I loved to read first-person stories. That’s why I write stories in first-person. But that leads to the tricky problem of how to describe the main character (MC) in show don’t tell. Here’s one thing not to do:
Don’t Use a Mirror!
A lot of first-time writers make this mistake. I did when I tackled my first novel at eighteen. The technique I used was to have my MC stop by a mirror and remark on his looks.
This doesn’t work for several reasons. First, it’s been done to death. Second, it can feel bolted on to the story, as out of place in the narrative as sideview mirrors on a stroller. Third, it will slow or stall the narrative. For my readers to get a picture of my main character early in the story, I’d have to have her stop by the mirror just when I want them caught up in the action.
So forget the mirror.
Slip in the MC’s Description Naturally
In my YA mystery short story “A Rose from the Ashes”, the first scene is set in an abandoned children’s home, and my MC is alone. But I needed to give some clues to readers about who this person is. So in the second paragraph, I wrote “my long, dark gold braid catching on a loose nail in the sill.” Now readers know they are most likely dealing with a female.
After five hundred words, I switch scenes. My MC is working in a library and chatting with her boss. The first sentence is a line of dialogue “Is this yours, Rae?”. The female spelling of her first name confirms it’s a woman. Then I worked in a reference to her age and deposited a clue to the mystery at the same time.
Speaking to Rae: Barb glanced at [a smart phone]. “You were looking up the Ohio Revised Code?” Her eyebrows lifted above her bright red glasses. “When I was nineteen, the closest I got to reading the law was legal thrillers.”
I had to wait for the next scene to get in a more detailed description of Rae. I would have liked to put it in earlier, but it didn’t seem natural. In the next scene, Rae is chatting with Jason Carlisle, one of the men who might be her father. He is also a member of the library board and reminds Rae that she can bring a date to the staff Christmas party. Rae says she hasn’t been in town long enough to interest any guy. Jason says he’s surprised the guys haven’t found her. This gives Rae a chance to reflect on her looks.
“He was just being nice. At 5’11”, my height works against me when it comes to attracting guys. That and my face. My eyes are okay–dark chocolate brown with a slight tilt–but my face is too bony, all cheekbones and chin.
Now I’ve given readers enough information to imagine Rae.
How to Show Don’t Tell Ages of Characters
This is another tricky problem. Since my story is concerned with a nineteen-year-old looking for her father, I felt it was important to mention ages of people who might be her relatives. It helped readers see the characters and established relationships between characters. Here are two ways I showed and didn’t tell characters’ ages.
Slip it into dialogue
I used dialogue to reveal Rae’s age. In another scene, Rae is eating lunch with the sheriff, who is another candidate to be her father, and his family. His age comes out in a conversation with his mother. Discussing the time twenty years before when Rae’s mother was pregnant with her and disappeared from the county, the sheriff’s mother says to her son:
“At the time, all you thought about was going to college to play football. And everything else a senior has to deal with.”
Slip it into MC’s thoughts
When I introduced the characters of Jason Carlisle, I had Rae think:
“My gaze traveled up to the black sweater with a subtle swirling pattern and the million-watt smile of Jason Carlisle. That smile made him look a lot younger than thirty-seven.
But sometimes, you have to tell
If the age was important, and I couldn’t think of a better way to let readers know, I flat-out stated it. I dropped in the age and moved on.
“His six-year-old son was nowhere to be seen …”
“Mrs. M. swatted at the first-grader …”
These observations are still in the mind of my MC, so it might qualify as shown, but these aren’t as well-woven into the story as my other examples.
Okay, your turn. How do you show readers what your main character looks like? What’s a great example of how to describe characters in show don’t tell?
Wow, these are fantastic! It’s inspiring me to be more subtle in my character descriptions than I have been…
Nothing better than finding that bit of inspiration you’ve been hunting for. Thanks!