Dennis Coslett

I am a writer and novelist. Welcome to my blog and website. Here, you can learn what is going on in my life and in my writing career.

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Thursday, July 20, 2017

She caught sight of herself in a (suspiciously convenient) mirror . . .

Today, I want to write about what I consider one of the biggest cliches in fiction: the heroine (or possibly hero,but I'm going to use one pronoun for the sake of consistency) catches sight of herself in a mirror, revealing her white-blonde hair, delft-blue eyes, and large chest.


The average home does not have so many mirrors that the heroine should be accidentally seeing herself in one. She might have one in her bedroom, and almost certainly has one in her bathroom, but that should be it. Where are these mirrors she's catching sight of herself in?

And a place of business should have even fewer mirrors. Some bars have them, some stores, maybe locker rooms and public bathrooms. But, frankly, there just aren't that many opportunities to catch sight of yourself in a mirror as you go about your daily life, especially by accident, as the commonly used phrasing of this cliche suggests.

Yes, I get  it: the writer wants us to know what his heroine looks like, and knows that it is rather awkward to interrupt the action and just shoehorn a description in, especially in a first-person manuscript, where the heroine simply wouldn't talk about herself that way.

So, the writer falls back on the cliche of the heroine just catching sight of herself in a conveniently placed mirror.

Your heroine can stay away from mirrors. There are ways to deal with this issue of describing a character's looks without relying on the mirror cliche.

First, she can deliberately seek out the mirror, and spend some time primping and preening, admiring her eyes, hair, and figure. This works if you want to portray her as vain, even narcisisstic, about her looks, but might not otherwise.

Another way to describe her is by writing a plot-relevant scene in which the heroine describes herself to someone else. For example, suppose our heroine is a private investigator, who is trying to meet a witness so she can interview him and find out what he knows about her case. She might be trying to arrange to meet him at a bar or a restaurant. He wants to know who to look for. She could reply, "I'm five-seven. I have white-blonde hair, blue eyes, and, um, rather a curvy figure."

Another way to describe your heroine is to break her description up throughout the manuscript and make it related to the character's thoughts.

For example: She put on her favorite blouse and best suit, thinking as she did about how hard it was to find clothes that fit her big breasts and hour-glass hips without modification. She'd learned at an early age how to sew and tailor her clothes to make them fit her figure. She just wished she didn't have to do the same thing every time she bought a blouse.

Then, later in the book, you might write: She put a hat on. She had to wear a hat more or less everywhere she went. Her white-blonde hair could be a problem, as it was rather easily noticeable. Her blue eyes weren't such a problem, but her hair was so distinctive that she'd given thought to dying it dark brown no more than one occasion.

Another way to get the description into the story, one that  would work especially well in first-person, but is still good in third-person, would be to have another character describe your heroine.

For example, she meets a witness, who is a young man. He mgiht smile or leer and say, "Do all private detectives have such wonderful hair and eyes, and such beautiful boobs?"

Now, the heroine can tell the reader that she has blue eyes and white-blond hair and an ample chest without the information seeming to come from out of nowhere. This also has the advantage of helping to establish some of the character traits of the witness.

Or, you could simply not worry about describing your heroine. The reader will provide his own mental image of her as he goes, and might even be put out if your description does not agree with his.

One caveat is to not wait too long to describe your characters, especially the main characters. I once read more than 100 pages of a horror novel before learning that one of the main characters was a blonde. I had been imagining a brunette, and now, suddenly, I had to change my mental image of the character. If your heroine is blonde, whether my  white-blonde example or a more common strawberry blonde, or if she is a redhead, tell us sooner rather than later. Just don't do it in an unnatural way.

There you have it: ways to describe your character without having to rely on one of the biggest cliches there is.

11:36 am cdt          Comments

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About me: I have been writing since the early 1980s, ever since discovering a passion for writing during my senior year in High School. My completed writings include novels, short stories, and newspaper articles. I have completed four novels in that time, and have partially completed two others. I have had little success in finding an agent or a publisher for any of my novels, and have recently taken my efforts online. During the years that I have been writing, I have also served my country as a member of the United States Army's Judge Advocate General's Corps. In the last five years, I have been deployed to Army bases in Iraq, Kansas, and Virginia.

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