How to Avoid the Mirror in Character Descriptions

26 Apr
Kelli Jo Ford's story, "You Will Miss Me When I Burn," was published in Virginia Quarterly Review.

Kelli Jo Ford’s story, “You Will Miss Me When I Burn,” was published in Virginia Quarterly Review.

We’ve all written this type of character description: the character walks past a mirror, stops, and examines the face and person it reveals. It’s a simple strategy that allows the story to tell the reader, “Here is what this person looks like.” The problem is that it’s overused. People really do look in mirrors, of course, and sometimes it’s necessary in fiction. I’m not suggesting that mirrors should never appear in our writing. But they shouldn’t be used as a crutch. There are other ways to describe characters, and some of them can feel so active that we don’t even realize a description has occurred.

An excellent example of an active character description can be found in Kelli Jo Ford’s story, “You Will Miss Me When I Burn,” published in Virginia Quarterly Review, where you can read it now.

How the Story Works

The story is about a North Texas rancher whose home lies in the potential path of a wildfire. He has a fatalistic attitude toward this disaster and drives to his son’s house, not with the intention to try to save the place but to help his horse. Here is the beginning of the scene. Pay attention to how the characters are described:

At my boy, Pitch’s, house, I clamped my hat down on my head and intended on walking straight to the door but ended up going around his truck because that’s where the wind blew me. I banged on the front door once and pushed it open. “Fat Mare needs shoeing, Pitch,” I yelled, going on in. I knew him and that wife of his would be sleeping because they work the night shift at the factory down the road. I called for him again, and he came out of the bedroom, pulling a long-handle shirt over his head and stomping his foot down into his boot.

“You’ll break the back of your boot like that,” I said, but you can’t tell that boy nothing. I tossed him a sausage biscuit I brought, and he grabbed a Dr Pepper from the fridge, opened it up, and took three long swallows without coming up for air. With his head tilted back like that, I could see where my boy was losing the hair on his head, and I felt proud to have a full head of my own, proud I didn’t work indoors under fake lighting on another man’s schedule. But it got me antsy.

We learn a great deal about the narrator and his son, even though the passage mostly contains action rather than an extended statement of what the characters look like. Here’s how it works:

  • The narrator enters the scene with resistance to his arrival. The wind literally blows him off his path, but he keeps going. This doesn’t mean that you need a stiff wind blowing throughout every scene of your work, but it is useful to create some sort of friction. After all, would The Lord of the Rings still feel as tense if Boromir’s line was, “Yes, one simply walks into Mordor”?
  • The narrator has a plan. He wants his horse shoed, and this is why he doesn’t bother with niceties when he walks in the door. Because he knows what he wants, he can pursue it immediately and directly: “I banged on the front door once and pushed it open. “Fat Mare needs shoeing, Pitch,” I yelled, going on in.”
  • The narrator acts based on particular knowledge, which lets him predict certain aspects of the scene he’s entering: “I knew him and that wife of his would be sleeping.”
  • When the second character appears, there’s no dilly-dally, only his first relevant act: “he came out of the bedroom, pulling a long-handle shirt over his head and stomping his foot down into his boot.”
  • The narrator comments on this action, and his comments reveal two things: his son doesn’t know how to put on a boot, and the narrator does; the narrator is willing to call him out on it, but his son doesn’t care.
  • Some basic mechanics (eating, drinking) are handled quickly and efficiently, boiled down to a single detail that captures something essential about the characters’ personalities: “I tossed him a sausage biscuit I brought, and he grabbed a Dr Pepper from the fridge, opened it up, and took three long swallows without coming up for air.”
  • We’re finally given a physical description (the son is going bald), and it’s delivered in a kind of looking-in-the-mirror moment. What makes it work is how quickly the description gives way to something else: the narrator’s attitude about what he sees (“I felt proud to have a full head of my own”).
  • The passage ends with a bridge to the next thing: “it got me antsy.” This is important. All prose is, generally, about propelling the reader into the next sentence, paragraph, scene, and page. You want to avoid endings (even the end of a paragraph is an ending) that do not suggest something further.

The result is a descriptive passage that feels active and pushes the reader into wondering what will happen next.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s write an active descriptive passage, using “You Will Miss Me When I Burn” by Kelli Jo Ford as a model:

  1. Create resistance to your character’s entry to a scene. Ford uses wind (which is important given the fire that looms on the horizon), but you can use anything at your disposal: some physical object or piece of geography or the knowledge of what is to come, which might lead to dread or fear or worry.
  2. Give the character a plan. If you find yourself writing a scene where characters simply wander aimlessly, beware. It can be done, of course, but it’s risky to write scenes hoping something will happen. Let the character’s entry to the scene be the precipitating action. What does your character intend to accomplish?
  3. Give the character knowledge and the ability to predict the future. The character ought to know something about the scene she’s entering. In the absence of knowledge, create suspicion. After all, lack of knowledge never stopped anyone from guessing, even wildly inaccurately.
  4. Let the second character enter with a bang. Lead with an action that sums up that character, the sort of thing that might cause others to say, “Well, of course he did.”
  5. Let the first character comment on this action. It should bug the character, or the character should find fault with it—or appreciate it mightily. In short, make the action positive or negative, something that causes a reaction. Neutral is bad for narrative.
  6. Boil mechanics down to essential elements. If a character moves, speaks, eats, drinks, or does anything else, don’t try to capture the entire movement. Instead, choose one part of it that reveals something about the character. Imagine that the scene takes place in the dark—and then a camera flashes. What does the sudden light reveal?
  7. Transition quickly from description to attitude. If a character observes something, make the observation prompt a reaction, one with attitude (good or bad, it doesn’t matter). For bonus points, turn the observation inward. The best characters tend to be self-centered, and so everything they see prompts them to think about themselves.
  8. End on a positive or negative note. Tilt the deck so that the marbles you’ve placed on it roll one direction or another.

The goal is to convey basic information about characters in a way that seems active and compelling.

Good luck.

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2 Responses to “How to Avoid the Mirror in Character Descriptions”

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. An Interview with Kelli Jo Ford | Read to Write Stories - January 3, 2017

    […] To read an exercise on describing characters without relying on mirrors and Ford’s story, “You Will Miss Me When I Burn,” click here. […]

  2. 10 Exercises for Creating Characters | Read to Write Stories - January 3, 2017

    […] An excellent example of an active character description can be found in Kelli Jo Ford’s story, “You Will Miss Me When I Burn.” You can read an exercise based on it here. […]

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