How do you describe a POV Character?

Well, first she wakes up and gets out of bed. Then she stumbles to the bathroom mirror, where she proceeds to describe the exact appearance of her face down to the tiniest detail. And after the shower we get to describe her picking out what to wear for the day . . .

Seriously, don’t do that.

Several reasons why not:

1) Every element of that paragraph is overdone and hence cliched. Especially the mirror (in any context). Just in case no one has told you yet, under normal circumstances, cliches will brand you with fiction’s scarlet letter.

2) The place where you’re going to be most tempted to write something like that is the beginning of your book. And that is a boring way to begin your book. Your first goal is to hook the reader. While tempting it may be to begin your book just this way, spending paragraph after paragraph telling us everything we might possibly ever need to know about your characters is an anti-hook. And your second goal, introducing or setting up the initiating conflict, doesn’t require all that, either.

3) The odds are this has nothing to do with your plot. Characterization is a must and scenes showing character are good, but any scene that doesn’t advance your plot should be reexamined to see if it’s actually necessary. You can do a scene that only enhances one story element (the three basic elements of story being plot, character, and setting) but strong scenes enhance at least two elements, and ideally you want to hit all three.

Obviously, the exception is if you’re able to somehow overcome these obstacles and have such a powerful author/character voice you’re able to make it interesting. But most of us simply aren’t that good.

So how do you have a POV character describe herself?

First, if you’re writing from multiple view points, you don’t. If it suits your work, the best way is to write a scene where she’s  introduced to another character and describe her from the other person’s view point.  But it still works better even if you have to use a character who already knows her. They just need a good internal reason to note her appearance. There, ask yourself, “What is different about her today? What would stand out most to this person at this moment?” We do often pay attention to friends’  looks when we first say hello, especially if we haven’t seen them in a while. Just don’t take any more time to do it than you would in real life.

If you’re writing from a single point of view, you’re pretty much stuck with self-description, however. This isn’t a problem if your character happens to be incredibly vain or is otherwise overly focused on her looks. But if you don’t want her to come off that way, you have to be very careful.

A stand by is simply dropping in physical traits as she interacts with her environment. You can easily give her a nervous habit that involves doing something to her hair and in the course of her action mention the color and texture. Some editors won’t like it, but others prefer all description arise in the course of action like this. So take your pick who you want to please.

Do be careful with eyes. Mentioning eye color, even in the course of action, has the appearance of a POV jump even if you rationalize it by saying she knows her eye color even if she can’t see it. But eye color is a bit of a cliched description, anyway (though it is one of my own favorite cliches, I’ll admit.)

One thing to consider is the triad description method. Mentioning just three things about a person, or a room, will often be enough to paint the complete picture.

The bottom line? Think of reasons for her physical appearance to come up naturally, whether in dialogue, internal monologue, or self-scrutiny. And try to think of a reason that hasn’t already been done to death (i.e. a mirror.)

Admittedly, you can avoid the problem by using a more distant narrator, just be aware it’s still considered poor form to call time out for a full character sketch, that the method isn’t universally accepted, and that you risk your character being perceived as vain if your reader can’t think of any other reason she’d be describing herself.

One of the biggest issues to hit right is timing. Description should not be your first priority in chapter one, but it is a necessary scene element that should be there to some extent. We just don’t need the full picture right away.

Be aware your readers, although spoiled by television, do still possess imaginations and will fill in the blanks. Make this work to your advantage rather than disadvantage. How can that hurt you? Ever date someone through correspondence and meet in person only to discover the person you’ve been picturing as gorgeous  is short, fat, and has an ugly mole? That’s the same feeling your reader gets when you wait until half way through the book to describe your hero’s physical flaws.

So in describing your POV character, think about what physical traits are strictly necessary for the plot to work and put your focus on communicating those. You reader will fill in the rest. Thus, unless it really flows, you may find it best to wait until the second draft to work the description in.

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