Describing a Character's Appearance

Question: I've often been told that the most cliché way to describe a character's appearance is opening the story with him or her looking into a mirror and commenting on what they look like.

While I agree with this piece of advice, I'm also at a loss of another way to get a person's appearance out of the way that doesn't seem too jarring or random.

For example, if I go through the beginning of the story without addressing my POV character's looks and then another character who is looking for him/her later on asks, "Say, have you seen a woman/man with short brown hair?" Wouldn't that seem too sudden?

I understand that there must be a character establishing moment fairly early on but is there also a way to establish a character's appearance without breaking up the narrative?

Answer: You're absolutely right about the mirror cliche. The worst cases are those in which a male writer has a female character look in the mirror and describe herself in the way only a male would. so the scene becomes voyeuristic.

My best advice is not to worry too much about getting your character described early in the book. It's not actually a requirement. Keeping the narration real is more important.

In some first person novels, the main character's appearance is scarcely mentioned in the entire book. It's actually not a problem, since the reader isn't likely to confuse this character with anyone else.

If you're using third person, it's a little easier to find places to insert character details and more important, since your narrator needs to use them to distinguish between characters.

Either way, when the main character's appearance is important to the story, you must look for opportunities to describe it in a natural, in-context way.

Sometimes a character may have reason to think about her appearance, for instance if she is self-conscious or vain - or is being made self-conscious by another character.

Sometimes you can create an incident in which there's a reason to mention a key detail about the main character's appearance.

And sometimes it makes sense to have other characters say things to or about the main character that imply aspects of the main character's appearance. Some examples:

"I like your tattoo."
"Can you get that vase from the top shelf? It's out of my reach."
"Were you on holiday recently?"

For instance, there's a scene in one of Kelly Armstrong's YA books where a teenage boy gives a sweatshirt to the main character - a teenage girl. She looks at it and, disappointed, points out that it's a boy's sweatshirt. The boy then says that he didn't think it would matter on her. She is mortified, of course.

It's a brilliant way to work in the fact that the girl is flat-chested, because it brings out her insecurity and advances the relationship between the two characters.

Fortunately, you may only need a few distinguishing details about a character to set him/her apart. And because they are the most noticeable details, it is easier to find natural ways to introduce them.

What's really hard is if your character has something like a birthmark which no one ever sees and the character never thinks about, but which becomes important at some point in the story. In that case, you may be forced to be a little creative about working it into the story early on.

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