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?
It makes a real difference WHY a woman is looking in the mirror. If she is, as my villain is, an actress (2005’s terminology would have still been that, and not the more popular-today ‘actor’) who has decided her natural gifts entitle her to the adulation she attracts (and she works very hard at staying in shape). She fears having another child – the first being somewhat premature saved her figure. She is not about to be supplanted by 16 yo starlets. She watches for wrinkles – never frowns except for the camera. She is very self-confident about that body because it’s her livelihood. Your even way above-average woman is not in her rarefied class – America’s Sweetheart. And she’s approaching thirty…
In her pov:
She slid out of the negligee. Her body posed itself for her approval in the triple mirror, posture and attitude honed by coaching and practice, her right leg bent just so. Her instrument. Taut and muscled, just the right hint of firmness under a thin softening layer: in repose, female. She worked hard for the perfect effect. She’d seen women body builders in person, once, and they disgusted her: unnatural women’s heads on men’s bodies, their breasts either empty from total absence of body fat—or fake. She cradled her breasts like her best custom underwire bra. The nipples stiffened obediently, tightening the skin. Perfectly formed, perfectly proportioned B cups, heavy. The gift that convinced her God meant her to be on a pedestal. She remembered the terror of that pregnancy, when they swelled and all she could think of was sag, the relief when Nate was four weeks premature and she could get that idiot doctor to suppress the horrible dripping milk. Andrew would know to support them, gentle them, never press them out of shape…
PRIDE’S CHILDREN: PURGATORY
Wow, that’s an amazing description. Even without reading your description, I knew what kind of a person she was!
Her motto is, “Why NOT me?”
She works very hard to keep that shape, so she’s not expecting miracles, but is convinced she won the genetic lottery – and should make the most of it. Ditto for her performances.
Oh dear! Such a cliché. I was recently reading something about this. It pointed out that no one looks in the mirror and describes themselves to themselves. They might flick a bit of crumb stuck to their face, or brush a wayward hair back into place. Or, as one comment said, notice the mirror isn’t straight.
This post I read said never to use this technique.
And anyway, the woman is far more likely to notice the pimple just on the end of her nose, or that her hair colour is growing out and she needs to get her roots redone.
Actually, that’s not a bad idea! By adding a few well-placed adjectives, you can describe the woman’s features or hair.
I loved this, including the comments! When I was young I looked in the mirror to see how my dress looked on me; was the skirt too short? Then I would do my make-up and fix my hair. When I was pregnant I would look to see how big I was getting before doing my hair and make-up. Hem length was now above the knee and it didn’t seem to matter how far above.
As I aged and gained weight I quit using a full-length mirror so I would not see my body. I used the medicine cabinet mirror to do my hair and make-up. Now that I’m rather old, I no longer use make-up and only look in the mirror to brush my hair. I wear slacks so if I fall, my skirt won’t end up twisted around my waist.
I’m now 75 years old. I find it helpful that when I open my eyes I do not see my body but only the surrounding, which, at least at home, still has some lovely things I acquired when I did also like what I would see when I looked in the mirror. A master potter’s ceramics age well. Sewn in signatures rag paper books don’t do too bad, either. Cuneiform tablets might be the best….
It’s a strange feeling when the person in the mirror differs from the person in your mind. That happens to me on a daily basis. Every time, I find the dissonance… troubling.
Many thanks for sharing that, Connie! So a heroine could easily do any of these things.
What a fun post. I got the “a man wouldn’t think that way” comment by a beta reader once, not in a bathroom mirror scene, but that doesn’t even matter. It applies in almost any context. I never forgot that comment and knew from then on that I needed to be careful about writing from the POV of the male gender.
The replies you shared were hilarious as well as insightful.
I’m so glad you enjoyed it, Diana! I guess that’s why we need both men and women betas!
I tend not to, apart from a stray detail here and there early on – perhaps height in comparison to someone else. I leave it to the reader, but then I have to make sure I don’t put them out later by adding a detail that might not be what theiy’re imagining.
I rarely notice a person’s eye colour, so why should my reader want to know it?
Sometimes I don’t even specify a gender. Not because I have any flag to wave, but because i want the reader to identify with my character. (The story , Bunny, posted recently on my blog is a case in point. So is ‘Witch Way’, the title story of my self-published collection.)
That’s interesting, Cathy! It’s also why I try to avoid names in my books – to let the reader project themselves even more into my heroes. As for eye color, I guess it’d have to be pretty striking to be noticeable.
When I look in the mirror I don’t like what I see. I used to when I was 50. I am still very much in touch (metaphorically) with my dissertation sponsor from 30 years ago. At that time he was a very handsome man, prematurely bald with a shiny “cue ball” pate. If I was a lady, I’d have wanted to get him in bed. Today his mind is still sharp but he has 2 teeth and I gather that bald head looks kind of “squishy”, so it would be only for exceptional reasons that I would see him in his current flesh and then maybe we could commiserate together. I had another professor friend with whom I kept in touch by long distance each Sunday morning until he died. He was doing the same with his then 90+ year old mentor who was, among other things castrated from cancer. Enjoy firm flesh while you’ve got it!
I never thought of my 50s’ body as firm but I hear what you’re saying. Remember, though; this isn’t about us but about our heroines! Thankfully, time passes differently in novels 🙂
I have given up looking in mirrors, Nicholas… as this ugly old woman always get there first…
Lol – don’t even go there, Jaye! That’s why we’re talking about our heroines, not us 😀
Nickolas, this was a fun read, and a great questions. I came up with this…
She looked in the mirror and puckered her lips, wondering if she should wear outspoken red lipstick. She wasn’t sure if he would be a hot date or more temperate. Her eyes traced down to her scoop neck black top. Low enough to reveal the hint of cleavage. She liked the style, it was a high end Ellen Tracy. Her long hair, as is, would have to do. Natural waves went their own way. She primped and a light hairspray would keep them in place. Black pencil skirt and heels finished off the look. She smiled at herself. Mr. Right or Wrong was due in ten minutes. Enough time for her to shake-off the first date jitters.
Wow, awesome writing, Christine! And perfect for our example, as it fits the things a woman would be checking out before a hot date.
How about something like, “She hated her mom’s washed out blue eyes and fuzzy dishwater blonde hair. Why couldn’t she have her dad’s moody dark eyes and sleek black hair instead? She managed to blow up like a balloon every time she ate anything, just like him. Great. But even there he was luckier, because somehow blimps looked better brown than pasty. Mandy had no luck at all.”
I think it helps when you catch their attitude in the description as well as physical characteristics. And this example showed the young character’s parents at the same time – who will figure into the story of a kid or teen whether present or absent. So I think overall story elements govern how best to choose showing characters’ description.
I absolutely love this, Sheri! My one question after reading the comments in the Facebook thread is, would someone really think all that when checking themselves out in the mirror?