I’m writing a novel in the first-person perspective, and one of my critique partners just pointed out that they don’t know what my character looks like. Is character description important? If so, how do I describe a character from their own perspective without having them look in a mirror?
People used to believe that character description didn’t matter much to “experienced” writers. Orson Scott Card even says in his 2010 book Characters & Viewpoint that physical description is the last thing you should consider sharing when you’re writing. “If readers know a character’s actions, motives, past, reputation, relationships, habits, talents and tastes, they can often get through a whole story without ever knowing a character’s eye color, and they’ll still feel as if they know the person.” This idea still holds some weight in the writing world today, but with one big caveat.
Why Character Description is Important
Nowadays, due to a greater awareness of the need for diversity and representation in books, it has become more important to be specific about the physical traits of all your characters. When you consider who your readers are, you also have to consider how important it is for people to see themselves—or characters they identify with—on the page.
The book industry has, throughout its history, been dominated by white people (and for a large portion of that history by white men). What that means is that the dominant perspective in publishing has been white. As the publishing industry (and society as a whole) has become more self-aware, and hopefully more inclusive, movements like “We Need Diverse Books” and “Own Voices” have emerged to call attention to the need for more equal representation in book characters, and for less appropriation of diverse stories by those who can’t claim them directly.
The issue of characterization and unequal character description is not a new one. It’s been shown that the default assumption for characters who are not described in the text has been that they are white. Even as more diverse characters have appeared on the page, this has raised the issues of “othering” and “exoticism” for characters who are described, versus ones who are not described. In order to normalize diversity in writing, all your characters should have some sort of physical description to help characterize them and help your readers see themselves in the story more clearly.
Challenges of Perspective
But that raises the problem of how you can convey that physical description without coming off as utterly cliché (i.e. the “standing in front of the mirror” technique) or culturally insensitive (i.e. using food metaphors to describe ethnicities other than white). From a first-person perspective, this can seem even more challenging. First-person perspective means that we see everything through the eyes of the main character, as if we were that character looking out at the world around us. And unless seeing their reflection, your main character probably can’t see themself in such a way to notice descriptive features about themself.
Five Points to Remember About First-Person Character Description
Here are five helpful points to consider as you work through showing your characters and the diversity of your fictional world to your reader:
1) Exceptional details are worth mentioning
What makes your character stand out? Do they know about it? Is it something they would bring up in conversation with those around them, or that others would bring up to them? If it’s not exceptional, it’s really the last thing you need to squeeze in about the character. I don’t know about you, but I don’t usually have people sitting around talking to me about my eye color (hazel) or the size of my waist (Seriously though. Don’t ask).
2) What the rest of the world looks like is important
Sometimes a clever way to convey a character’s appearance is through observations they make about those around them. They may notice a character of the same height or build that they have, or with hair similarly styled. Perhaps they’re travelling and see someone who they identify with culturally or otherwise. Or maybe they notice how everyone around them looks completely different, and compare their own physical traits in that way. This may seem like a surface-level technique, but feeling as though one fits in or stands out is important characterization and world-building.
3) Character insecurities offer contrast
Sometimes a character’s appearance can be conveyed through their insecurity about how they look compared to others. The socially awkward teenager may believe that the head cheerleader’s physique is the perfection she strives for, and think about how far she is from achieving that “dream look”.
4) Info dumps don’t leave a lasting impression
Just as with other aspects of characterization and world-building, you want to avoid dumping all the details about your character in one lump for your readers. This is what makes “looking in the mirror” so cliché. In one fell swoop you take in all the character’s physical traits, so that may seem efficient. But they’re not important in the moment, and so the reader is less likely to retain those details for later. Sprinkle in the details throughout, remembering to SHOW not TELL, so that your reader has a reason to connect the details about the character with something else significant about the story world.
5) Avoid stereotypes as much as possible
Remember that the characteristics of one person do not apply to a whole culture or category of people. When writing about characters you do not have a shared culture and history with, it’s important to be as aware of your own biases as possible so that you can avoid perpetuating those on the page. This will require asking for outside perspectives, because none of us knows what we don’t know yet. As much as possible, ask others to critique your work and to be especially aware of any stereotypes or cliched descriptions.
The need for diverse perspectives and a clear understanding of who a character is and how they fit into their world are the two most important takeaways here. Describing a character’s physical traits is just one way of showing that to the reader. As they say, practice makes perfect, so keep working on those first-person character descriptions. Don’t be afraid to get it wrong a time or two before you get it right. That’s what your critique partners are for!
How to “Ask the Editor”
Send your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org. Limit yourself to a few paragraphs to introduce yourself and the problem at hand. “Brevity is the soul of wit,” after all. And keep an eye out for opportunities to send in longer submissions for critique.
Elisabeth Kauffman is a freelance editor in California. Her favorite genres are YA fantasy, sci-fi, and romance. She regularly obsesses over board games, Doctor Who, and Harry Potter. Come share your ideas with her on Facebook and Twitter and on the web at www.writingrefinery.com. Also, check out her author website and her author page on Facebook.