Friday, December 18

What Do I Look Like, a Protagonist? Describing Your First Person Narrator

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

This week's Refresher Friday takes another look at describing your first-person narrator.

First person has its own share of challenges, but one of the trickier ones is describing your narrator. You’re always looking out, never in, and it can be awkward to have your character talk about their own attributes.

Before I suggest things to try, let’s start with what not to do.

Avoid the Mirror 

It seems like an easy answer to simply have the character look in a mirror and describe what they see, but it’s been done so many times (and done badly) that agents cringe when they see it. If the novel happens to start this way, it’s likely a kiss of death unless there's a unique twist to it.

Avoid the “Let Me Introduce Myself” 

Another common cliché is having the character introduce themselves in some way and what they look like. “I’m your average gal, five foot four, brown hair, blue eyes” or “I’m nothing special, six foot, black cropped hair and brown almond eyes.”

Be Wary of the “Slip in the Detail” 

It’s not uncommon to see a detailed slipped in casually, but to me, it always feels awkward. “I brushed my long, blonde hair.” Who notices the length and color of their hair when they brush it? While it’s not a no-no, and folks do it all the time, strive for better.

Instead of the tired cliches, try one of these:

It’s Like That 

My favorite trick is comparison. People naturally look at other people and judge them in relation to themselves. I have my protagonist Nya show she has blond, curly hair this way:
She (the sister) pushed a blond braid of her Healer’s ponytail off her shoulder, jingling the tiny jade and gold beads woven through it. Her hair looked pretty all smooth and straight like that. I couldn’t afford the irons to flatten my curls.
I do the same thing here in another book:
He was handsome, if stern, with blue-black hair just as dark as mine.
We can easily slip in a detail by having a character notice someone else.

(Here's more on how much you need to describe your characters)

Joke About it 

We can also have the character remark on an attribute in a self-deprecating way that fits what they’re doing. I was able to sneak in Nya's height this way:
It gained me a few paces but he had the reach on my short legs.
People don’t mind pointing out their flaws (it’s weird, but we do it) as a way to deflect criticism. Characters can do it, too.

Take a Hint 

Hinting at details allow the reader to figure things out without us spelling it out. If the narrator is short, show them reaching for things just out of their range. Tall? Let them duck or bang their heads on things. If their hair is long, let them shove it out of their face or twist it back in a ponytail. Look for things that someone with that trait does or encounters.

(Here's a tip on getting to know your characters)

Let Others do it 

And of course, we can always have someone else comment on the narrator’s looks. Call them Red, or Shorty, or Cueball or say they wish they had curly hair or a pug nose or freckles. People comment on looks all the time, so it feels natural.

Whatever you do, make it flow smoothly with the narrative. If it sounds awkward or unnatural, cut it. Good description is seamless, especially if it’s about the person describing it.

How would you describe a first-person character? 

Looking for tips on planning and writing your novel? Check out my book Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a series of self-guided workshops that help you turn your idea into a novel. It's also a great guide for revisions! 

Janice Hardy is the founder of Fiction University, and the author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, where she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, (Picked as one of the 10 Books All Young Georgians Should Read, 2014) Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The first book in her Foundations of Fiction series, Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is out now.

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  1. I started writing my first first-person story not too long ago and this is a topic I struggle with.

    See, I'm a very visual person and I tend to draw my characters. Which means I end up with a lot of detail that I can never fit into the story even with a third-person narrator.

    So I decided that for this story, I would only define traits of my character which I could work into the description. Things with a funny metaphor, or an anecdote.

    For instance, my character's mentor asks her how her hair is doing, at which point she mentions that it used to be long and she held it back in a braid...until it caught on fire. Or that her mother says her eyes are the color of green tea, which she thinks is rubbish.

    Now, this means that I haven't decided what her hair color is yet, since I haven't found a place to put it in. Which is very silly, but really keeps my options open.

  2. I'm really guilty of the "Slip in the Detail" when describing 1st person narrators, but I'm going to fix it in revision. :)

    I like hints about the character's appearance and having other characters comment on it- they seem the most natural to me.

  3. I always get stumped. I love your suggestions. Thanks,

  4. Great reminders. I really get irritated (only since I've become a writer, though--I don't think readers care as much) about characters noticing details that they probably aren't thinking about. I go over this in my POV workshops. Deep 3rd is virtually the same as 1st, and it bugs me when characters put their long auburn curls into a ponytail.

    Terry's Place
    Romance with a Twist--of Mystery

  5. While the mirror is overused, I think it can work if the protag has a REALLY GOOD REASON to be staring at him/herself in the mirror. Or if the mirror-thing is done in a different, original way -- like if your character is an anorexic ballerina and there are mirrors everywhere. In that case, she'd be obsessed with her appearance, so it would be appropriate. Or, like Bella from Twilight, she could be excessively vain/have low self-esteem and criticize herself. In those cases, it shows character...I also read a book -- I forget the title -- where the protag looked in the mirror while her sisters were crowding into the bathroom with her. She was the only one who looked different...and later she found out that was because she had a different father. I guess what this long rambling comment is saying is that the description works best if it also serves another purpose, like revealing character or plot.

  6. I always struggle with character description. I used to be one of those writers who launched into full description as soon as a character was introduced. Thankfully I'm working away from that habit. This advice will definitely help, even for 3rd-person POV.

  7. This is so good, Janice!
    I think I am finally getting a handle on it. I have one character in my WIP getting hot and almost taking off his gloves, but remembers weird reactions from others the last time he went around with his hands 'on display'. So, despite the August heat, he smooths the leather gloves back over his hands. It helps hint at a later reveal...and also helps identify him in a crowd when the other POV character first meets him. "Gloves in August?"
    This character also has exceptionally long hair for a male. His friend comments that he should tidy himself up before they get to their destination. The character then voices his complaint about their tradition that compels him to have such long hair and how he feels like a girl. His friend then has an opening to mention how the women don't seem to think so. His hulking form seems to convince them he he's manly enough. It gives an interesting combination of traits but also IDs how he and others see him.

  8. Kathie, I like that idea. Like having a description bank you can draw from when you need it, I bet that would work for other kinds as well.

    Laura, those are great examples of the mirror trick working because they're not simply stare at a mirror and describe. They characterize and have solid reasons for being there.

    Amelia, those all sound good to me. Details that also pique interest.

  9. These are great, Janice. I knew to avoid the mirror, but I definitely wasn't as creative as your suggestions. I actually forget to describe my MC at all most of the time. Thanks for the help!

  10. I somtimes write first person, but mostly I use a third person so close it's been described as reading like first. I only describe what my characters see or think about, abd they rarely think about their own appearance. I don't think I described the hero of my last novel at all! I only mention a physical trait if it's something unusual, or it suddenly changes.

  11. Fantastic post, fantastic suggestions... Perfect, and it came just at the right time for me: finished my first MS a couple weeks ago and I'm now knee-deep in editing. I know EXACTLY where I'm going to use these :) Thank you!

  12. Most mirror descriptions are gack, but I like the one in the beginning of Exile's Honor. Alberich just got done with fighting bandits and was washing his face in a puddle and was judging himself, using his face as a representation of his personality. Introspection that revealed more about who he was than simply his looks. I have a long way before I could pull off something like that.

    I love the bits like names from others to describe the POV character. I started a WIP with that, because she tries to not think about her warped appearance, but her looks cause conflict for her. I also have a spot where she avoids looking into a mirror so she wouldn't have to see her yellow-toned complexion in it.

  13. Laura, if I didn't have to describe my characters I probably wouldn't. I'm just not a big description gal. But I know a lot of readers (and one of my crit partners) do want to know, so I try to get enough in there for them :) You don't have to describe them if you don't want to.

    Jaleh, great tip on the mirror trick. I like that.

  14. This is always a challenge to overcome, and I appreciate your comments and suggestions. I confess, I read a sample first chapter of a much-touted YA urban fantasy recently, and it began with the main character standing in front of a mirror, cataloguing her features. I closed the window and read no further.

    I find it interesting that we seem to be compelled to give detailed physical descriptions of our characters. Mark Twain never described Huck Finn, but we have a colorful portrait of the character in our minds anyway. I wanna be like Mark Twain when I grow up. It's not that I don't want to wriggle around the challenge of describing people; no, I just want to be able to create *such* characters that no one needs or cares to know what color their hair is... :D

  15. I'm guilty of the mirror trick in my novel, but it's when the character is changing clothes from being male to female, and so the character would look in a mirror and study his/her appearance to make sure the transition is convincing. ;)

  16. Like anything else, the mirror trick can work if done well and it fits the story. If there's a good reason, and it sounds like you have one, go for it.

  17. Janice, thank you so much for the insightful post. I just got comments from an online crit group on a first chapter, and most wanted a description of the narrator. One even asked me to put in the ol' mirror specifically.

    One of the things I was surprised about, though, is that a lot of people incorrectly assumed my narrator was male. Maybe I can try and make the gender of my narrator more apparent through some comparisons to other women. I'm writing a fantasy novel in which society is not stratified along gender lines, so I don't have easy outs like having her wear a dress or reflect on how men do different things than women do.

    It's trickier than I anticipated to get that out there in a fast-paced, action-ey beginning. The last thing I want to do is have my readers create a picture in their head of a man, then be shocked three chapters in when she thinks about motherhood or starts menstruating or something.

  18. Marcella, most welcome. I just did a Real Life Diagnostic (like a crit) where the author was worried about the gender, and they had some good hints to show she was a girl. You might gain some insights from that post. Here's the link:

    You're smart to worry, since that's something that can shock a reader out of the story. But you can make it clear with just a few words if they're the right words.

  19. I laughed at the "I pushed my long, blonde hair" comment. I've seen that done and it always tickles me. Another I dislike is when it's a male character describing the other person more like a female would. He's going to say brown, not honey-blonde. Great points.

  20. Suzanne, absolutely. That always makes me laugh too. "Turquoise chiffon? What man knows what either of those things are?"

  21. In my story, the main character is awoken by a scream, and as she is looking out of the window, I include something along the lines of, "I can see nothing {...} except a girl with green eyes and dark hair which framed her thin face" etc. Is this too cliche, or does it work?

  22. Lois, I'd lean more toward no, but more because if you're rudely awakened and scared, you're probably not noticing and reflecting on how you look. (Especially in first person) Commenting on your reflection in general is also considered cliche, though it can be done well in some cases. If her noticing her reflection does more than just tell the reader what she looks like, and it's in a spot where it fits the scene, then you could probably use it.

  23. Yes, I thought the same thing. I will definitely be working on it. Thank you for your feedback!

  24. I always wonder why people care so much what a character looks like. When I'm reading, I always assume the character looks like me. Since I'm imagining myself in the role of the main character. I'd appreciate it if the author would get out of the way of my imagination as the reader. Thanks!

  25. Claudia, that's a great observation. That might be one reason why I have to force myself to describe my characters. I'd rather the readers imagine them. It's so much more fun that way.

  26. Character description's a tricky thing. There are readers who like having it in, and those who prefer leaving it unsaid-- and I think the balance is that the ones who want it are more disappointed if they're "cheated" than the ones who don't hate to see it. So it's better to put it in if you can manage it.

    I think a lot of the trouble is putting colors on things. It's not *much* of a stretch for someone brushing her hair to think about its length or curliness complicating the brushing, but squeezing in that it's blonde is harder. Description about size and clothes are easier to match to practical things ("Of all the days to wear my good suit--"). The trickiness starts with the sense that readers just can't picture someone until they can color in their hair and eyes.

    1. So true. It varies by genre, too. Some places more specifics is expected, other genres don't care as much.

  27. Thank you for this article, a lot a great advice here! Definitely gonna use the comparison thing as it is a good and natural way to describe my main character, AND serves the plot as she is constantly told she looks just like her (missing) mother.
    I have a question though. When you write in the third person POV, is it wrong to shift to a distant POV when you want to describe your character? Does it really feel weird for the reader? I'm used to write that way, so I guess when you do something the wrong way for too long, you end up not seeing the problem at all (or so I've read in one of the articles one of your fellow authors wrote on this blog ^_^)

    1. To me it would, but tastes vary. I'm of the "stick to a consistent POV" opinion. If you've been close or tight all along and suddenly pull away, it'll stand out and feel weird, because readers are accustomed to everything being that established POV type. But if you've been distant the whole time, it'll feel normal, and when you need to get close, you can always tag it with a "she thought" or use italics to show deep internalization.

  28. Thank you for this great article! Setting up the story with intrigue and empathy is so important, something a lot of writers forget when they get swept up in the excitement of putting pen to paper. Here is an article I wrote called "Introducing a Character, Not a Bore" that I thought you might enjoy: