I came across a great thread on Facebook the other day and it got me thinking. A (male) writer was asking the following question:
I have a female character looking at herself in the mirror. First naked then in a white nightdress which shows her figure. She is a very attractive one and has an athletic body if this helps. My question is, what do you mainly look at when looking in the mirror?
Writers Are Funny
My favorite answer came from another man: “I often find scenes written by the opposite sex are worlds apart. Male authors tend to over-sexualize and female authors simply don’t have a clue what many men are thinking. My wife looks in the mirror and sees a hundred invisible faults; I look at the mirror and decide it needs straightening.”
My second-favorite answer came from a woman: “Have her pause for a moment and think to herself, “Some godawful male author would have cringey things to say about me right about now,” and then she laughs and goes on with her day.”
And my third-favorite one was, “Molly passed the mirror where she caught a glimpse of her firm luscious curves, now wet and glistening from dripping hair. She saw stars in her eyes. No… not stars at all. She wondered where those white spots on the mirror came from and if she had any windex to remove them later. She put the towel up to her hair and began rubbing her supple breasts to dry them when she remembered that she forgot to switch the laundry from the washer. She would have to run the load again. It was at this point that she saw it in the mirror, tan and hard, the cat had vomited in the corner. She would need to clean that up too. She remembered she needed to put lunch money in her kids’ book bags. She then thought about how bookbags are heavy and make for bad posture. She made a mental note to add a posture correcter to her Amazon cart. She smelled lovely from the shampoo but as she looked in the mirror she saw smoke coming from the kitchen and her nose filled with an acrid smell. “Oh sh**! My bagels! “ she screamed as she ran through the cat vomit.”
None of which actually answers the question, of course!
Show, Don’t Tell. But How?
The question generated some 300 comments before the OP turned off comments. Most were by women complaining about the silliness of his premise. And I agree with that, to be honest. A woman may check her makeup or dress to make sure it fits nicely but (in my experience as a married man of some 30 years) she won’t observe her slender hips, athletic body, silky hair, or hazel eyes! If anything, she’ll complain about the (usually imaginary) weight she’s put on, check for imperfections, and make sure there’s nothing stuck between her teeth. That sort of thing.
Most people who answered the actual question said the same thing: what women (or anyone else, for that matter) look at when looking in the mirror depends on the situation. If getting ready for a hot date, it makes sense that a woman may check out her figure. A teen may stress over a zit. And a man may grumble about his five-o-clock shadow and wonder if he needs to shave for the second time in a day.
However, the question raises a great point. We’re supposed to show, not tell. Most amateur writers (case in point above) will have them stare into the mirror and describe what they see there. But we have established how wildly unrealistic that is by now, haven’t we?
So, how do you describe your character in full detail without telling?