Well, it’s bit a bit since I’ve posted. I suppose one of the downsides to the whole sleep-work-write-sleep thing is a dearth of interesting things to ramble on about. Due to a recent encounter with it, I figured I’d talk a bit about a writing habit some people refer to as “the mirror trope.”
What is the mirror trope? Basically, it’s a cliché shortcut where an author gives the description of a character to the reader by having them look in a mirror (or similar reflective surface) and describe themselves. If the story is written in first person narration, this often seems forced – especially if the tone of the description carries hints of sex appeal or adoration. When a character’s description of their own body happens in a mode of phrasing that sounds more like someone else who finds them attractive is talking, it gets a little creepy (or becomes glaringly obvious that the description is for the reader’s benefit.)
With the possible exception of a vain or narcissistic character, people don’t rush to a mirror as soon as their day starts and admire how beautiful their eyes are, or how their hair is stunning, talk about their awesome curves, or otherwise spend that much time ruminating about their appearance. The mirror trope falls somewhere between making the character come off as self-absorbed and being an obvious “hey, reader, this is what my character looks like” message from the author.
Another (less obvious) example of the mirror trope is when a character refers to their appearance in strange ways. For example, in first-person narration:
I pull my long, luxurious ebon hair off my shoulders and lean forward, thrusting my perfect round breasts against my sweater.
I stepped out of the van and clenched my statuesque jaw, darkened by three days without shaving. They couldn’t see my steel-blue eyes behind the mirrored sunglasses, but look on the three morons’ faces as they regarded my towering height and bulging muscles was priceless. Wish I had a camera.
In both of these quick examples, the first-person narrator speaks as though they are in adoration of themselves. Granted, if a female character is vain, they might think of their own breasts as perfect or their hair as “luxurious.” If a male character is overly proud of their appearance, they might call themselves statuesque or talk about their own eye color – but in both cases it makes the characters seem narcissistic and a touch cartoony. When I read something like that, it feels like the author is passing on their opinion of what the protagonist looks like by shoe-horning it into the character’s thoughts.
A Better Way
So what’s an author to do? Some writers offer nothing in the way of description, allowing the reader to fill in whatever appearance they want. For me, I try to convey a sense of what the character looks like by spreading the descriptive elements out and working them in a bit at a time. (This also avoids another bad habit of weak writing I’ve come to know as “index card” descriptions – which is where a new character coming “on screen” causes the narrative to stop so a full paragraph of description of what the character looks like can pop up like an index card, after which the story resumes. (Pardon the tangent of a tangent here, but another thing about “index card” descriptions that is weak is describing another character’s height exactly. E.g. “Bill walked in. He stood 6’3”, and weighed 322 pounds.” Unless the narrating character has cybernetics capable of performing a visual measurement of a person, giving exact height and weight feels ‘canned’ and a little silly. Of course if the two characters were close (like on the same sports team or military squad and they’d know this, a line like: “Bill walked in, all six-foot four hundred some odd pounds of him” sounds less obnoxious than giving exact numbers for height and weight.
Rationing it Out
In my opinion, the best way to convey a character’s appearance to the reader is to portion it out a bit at a time, and do it in subtle ways. For example, convey a sense of the character’s height by having them “look up” or “look down” at other characters. Instead of calling your main short, you could have them climb up on the kitchen counter to reach a cabinet. Rather than tell the reader the character is baby-faced, have other characters mistake them for a teenager. If they’re extra-thin, portray that by having them shimmy through a tight spot or fit somewhere a “normal” person couldn’t. If they’re heavy or huge, describe their difficulties with an environment made for smaller people.
Bear in mind that the more obvious a physical trait is, the sooner it should be provided to the reader. Don’t let them spend 250 pages thinking the main character is a feline-catgirl-alien with a furry tail only to learn on page 251 that she’s actually reptilian with scales.
The urge to skip over large swaths of description is common to many readers. This gets more jarring with the “index card” method, and after a few characters come into the story, that standing wall of text-description may wind up getting skipped right over. Focus on the most obvious aspects of the appearance. What hits the eye / ear / nose first? (And don’t forget the sense of smell – a character’s clothing can be saturated with the scent of incense, pipe smoke, cologne/perfume, etc.) Give the reader a few tidbits to establish a mental image, then add little (more subtle) things bit by bit as the story progresses.
In short, avoid awkward ‘forced’ description that doesn’t ring true to a character’s voice. The mirror trope is a cliché best avoided (unless you’re doing it on purpose for parody.) Note that I’m not saying a mirror should never be used – but if there is a mirror, have the character use it like a normal person. Or for a cinematic feel, the character can stare through their reflection on a window at the outside world (but don’t use it as a means to describe them.)
And just for fun: