Written by: Bryn Donovan
One of my more popular blog posts is my master list of physical descriptions. If you’re writing in third person with multiple points of view, it’s pretty easy to work descriptors in there.
However, if you’re working in first person, or third person from the point of view of only one character, giving your reader a mental picture of what the protagonist looks like can be tricky… and most readers want to be able to picture him or her in their mind.
My main advice is this: unless you can figure out a clever and natural way to set it up, don’t do a whole paragraph early on about your character’s looks.
Maybe Don’t Do This: The Mirror Scene.
Lots of books in first person have a scene near the beginning that goes kind of like this:
As I brushed my teeth at the sink that was a little too short for my six-three height, my reflection stared back at me—olive complexion, angular face, square jaw. My brown eyes still looked a little bleary, and my short black hair—already flecked with silver, at the age of thirty-five—was sticking up on top. I dug around for a razor and shaved, which made the cleft in my chin more obvious…
A scene like this isn’t terrible — I’ve seen it in a bunch of good books. It’s just a bit overdone.
And Maybe Don’t Do This: The Insecurity Litany.
Some books use a character’s self-criticism as a way to get into a physical description, kind of like this:
As I stood up and walked to the front of the boardroom to give her presentation, I regretted choosing the red dress—it only called attention to how plump I am. With my prominent nose, I have never been exactly pretty. At least I had long blond hair—my best feature—and I had curled it this morning so it spilled over my shoulders. I had taken extra care with my makeup, but my lipstick couldn’t do much for my narrow lips…
If read a passage like this, I think, Girl, you’re about to give a presentation, and you’re thinking about this? Get it together. Unless a preoccupation with her appearance is an important part of her personality, this approach doesn’t make a lot sense.
If you have a bunch of self-conscious detail in one place, it will probably intrude on the story. You’ll probably do fine as long as you remember:
You don’t have to give your readers a complete description all at once.
Over the first couple of chapters, you can provide a detail here and a detail there and let them gradually build a mental picture. Here are a few ways to do it!
Use incidental movements.
“I adjusted my glasses.”
“I pulled my brown hair back into a ponytail.”
“I plucked at the dress shirt, which was a little too tight across my broad shoulders.”
Show what they can do and what they can’t do.
If he’s short, he might look someone in the eye—but have to look up to do it.
If he’s tall, maybe another character asks him to get something off a high shelf for her.
If your main character is super strong and muscular, have her carry something huge without effort.
If he’s a big guy, he might have trouble squeezing into an airline seat.
Show how other people react to them…
“His appreciative gaze traveled along my ample curves.”
“Her eyes widened as she saw the scar on my cheek.”
And show how other people talk to them.
“You have your mother’s blue eyes.”
“’Can I help you with those bags, ma’am?’ he asked. I shook my head. Even though I was eighty-five and five-foot-nothing, I wasn’t nearly as frail as I looked.
“That green dress really sets off your red hair.”
Or have your character imagine what other people are thinking about their appearance.
“She probably hadn’t expected to have a fifty-year-old bald guy like me in her freshman composition class.”
“The guards would never notice me: a slim twenty-year-old woman in a regulation uniform, blending in with all the other space academy students heading home for winter break.”
Have your character respond to the weather.
“It was so hot that my pale freckled arms were beginning to burn.”
“Thanks to the humidity, my dark hair was bigger and frizzier than ever.”
Do you have other ideas for how to work in physical descriptions of your hero when you’re writing in their point of view? I’d love to hear about them! Happy writing!