Early in my writing career, I read a piece of advice that really stuck with me:
Avoid the cliché of describing your protagonist’s physical characteristics to the reader by way of the character standing in front of the mirror and reflecting on her appearance.
You know what I mean, right? We’ve all read passages like the following:
Amy caught sight of her reflection and paused for a moment, seeing the same old boring Amy. Same mousy brown hair with the pesky cowlick, same too-big brown eyes, same unremarkable features, save for the mouth she’d always been told was too wide for her face and the beauty mark just to the left of her lower lip …
I see this so often. Especially with newer writers or debut books. I don’t judge, because you know what? I did it in my first book. I had a mirror! I‘m sure I’ve slipped up and done some version of this in later books as well, and feel free to not point those out to me, because I don’t really want to know. 😉
Why do so many writers do this? Because it’s easy. The “mirror trick” does what you want it to do with relatively little effort on your part: it tells the reader what your character looks like.
So why avoid it, aside from the fact that it’s been done 9 billion times and thus doesn’t feel fresh?
Because, simply put, real people don’t do this.
Unless your character was previously blind, she already knows what she looks like. When was the last time you looked in the mirror and thought, “Well, let’s see, I’ve got blue eyes, and my nose is a little upturned, and I’ve got wavy strawberry blonde hair, which come to think of it, I’ve had sort of a love-hate relationship with ever since …”
No. You don’t do this. I don’t think.
That’s not to say you never look in the mirror and have thoughts about your appearance. But there’s a huge difference between glancing in the mirror and thinking, “Whoops, time to schedule a salon appointment,” vs ruminating on your thin lips, your sharp jawline, your wide nose, your hazel eyes, all at the same time.
In other words, you may note that you’ve got split ends or a zit, but you’re not likely to think, “my eyes are blue” while you’re at it.
And because real people don’t mentally checklist their own features every time they look in a mirror, when a character does, it’s got a distinct whiff of author intrusion. The mirror trick rarely reads authentically as your character having those thoughts, it reads as the writer short-cutting.
Now, listen, I like the occasional shortcut! They can actually be effective, if done with the character in mind. Consider a first-person narrator, in which a character breaks the literary equivalent of the fourth wall, and tells the reader directly what she looks like. Imagine coming across something like this in a novel:
So. A little about me. My name is Amy, we’ve covered that, already, right? So let’s create a mental picture, shall we? My hair? Brown. Not Kate Middleton brown, but like, chocolate milk brown if someone skimped on the chocolate. My eyes are brown too, though let’s be honest, if I wear my contacts too long, which I always do, my driver’s license should really just read bloodshot under eye color…
Better, right? It’s not a fit for every book, or every voice, and it’s still a bit cheat-y, but it’s also authentic, because the character knows exactly what she’s doing: she’s talking to you, the reader. (Also, bonus points because the tone tells us a little something about the character’s personality, but that’s extra credit).
Contrast that to my first example at the start of this post, where we’re being asked to believe that Amy is standing in front of a mirror, unaware of us as readers, ruminating on her own brown hair and eyes. Harder to buy, right?
But, what if we’re not writing in first person, and can’t (or don’t want to) break that fourth wall. When can we use the mirror as a device to convey a character’s physical attributes?
Whenever you want. You’re allowed to break (or create) whatever rule you want in your own writing, and blog posts like this one should be taken with a grain of salt, and should always take second-seat to author voice and style.
But I still maintain that there are some best practices if you want to use a mirror in your scene. Here are three questions I’d ask myself before doing so:
(1) Does whatever the character sees in the mirror move the plot forward?
If your heroine is usually a baggy jeans and flannel kind of gal, and at the start of the story she’s wearing a short leather miniskirt because she lost a bet, then, absolutely, have her look in the mirror and think, “hoo boy, that’s a lotta leg…” Then use that atypical show of skin as a catalyst for something to happen in the story.
(2) Does whatever the character sees in the mirror cause an emotional response from the character?
If your character’s dressed up like a clown because she’s been hired by her ex-boyfriend and his gorgeous wife to perform at the birthday party of their adorable four year old, then yeah, absolutely she might stare into the mirror, take note of her appearance and think, “whelp, this is rock bottom.” Or, maybe she loves being a clown! Maybe it’s her dream to make children laugh, and she’s reflecting on that.
Maybe it’s even simpler. Maybe your character’s just gotten a haircut and absolutely hates it because it makes her already broad chin look even broader. But the focus there shouldn’t be on the hair or the chin—it’s on the emotion; the way that haircut makes her feel. (and again, make sure she’s not also musing over eyes, nose, teeth, eyebrows, wrinkles, and moles all at the same time!) Why, class? 🙋♀️ Yup! Because real people don’t do that.
(3) Is your character unsure of what she’s about to see when she looks at her reflection?
We all know the color of our hair and are so familiar with our own features we barely notice them, because they don’t change over night. Usually. But what if something happens that makes us unsure of what we’ll see in our reflection?
Maybe your hair had an unfortunate encounter with a candle flame and a restaurant. You’re bound to seek out a mirror to assess the full damage. Or what if your gangly nephew’s elbow accidentally collided with your face at last night’s family get-together? You’re likely to look at your reflection the next morning, braced to see a black eye. By all means, have your character seek out a mirror and have thoughts about what she sees, just make sure they ring true to regular human reactions.
If you, or someone you know wouldn’t stare in the mirror at age thirty-two noting (apparently for the first time in your life) the way your eyes tilt upwards at the corners, or that your grandma was right, you do have a stubborn chin, and gosh, your eyes are a piercing blue, then don’t have your thirty-two protagonist do that either.
When in doubt…
Make your characters act like real people.