describing your main character

by James
(New York, New York )

Question: How do I properly describe my main character's physical appearance when I am telling the story from his/her point of view?

Answer: This is a common dilemma when writing in first person.

The reader's experience with first person narration is rather like sitting down over a drink with the main character and listening to him/her tell the story of his/her life. The reader becomes the main character's confidant.

In this scenario, the main character has little reason to rattle off his/her physical traits to the reader.

In fact, if I am telling you about my life in a one-on-one situation, it would be strange for me to start saying things like, "I am five feet eight inches tall with bluish eyes and brown hair, and I have scar over my left eye." You could see these things for yourself.

Let's remember that one of the main reasons for describing a character's appearance is to distinguish him/her from other characters so that the reader doesn't get the characters confused with each other. In first person narration, confusion is unlikely because it is clear to the reader that the main character is the narrator. The main character is the only one referred to as "I," so there is less need for the reader to learn about the main character's physical appearance.

Here are a few possibilities to consider...

1. Some authors provide very few details about the main character's appearance, and it's not a problem. If a trait is relevant to the story, so that it comes up naturally, that's fine. Otherwise, you may simply not worry about it. Some authors actually see this as an advantage in some genres, because they feel the reader gets to imagine themselves as the main character more easily.

2. Consider introducing traits at various points in the story when they become relevant rather than doing an infodump-style description in the beginning.

3. Look for situations where appearance matters and your main character's attention naturally goes to her traits. For example, your main character might visit a theme park and worry about meeting the height requirement for the roller coaster or being too fat to fit into the seat. She might need to audition for a TV commercial, intimidate an opponent, go on a first date or job interview, put on a disguise, etc.

4. Consider having other characters mention aspects of the main character's appearance. For instance, another character might point out that the main character is unusually tall, ask about his crooked nose, or mistake him for a homeless person.

5. Show traits in action. For instance, can your main character reach into a crevice no one else can (because of long fingers and thin wrists)? Does he take the time to shave his head once a week? Does he have trouble reading fine print without his glasses? Is he out of breathe after walking up half a flight of stairs? Can he hold his own in a bar fight or does he get mugged by a teenage girl?

5. The mirror cliche. Generally, you want to avoid the cliche of having the main character stand in front of a mirror and give a rundown of all her physical features. This would be too much like an infodump. However, there may be a context in which it would be appropriate to mention one trait in particular (for instance, if your heroine is getting ready for her daughter's wedding and makes an effort to hide her crow's feet).

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