book doing gangbusters. Go figure!

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  26. I'm another one who doesn't pay that much attention to how characters look when reading, though I really like your example... that would stick in my head much more than a mirror scene.

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  27. Using 2 different First Person POVs is a good idea, Nancy. I'm not sure I could do it though, and keep the voices distinct.

    Now I am really curious about Divergent - about time I started reading it, I think!

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  28. Thanks, Hektor. I know some readers really want to know what a character looks like. Truth is, apart from the basics I usually haven't got much of an idea myself.

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  29. LOL I, too, hate this device...but as a reader and writer, I also prefer complete minimalism in terms of physical descriptions. I've noticed that some people prefer more details--beta readers and CPs have asked for that in my work, and then I'm left wondering...how to do this without resorting to a mirror? It's hard! I often sneak it into other descriptions or action points--"my dark curls wormed their way out of my braid as I ran" or "I had my mother's thin face but not her patience." (Lame examples lol).

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  30. Hi Rowenna, I actually really like your second example, because you're leading towards conflict there. You're not patient, and something about to snap.

    I don't like giving too many details of physical descriptions, and I don't think it's *just* because I'm lazy. I think it's because the reader will imagine whatever they want anyway.

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