Character descriptions weren’t my forte for a long time. At one point, I even had to put a sticky note on the corner of my laptop, reminding me to describe new characters or settings the moment they were introduced. And perhaps the hardest of all descriptions is the main character. Most realistic people don’t go around thinking about how they look, which leaves only a few options for describing them. Below, I’ve outlined four possible ways to do it:
- The mirror (AKA, the cliché way). The main character stops in front of a mirror, takes a quick moment to assess how they look, and moves on. The danger with this is that it’s really easy to make a character seem narcissistic; after all, why are they checking themselves out for no reason? One trick I like to use is putting something out of place, like hair that’s not behaving. Then, the character’s attention to him/herself is only a passing side benefit of looking in the mirror, and not the reason for it.
- The hard description (AKA, the obvious way). The main character is described by the narrator, without any gimmicks. This works alright at the very beginning of a novel, but if it forces a pause in the narrative it becomes jarring.
- Compare and contrast (AKA, the sneaky way). Simply mention qualities of another character, and then explain how they compare to your main character. This style of description takes a long time to finish, unless you have your main character run into another major character (preferably of the same gender, since it would seem stupid for a girl to be interested by the fact that she had longer hair than a boy).
- The insult (AKA, the mean way). Someone says something mean about the main character, forcing them to pause and reflect on their appearance (ie: ‘I did have red hair and a slightly swollen nose, but I certainly did not look like a pig.’).
The general rule is this: if something happens within the narrative that provides a logical point for the narrator to pause and describe the main character, it will work well. However, if the narrator pauses without a logical stopping point, they can pull readers out of the story. Since descriptions of the main character always are (or should always be) one of the first orders of business within a novel, this can be especially disastrous (a reader just starting out is less forgiving, since they don’t have anything invested in the story).
Before I close out this post, I’d like to mention one other thing. Certain methods work well for certain points of view, and terribly for others (one example would be attempting a hard description in first person). As with most other writing judgment calls, the best bet is to let your inner reader decide.
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