Saturday, May 13, 2006

The Mirror Crack'd From Side to Side

Let's blame Disney, shall we, instead of the Lady of Shalott?
Regardless of the many, many times writers are advised NOT to describe their characters by having them survey their visage in a mirror, mirror-on- the-wall, a window, or other reflecting surface, they still do it.
Miss Snark mentioned yet another yesterday.
Beginner's curse.
One, I'm happy - nay, hugging-self delighted - to say, I avoided.
Mirror descriptions have always made me hunt around for a nice rock of suitable size and weight, not only because the mirror image is an over-used cliche, a stinking cheap means of lump description, but also because it has always struck me as artificial as all get out.
Ooh, ooh, yes, people do look in mirrors. They do check themselves over. Many can't resist at least a glance at their reflection.
Guys may wonder in passing if they need a haircut or if their eyes are bloodshot or if they missed a spot that morning.
Women check for lipstick on their teeth, if their mascara is smudged, if they need more foundation, if their roots are showing, if their eyebrows need plucking, if they have food stains/lint/cat hair on their top, if one boob is hoised higher than the other, if those jeans make their butts look fat.
Practical things. Specific things.
But I seriously doubt that - in some excess of vanity - they stare into mirrors admiring their flowing/curly/gilt/russet locks or register their large/tilted/blue/green/violet/gunmetal eyes staring back at them. Or their cunning dimples. Or their square jaws and pointed chins and straight little noses.
They peer for wrinkles, for zits, for indications that in five years their nose will develope grandmother's droop.
Oh sure, there are some plot twists, like cosmetic surgery or amnesia ( ack) or a traumatic incident, that ensure the first thing a character will do is dive for a mirror. We bear with those because of their logic.
Usually though, the mirror description arises out an insecurity and uncertainty with the craft that I've mentioned before.
The beginner believes he must immediately provide the reader with the physical attributes of a main character or he will lose their interest - and he thinks this is a really neat way to do it. Ta-ta!
He does not realize that a delayed description may pique the reader's curiousity and create a form of suspense.
He is depending on appearance, not character, to hold their attention.
In addition, the beginner places an extraordinary burden on physical superficialities. That a nice straight nose will translate in the reader's mind to a nice character.
And he does not trust his own skill to dribble in bits of description to form an image in the reader's mind. He thinks in blocks.
So one expects to find the same technique applied to backstory, information dumped, and denouement.
Hey, I'm working on spreading out the information bits.


Erik Ivan James said...

In my novel, and I'm now a bunch of chapters into it, I haven't physically described my protag in any detail. Only in bits and pieces as may seem to be necessary to a particular scene, and then only in physical attributes, not specifics. I'm trying to write the thing so that the reader fills in the blanks with a description from their imagination. A few of the minor characters, I have described in some amount of detail, but most not. My goal is for the reader to place themselves into the story and become whichever charcter they want to play. They couldn't do that if I'd provided all of the character details.

Besides, the image in my mirror is kinda "non-panty-wetting".;)

Bernita said...

Sounds like you're doing it right, Erik, and avoiding what has become a major NO-NO.

Physical description is an expected convention in some genres, but, please, no mirrors.

Dennie McDonald said...

i'll be honest - I do NOT read description of people. From the moment I see the h/h name on the back, I already have a preconceived idea of what they look like so I don't want the author's description to through me. When I write - I try to keep it simple now so readers can project what they want - But I will admit I have used the good ol' mirror before...

Sela Carsen said...

Alas, I've committed that sin. My heroine glances in a mirror to see if she's somehow changed. The hero is staring at her like a starving man at an all-you-can-eat prime rib buffet and she wonders if maybe something has changed. But it hasn't, so she looks away. And I don't actually describe her down to the unblemished pores in that glance. It's more of a "Nope. Still ordinary." Then she's done.

I think my edits may come soon, so we'll see if that worked or if I need to change it.

Bernita said...

I think that is an example of how a mirror CAN be used legitimately, Sela - to check something.
Not the full monte description.
The complaint does not mean that mirrors are banished entirely and absolutely.

Wonder if that's common or not, Dennie. I do read the descriptions, want to see if they fit the image I create in my mind.

Dakota Knight said...

In my writing, I don't like to describe my characters fully. I spread it out and like Erik, I describe physical attributes, not specifics. However, one editor told me that I had to describe the characters looks specifically so "that the readers will know what they look like." I thought being "vague" allows readers to use their imagination to some extent. Reading your post is confirmation that I am going in the right direction.

Bernita said...

One thing I did, Dakota, after a few hints here and there,("nice ass") was have another character compare his first sighting with a photo and particulars, which gave general height, weight, hair color. Later ( in another chapter) he revises his first impression more specifically.
Don't think I ever gave a total description, with tickers such as "gamin", "heart-shaped,"etc., etc.
I don't care for "block" descriptions of characters and try to avoid it.

Mark Pettus said...

I wonder if Oscar Wilde was poking fun at this very rule when he started The Picture of Dorian Gray?

Bernita said...

It wasn't "a rule" then, Mark.
It's only the tiresome repetition of the scene in the last few decades that has agents/editors shuddering.

Rick said...

I'm a bad boy, because I have a mirror scene early on in Catherine of Lyonesse. Sosumi. :)

Bernita said...

There are exceptions, Rick, as noted.
Dan Brown managed one, I hear.
But considering the undisguised comtempt heaped upon this device by agents/editors, it's caveat emptor.

Flood said...

So, as a new, aspiring writer what are my options? Leave Protag's looks to the imagination of the readers, or fill in the blanks with a new convention?

Because I am fearful of the mirror exposition, I avoid it altogether unless a certain feature is essential to the plot. (ie, "Her hair, the colour of sunset, blazed at me while I tried to brush it away from the oscillating fan.")

Bonnie Calhoun said...

"Mirror, mirror on the wall, whose the fair...never mind...LOL"

I got yelled at about too much description, so now I have very little!

December Quinn said...

I'm another one who doesn't do a lot of character description. A little about hair and eye color, general height and build, is as far as I go, and I use plain words-blue or brown eyes, not sapphire. (Although later the hero might think of them that way, but that's his perogative.)

I think a big part of this is someone, somewhere, gave out some really Bad Advice about this-something along the lines of, "You can't describe your characters, they have to describe themselves. You can't see what they don't see. So if you want to describe them, they have to be looking in a mirror, or at a picture of themselves." I swear I read this somewhere. And if I read it, I'm sure other people did.

Bernita said...

Ack, December, I wouldn't be surprised.
An alternative tossed off, fundamentally misunderstood, and slavishly adhered to.
I suspect the the critic meant that a character tossing back her hair is not going to consciously note that it is blonde/black/brown or red, or naturally curly, and then gave examples where a character MIGHT register its color.
Result: seven years bad luck.

Depends on where and when, Bonnie. All description is not bad.

Flood, that's a good guide, sure your heroine is not TSTL.

kmfrontain said...

This is another balancing act in writing. Too much, or too little. I prefer knowing some of the details, like what sort of nose they have, and lips, and eye color, shape of face. I usually let another character look the person over on first introductions and come to some sort of conclusion. In my real life experience, I've always liked a person, in the physical sense, for a detail, or details, that stand out. In my husband's case, his nose. It has a fine arch, which I love. He does not have your typical straight nose. I've gone on to reflect this way of thinking in my stories, focusing on a detail that makes that character stand out from the others.

What I really hate is not so much reading a beginning cursory introduction of a character through another character's eyes (one of the only valid ways, imo, to tell what a character looks like) is that much of the cover art for erotica has a character's/characters' images. I don't like that. I prefer to see a backside view, or with head turned, and have a piece of story scenery, or some stylized image that shows key details of a story, rather than seeing someone's rendition of an author's character summary. A quick summary can lead to any variation of an ideal in a reader's mind, but a picture can ruin the ideal.

Bernita said...

And there are those scratch-your-head covers where the h/h is dark haired - but blonde in the book!
And that's very true, KM, often a detail, a walk, a gesture, a trick with the eyes, a voice,shape of the head, that endears and engages and becomes the icon for the character.

kmfrontain said...

Yeah, that's it. Iconisation. Thanks, Bernita. Couldn't have said it more succinctly.

Bernita said...

Your thinking/analysis illustrates why your writing has depth beyond its genre.

Glenda Larke said...

I am now of the "little description is needed" group, especially where I want a character to be good looking.

Most readers have their own idea of what handsome/pretty is, and if you preempt this by describing your heroine as a gorgeous and beautiful etc, and then go on to say she is a blue-eyed blonde, and your reader is someone who prefers black-eyed brunettes, then you have shot yourself in the foot.

If the plot requires a blue-eyed blonde, then call her that. Otherwise say she is stunning and leave it at that. The reader supplies the details and usually ends up convinced that you told him somewhere along the line that she was a black-eyed beauty!

A good way to give an idea of the appearance of a character is to have the other characters talk about it. "Ah, you mean that muscular fellow who looks like Conan the Barbarian?" Much, much better than have then staring at their reflection in a moonlit pool...

Bernita said...

Oh yes!
Thank you, Ms. Larke.
Another reason why to avoid the strict catelogue of "her shoulder-length,fine, blunt-cut, naturally wavy, strawberry blonde hair framed a..."
Your last paragraph sums up the better alternative beautifully.

H.S. Kinn said...

LOL, the mirror can be used in a realistic manner, occasionally, and sparingly.

I glanced at my reflection humorlessly. The dress Lady Ellynore chose for me was tight in the bust, and bared a bit more cleavage than a lady ought to. But then, I wasn’t a lady, I was a maid; no one was going to look at my bosom, or the tendrils of unruly brown hair already working its way out of my bun, or the freckles that dotted my nose.

Bernita said...

Thank you, HS, a good example of a mirror used the right way.

H.S. Kinn said...

Thanks, Bernita! :D I do think the danger of using mirrors is two-fold: It's doing the infamous "info dump," or ogling your character(s) to the point of Mary Sue (or Gary Stu)-dom. Unless of course, you're doing parody, in which case, that could be fun.

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