The Dreaded Mirror: Finding New Ways to Describe Appearance (Cheryl Renée Herbsman)

How to convey appearance without going into long descriptions is something I think about a lot. I've had editors tell me I need to be sure the reader "sees" the character the first time he/she is introduced. When writing in the first person this can be especially tricky. As writers, we try to avoid the cliché of having our protagonists look at themselves in a mirror and describe what they see. What are other ways to communicate appearance?

I once heard Isabel Allende speak on this topic. She said she never just comes right out and describes her characters. If a character is short, she'll have someone ask that character to pick something up off the floor because she's closer to it or if the character is tall, someone will ask her to reach something off a high shelf.

Another method of description is to keep it active. Instead of saying a character's hair is long, I might say it whipped in the wind. Instead of saying his blue eyes were attractive, I might say I drowned in the blue of his eyes or the blue of his eyes drew me to him. And then the deeper level -- what is it about those blue eyes that draw or drown?

I'm always looking for new ways to make descriptions engaging and evocative. At times, as both a reader and a writer I find that description can slow the pace or take me out of the story. So for me it's ideal if the description can be a part of the action.

In my first drafts, appearance definitely gets slighted. It's not where my focus is. But as I read back through, I work to find what are the parts of the story that are in my head, but not on the page. That's when most of the descriptions are added in -- what the characters look and sound like, what the places look and feel like. I think different writers have different default senses. For some, the visual is primary and present from the start. For me, the first draft is more about the emotion the character is feeling. And the other five senses come into play later.

What works for you? How do you incorporate appearance in innovative ways?


  1. This is an area of my own writing that has grown and changed with experience. I'm starting to focus more on what makes a character unique and quirky--wanting to leave some of the normal visuals up to the reader.

  2. I love the idea of trying to make descriptions active...

  3. Ah, the dreaded first person, how do I describe the main character without a mirror. We've all been there.


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