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It’s so easy to fall into the cliche of having your protagonist look in a mirror and define themselves in pointless, vain, or downright moronic ways. Not only is this a lazy way to show the reader how they look, it’s something that’s not often plausible. Very few people look in the mirror for that long unless they’re a) doing their make-up, b) very, very vain, or c) self-conscious about something specific. Here’s a quick guide to breathing life into your characters appearance. I’m splitting this into male and female as there are two main issues that crop up most commonly within these gender representations, though they are not exclusive to the gender.
Female characters, and how it’s done wrong
Let’s be honest, here; when a female character describes herself as having full, pouty lips, a slim waist, and large “emerald/sapphire/ochre/grey” eyes it does three things.
One, we assume that the author places a huge amount of stock in her looks which does not bode well for her charactisation (generally, there are exceptions). Two, we learn absolutely NOTHING about her personality, except that she likes to look at herself. And three, our minds are filled with a generic “pretty girl” image.
Now don’t get me wrong; a female character that loves her body and looks is a great role-model for young women. But she needs to be realistic.
how to avoid this;
Try this; make your confident, attractive woman who appreciates her body, but give her a personality. Instead of rattling off the teen-flick cliche of,
“Jade studied her face; she had long, auburn hair and sparkling emerald eyes to match. She carefully applied gloss to her full, pouty lips and sighed, eyeing her slim waist. She needed to watch all the pizza she was eating, or she’d get fat.” – this is all something that a person may realistically think, but it says nothing about her personality and doesn’t give her an individual flavour.
“Jade sighed and pinched the skin of her slim waist; if she kept eating so much pizza, she’d run to fat. But there was just no time, exams were right around the corner, and she still had to finish that essay. She quickly applied lip-gloss; her lips were full and seemed to naturally pout, though they were a little too large and dominated her pale face. Just another reason why red lipstick was a no go- she wrinkled her nose and studied the greyish circles under her eyes; the richness their colour only made her look more tired. Still, even with bags like a christmas shopper, and the onset of fine laughter lines, Jade liked her green eyes: they had character, they complimented her hair, and they reminded her of her favourite aunt.”
What is being said here is much the same, but now Jade doesn’t feel like a cardboard cut-out. She’s real, and yes she maybe beautiful, she may know it too, but it’s a good thing because she has personality, and this makes her a representation of a real woman, not a college-girl stereotype.
This can be applied to male characters too.
Male characters and how it’s done wrong
Men suffer a dual issue in fiction; either they are described in exaggerated, unrealistic terms, and in monotonous detail, or we are told next to nothing about them. The usual fare for a hero talks about their “clean-cut jaw”, “broad shoulders” and/or “washboard abs”. Their eyes often receive the same treatment as their female counterparts.
Most commonly you’ll see the same issue with the “mirror-scene” (which I wont repeat here- you got the jist.), but they might also suffer from a thorough examination from a female character, who is obviously either being set up as a love interest, or obstacle.
You might see something like this;
“He was tall and broad with a sharp, clean-cut jaw which held a light stubble. Jade smiled at him, noting the intensity of his ochre eyes, and the dimples in his cheeks. He leaned nonchalantly against the bar and nodded to her, straightening his suit.” Once again this is a good looking man, but one without a personality. Interestingly enough there is less of a precedent for having male characters describe themselves in detail, and isn’t that something to really think about?
A male protagonist might also have his wardrobe described in detail, e.g;
“his well-tailored black suit clung tightly to his body, the moss green tie bringing out the colour of his eyes. The black dress shoes were understated, but undeniably stylish. Jade smiled appreciatively.”
The issue here being that the male character is being robbed of his personality, and the female is once again solely focused on appearance. If you add both of the first example excerpts together (as is so often the case) you get a harmful stereotype; the good looking, dull man, and the shallow, looks-centric pretty girl. Not a great way to go.
Avoid it by doing this;
You could try having the man describe himself briefly, e.g
“Adam knew women found him attractive; the curved scar on the left side of his jaw did little to disrupt the sharply defined line there, but he often felt as if he stood out too much. Height made everyone stare, made him the center-point in rooms that he just wanted to fade into. Comfort was a luxury in low supply these days; the suit restricted his every move, tugging on his shoulders as he tried to maneuver without jostling the people around him. Everything was so much hassle when you passed the six foot five mark.”
Or, if you want another character to introduce him, try to focus on the individual aspects of his appearance to give him character, e.g;
“Though he was good looking; tall, well formed, with deep brown skin that seemed to soak up all the light in the room, he seemed to be uncomfortable. Everyone was looking at him, certainly, but when a man of that height, who had such a wonderfully proportioned face, was in a the room, it was hard not to. Jade pursed her lips, noticing that he kept tugging at his well-tailored suit, as if trying to escape it. His sharp, defined jaw shifted as he sighed and clenched his teeth. Though his hazel eyes were intense, almost anxious, she found there was a kind humour to them when he caught her eye. She waved and smiled, noticing the slight onset of crows feet when he grinned back; his whole face changed, she realised, when he smiled. It made him seem so young.”
Remember; looking good is fine, and a character liking the way they look is great, but the main focus should be on who they are, not what they look like!