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?
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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