Saturday, 5 March 2011

The Mirror Trick

There’s an assumption, I think, that readers need to know what a character looks like in order to sympathise or connect with them.
They don’t.
We used to, back when we were kids. In fairy tales for example, where appearance was a marker for morality; we needed to know if the princess was a looker or the step-sister had a wart on her nose – after all, we were just little and it was our way of understanding who to root for and who to hate.
But now we’re grown ups, we recognise there isn’t a link. Beauty and the Beast taught us that. Who cares, we say, as long as they’re flawed and interesting.
Irritatingly though, plenty of writers still assume we’re desperate for an accurate picture. And this assumption leads to all manner of comic shenanigans as writers try and crowbar in descriptions of characters’ aspects, faces, clothes and demeanors where they just aren’t necessary.
Reflections of all types are usually the conveniently-engineered solution here. Shop windows work. Car windscreens. But there’s no need to push the creative boat out, people. Cut to the chase! The lousiest of all solutions is the character who simply looks in a mirror during an introspective moment and reports to us the reflection that they see, along the lines of “Amy studied herself in the mirror. A serious, heart-shaped visage met her gaze.”

It kills me. Why? Well, there’s two problems here. The first is that old show/tell chestnut. My first adjective above is qualitative, so I’m telling you what Amy is like rather than bothering showing you. And the mirror-trick description virtually always does this, whoever uses it.
Secondly, it’s worse when our seemingly impartial narrator clearly fancies the protagonist, or ascribes characteristics they think we will admire: “Amy studied herself in the mirror. Her dark eyes blazed, framed by a mane of wild red hair.” The problem with Amy’s blazing eyes – apart from my terrible writing – is that all I’ve done is given the impression of a shallow and self-centred catalogue model of a character whose eyes light up at the sight of... herself.  
Everyone in the world looks in a mirror self-consciously – but the mirror-trick doesn’t allow characters to do that. The result, for me, is to make each character who studies themselves in this way just that little less likeable. Stop staring at the damn mirror, I think, and do something.
There’s a number of guilty parties when it comes to the mirror-trick, but the winner has to be Dan Brown. In the opening chapters of The Da Vinci Code, Robert Langdon sits down in his hotel room and – you guessed it folks – studies himself in a mirror. The writer offers us this in his summary of the reflection. Langdon looks "like Harrison Ford in Harris tweed."
Brown must have been gutted when the director of the movie, clearly impressed by the quality of the characterisation in the novel, cast Tom Hanks in the lead role.


  1. Guilty m'lord. I have committed said offence. But I know better now, honest.Mind you if it gurantees a Dan Brown level of sales -I might re-offend...

    Very enjoyable and honest post.

    Keep 'em coming


  2. Thanks for your comment, Anne! I have to confess I'm guilty too. I remember describing in detail my protagonist's face reflected in a shiny metal sliding door.

    It was really naff.