Dear Story Nurse,
I’m currently writing a story in first person POV and I’m finding it extremely difficult to describe my main character because of it. What are some strategies for getting across character description to the audience in a way that is not cliche?
This is a delicious technical question that I’m very happy to sink my teeth into. First-person POV can be a lot of fun but it also definitely presents some challenges, and one of those is conveying who’s speaking without a clunky or clichéd paragraph of self-description.
When you say “character description” I assume you mean appearance. One important thing to remember is that you need to leave room for your readers to collaborate with you on creating their mental images of the story. Regardless of whether you’re writing in first, second, third, or omniscient POV, too much description can make it hard for the reader to engage their imagination. So don’t give more than they need.
First-person POV can also be used to deliberately conceal information about a character, such as their race or gender. Some authors keep it up for the whole story; others throw in a “gotcha!” moment of revelation. I don’t generally recommend doing this. It’s rude to the reader, it deprives marginalized readers of explicit representation, and it suggests that there is such a thing as having a point of view that isn’t influenced by gender or race (one’s own or cultural notions of same), which in most settings there isn’t. In my experience the characters always end up sounding like white men because that’s what’s culturally considered the unmarked state, and they’re often bland and underdeveloped because many interests and hobbies are race-coded or gender-coded and might give the game away. Also, stories that do this tend to come across more as thought exercises than as works of entertainment. So unless that thought exercise is what you’re after, I think deliberately obscuring appearance and identity is not worth bothering with.
The halfway point, then, is providing information about the character’s physical form that’s relevant to the story, and doing it as it becomes relevant to the story, giving readers enough to grab onto but not so much that they’re overwhelmed.
Here are some questions to ask yourself as you consider what to include and how:
- What does the reader need to know about the POV character? Why do they need to know that?
- What makes the character’s approach to the current situation uniquely their own? How is their experience of the situation shaped by who they are and what they’ve lived through?
- If there are other people around, what is the character’s connection with those people? What are the power dynamics?
- What is the character feeling?
These may not seem relevant to appearance at first, but social, personal, and historical factors shape how conscious someone is of their appearance, and how they move physically through a situation. In first-person POV, an element only shows up in the narration if it’s something that matters to the narrator. So, in this situation, what aspects of the narrator’s appearance matter to them? Those are the aspects that you can convey in the narrative without it feeling forced or artificial.
Some examples of what this might look like:
- Height. “I finally spotted it on top of a bookcase, Diane’s favorite place to absentmindedly put things. I sighed and went to get the stepladder.”
- Weight. “If one more person who knew I’d just gone through chemo complimented me on my weight loss, I was going to punch a wall.”
- Body shape. “Sailor Moon cosplay was easy, but it took two binders, an undershirt, a shirt, and a jacket for me to look anything like Agent Smith.”
- Strength and muscularity. “After eight years of playing drums for a punk band, I was used to being the person my friends called when they needed help moving heavy furniture.”
- Hair. “I don’t usually talk to strangers, but her hair was the most perfect waterfall of curls and I had to ask where she got it done. I’d been a frizzy mess since my last stylist left town and it was really starting to depress me.”
- Eye shape and color. This almost never matters to a story unless there’s a family connection being made. It’s perfectly fine to omit it.
- Skin color. “‘It’s not an allergic reaction,’ I said, blowing my nose. ‘My face just goes all red-and-white blotchy when I cry. When I was a kid my parents had to warn my babysitters.'”
- Perceived race. “Maddy Jones got a lot more job interviews than Magdalena García Jones did, so that’s what I put on my résumé, with a silent apology to my mother’s spirit every time I filled out another application.”
- Perceived gender. “The waiter breezed over and beamed at us. ‘Hello, ladies! Care for a cocktail to start the evening?’ Jason grimaced. ‘We’re not ladies,’ he said.”
- Perceived age. “The clerk exclaimed that I didn’t look old enough to buy a senior ticket. I smiled politely, handed over my ID, and hoped he’d hurry up so I could get inside before the movie started.”
- Clothing. “If I’d known I was going to end the evening being chased by a werewolf, I wouldn’t have started it in three-inch heels.”
- Assistive devices. “The invitation said ‘formal’ so I pulled a black stocking over my prosthesis, hiding the sparkly pink unicorn stickers. Then I took it off, because you really can’t get more formal than a unicorn.”
- Body language. “The more he badgered me, the angrier I felt. I hid my hands behind my back so he couldn’t see me making fists.”
This is what focusing on story relevance looks like: a character being aware of their body and appearance insofar as it affects or is affected by what’s happening in the moment. Instead of having a completely gratuitous scene where a character looks in a mirror or describes every article of clothing they’re putting on, you’ll have smoothly integrated moments of other people interacting with the character as a physical being, and the character interacting with other people and with the world as a physical being.