On Writing

Mirror Scenes

Mirror inspires tears

She can’t help but see the truth

Undeniable vision

I was stunned at how many times my hero looks in mirrors when I read my umpteenth draft. She isn’t vain or even that conscious of how she looks beyond wanting to be acceptably invisible so that she can get her work done. However, in scene after scene, I found her gazing into mirrors and reflective surfaces. Why was she so concerned about how she looked? Shouldn’t she be striving for goals and battling conflict?

The genre of a story determines the role that character appearance plays. In some genres, it is essential that the reader know exactly how every character looks, so reflective surfaces are hauled in as early as possible. Checking for anything caught between teeth, she notices her almond-shaped azure eyes, full lips, and irrepressible brown curls. Looking out a cafe window, a character is startled by his crew cut and rumpled suit. A struggling divorced woman looks into her car’s rearview mirror and smiles at new highlights, bronzer, subtle cosmetic surgery.

Other characters can deliver the reflection. The amateur detective spots a slight limp, haggard face, broken shoelace. A lusting lover can yearn after each and every detail of her pert, blonde beauty. The toddler can laugh at the bouncing clown and gabble how it looks to him. Horrified farmers describe the eight legs, sharp teeth, matted hair of the gray spiders attacking cows. Description is accomplished in the natural course of storytelling.

An artful description comes on the first page of Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore by Matthew Sullivan: “One of Lydia’s comrades, a balding guy named Ernest who walked like a Muppet but always looked sad, was standing by the front door, guiding the night’s final customers into Lower Downtown.” In the course of his novel, Sullivan provides additional physical details about Ernest (as well as Lydia and every other character), but only ground-setting ones essential to the story.

The view can go deeper — into how the character sees who they are. My hero is about to win everything that she’s chased since she was a scared, helpless little girl. Frantically shoving in hair clips to keep her updo from collapsing, she uses the mirror to guide shaking hands. She does a final check of secure hair and freshened make-up. Then she pauses and looks more deeply. Is this life the one that she wants to live?

My story’s mirror scenes are allowed as long as they move the narrative along, as long as they don’t keep my character trapped in her old story. Possibly, they can reflect and support her new story. Rather than deleting them, I may need some more mirror scenes or reflections from other characters. I’ll see what comes…


2 thoughts on “Mirror Scenes

  1. This is a great discussion on how to convey characters’ appearances. I tend to skate too quickly over appearance, finding it hard not to seem contrived, but the examples you give are wonderful. Thank you!


    1. You’re welcome — glad to be of help! I’m now taking a different view of my own character’s appearance, in how she sees herself at the beginning, others see her, and how she changes over the course of the story. Sounds good in theory; we’ll see what happens in the writing!


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