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 go into things to try, let’s start with what not to do.
Avoid the Mirror
It seems like an easy answer to simply have your 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 you happen to start your book this way, it’s likely a kiss of death unless you've found a unique twist to it.
Avoid the “Let Me Introduce Myself”
Another common cliché is to have the character introduce themselves in some way and then say 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, you can do better.
Okay, now for the stuff you want to try.
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 in the new book:
He was handsome, if stern, with blue-black hair just as dark as mine.You can easily slip in a detail by noticing someone else.
Joke About it
You can also have your character remark on an attribute in a self-deprecating way that fits what they’re doing. I said Nya was short 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 things is another way, allowing the reader to figure things out without spelling it out. If your 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 that’s unique to them.
Let Others do it
You can always have someone else comment on your narrator’s looks. Call them Red, or Shorty, or Cueball or whatever. Say they wish they had curly hair or a pug nose or freckles. People comment on looks all the time.
Whatever you do, try to 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?