This is a short extract taken from April 2021’s “Writers’ Lab” Masterclass. Every month award-winning author Keith Gray offers idiosyncratic advice and indispensable guidance on many different aspects of creative writing – perhaps how to build Suspense, maybe ideas for combining Words and Music in your stories or poems, and even why Literary Agent’s matter. The “Writers’ Lab” also includes imaginative writing tasks which challenge you to experiment with the way you write.
Keith’s full monthly “Writers’ Lab” is free to all Sunday Writers’ Club members – to download, collect and keep – building a Masterclass portfolio. Click here to discover what other benefits you’d gain if you became a member too: https://sundaywritersclub.com/about-membership/
HOW GOOD AM I LOOKING?
A note on 1st person POV narration
By Keith Gray
Here’s a tricky one to get right in a story. How does a 1st person POV narrator describe their own appearance?
It’s a question I’ve been asked on several occasions during workshops and my answer is always: ‘Not with a mirror.’
Unfortunately, self-staring description has become a cliché of unpublished fiction. The writer feels they need the reader to know what the narrator looks like, so shoves them in front of a mirror, only to have them rattle off a police photo-fit of boring details. And I guarantee that the majority editors roll their own blue/brown/green/red eyes at this moment in a manuscript. For one thing it’s utterly unrealistic. Do you see yourself in full, glorious detail when you step in front of a mirror? Honestly? Seriously? At most, you zoom in on your dodgy bits. But I bet you don’t think:
“I glance at myself out of the corner of my eye to notice I’m still 172 centimetres tall with short brunette hair, cat-like eyes, a straight nose and a quirky smile even on a Wednesday. And I hate my love-handles too.”
Even in our narcissistic age of selfies and daily changing profile pics, not many of us could truly describe our own face the way a stranger would see it. But we usually know enough about ourselves not to wander in front of too many well-lit, honest, filterless mirrors. (In fact, perhaps taking a selfie is more of a legitimate way to have someone study their own appearance these days…).
Still, there has to be more of a reason than self-description for the sake of description to have your protagonist stare at themselves for any length of time. It can all too easily come across as clumsy, pace-slackening and even feel like author intrusion (‘Now hear this, Reader!’). I believe the need to describe your narrator so implicitly may be a sign of timidity, or lack of belief, in your own writing skills. You’re desperate for the reader to get the full and detailed picture. You’re worried they might imagine something ‘wrong’. But the truth is, unless you include a photograph, every reader’s image of your narrator is bound to vary. And that’s fine. I’d rather my reader had a few fuzzy details which they could sharpen up for themselves rather than an overlong, story-stalling description.
If you feel you must, then only ever pick the details that are genuinely pertinent to the needs of the story. But be honest, do you have to describe your protagonist/narrator at all? Maybe their voice and their actions will give the reader a good enough image for their own clever imagination to do the work.
Perhaps you could have your character compare and contrast themselves with another character. Have them show a bit of vanity, envy or self-consciousness.
Maybe you could use a second character to tell your protagonist that mullet haircuts are no longer fashionable, that their new spectacles suit them, that their acne will clear up when they’re older.
Trust your talent and ability to bring your narrator alive for the reader without resorting to forced and heavy-handed descriptions of their appearance. After all, one of the first lessons we learn, is to never judge something by its cover, right?
Be inventive. Be imaginative. A narrator’s use of a mirror, unfortunately, is neither.
Sunday Writers' Club Team Member and Author
Keith is an author from the UK best known for his award-winning novels for children and teenagers. He’s published over 20 books which have been translated into a dozen languages and has edited 2 anthologies of short stories for Young Adult readers. His novel ‘Ostrich Boys’ was adapted for the stage and played to sell-out audiences in such far-flung places as Birmingham, Seoul and Mumbai. He’s traveled to book festivals all over the world promoting reading, writing and literature to teachers, teenagers, parents, librarians and anybody else who’d listen. You can find out more about Keith on the Sunday Writers’ Club “About” page here.