1. hootertooter
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    hootertooter New Member

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    Just how universally despised is the mirror trick?

    Discussion in 'General Writing' started by hootertooter, Jan 21, 2012.

    (What I mean by "the mirror trick" is when you have the POV character look in a mirror and physically describe him/herself.)

    In short, I used it in the novel I'm writing then was told by someone that the mirror trick is totally cliche. However, in the past, I've encountered two people (neither of which is the aforementioned "someone") who adamantly insisted that nothing familiar could ever be well-written. Anyways, that's why I'm asking how hated the mirror trick is. I need to know whether the aforementioned "someone" is being melodramatic/close-minded or the mirror trick is truly reviled by all.

    Thank you.
     
  2. Morgan
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    Morgan Member

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    It's simple and it works. I don't have a problem with it myself.

    I have read books in which the author mentions hair color in chapter one, height in chapter two, etc. until you finally have a picture after several chapters. I find this annoying because I have to revise my mental picture over and over. I'd rather have someone look in the mirror in chapter one, giving the full picture, or not describe the character at all.
     
  3. Holo
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    Holo Senior Member

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    Well it depends on which point of view you are using. The mirror trick in which a protagonist basically describes their physical appearance it kind of overused. If you use the third person, you could give details such as saying "she brushed her frizzy brown hair" or "her bright brown eyes took in the scenery" (of course better written but you get what I mean). Basically, don't give all of the descriptions at once in a mirror scene or any scene for that matter.
     
  4. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    It's pretty obvious, and would probably cause a little eye-rolling in me as a reader.

    If you are going to use something like that, I think that at the very least you need an extra-good reason for them to be looking in the mirror. The average person doesn't look in the mirror several times a day in order to mentally run through their personal description; they're looking to see if their hair is a mess or their tie is straight.

    They might, occasionally, go so far as to think, "Hey, I look extra professional today," or "Hey, the acne's clearing up." But they're not seeing themselves for the first time, so having them think about the fact that they have curly brown hair or pale skin or a thin mouth or a square jaw doesn't make sense. If you give in to the temptation to do so, you'll make them sound either really neurotic or really narcissistic.

    I'm trying to come up with a sufficient reason in the following:

    Time to call the cab; Mom was probably already there, half an hour early. Time to call the cab. Time to... Stalling, Jane stopped at the hall mirror to grimace at her carefully-groomed reflection. It wasn't going to be good enough--she could hear Mom now: "It's important for blonds to stay trimmed and well conditioned, dear; why do you insist on that haystack of hair? And your face is so pale that it all just _blends_. And, dear, I think that your mouth is a little large for such a _vibrant_ lipstick." At least she couldn't complain about the suit - It was classic Chanel, and it fit in all the right places. Jane rotated in front of the mirror, twisting her neck to look at just-right curve of her back, daring to take a moment's pleasure in her appearance.

    Then she slumped. Of course Mom could complain; the suit was three sizes larger than Mom's size four and it was (gasp) used. Mom had never accepted the word "vintage"; if you didn't buy your Chanels when Coco was alive, you might as well be wearing something out of the rag bin.


    Eh. I still think it's a bit obvious, but maybe I'd get credit for making some attempt to wrap the strategy in plot trimmings.

    (Edited add: I'm entirely unable to restrain myself from noting that I know that "out of the rag bin" is a cliche. But since it's not really part of my point, I'm leaving it alone. Probably.)
     
  5. madhoca
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    madhoca Contributing Member Contributor

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    It's a bit more detailed than I care for, but it's not too blatant. If it is really necessary to have a full description at this point, leave it. Incidentally, why is it necessary to give so much detail all in one go? You can always have something like:
    She picked a frizzy blonde hair off the sleeve of her Chanel suit. Great! Now I'm moulting, she thought. She ran her tongue over her teeth. The last thing she wanted was bright red lipstick on her incisors.
    It is more natural to have someone else's POV describing her because they are seeing her for the first time, or someone remarking, "Wow, Chanel! Looks nearly as good on you as it does on my grandma, darling! And love the carmine lips--I had a lippy like that when it was in fashion five years ago."
     
  6. jazzabel
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    jazzabel Contributing Member Contributor

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    I don't like the mirror trick at all, it always feels fake and self-indulgent unless there is a really good reason for it. Such as, the character's livelihood depends on their appearance, or they are a performing artist so they are practicing the moves in front of the mirror, or they just has plastic surgery done so they can't stop staring at their new boobs/nose/whatever. But just to describe someone's appearance or clothes, no way, too contrived, at least that's how I feel when I encounter it.
     
  7. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    I should clarify - I don't see much reason for detailed descriptions at all. I was just accepting the premise that for whatever reason an author felt that the description was necessary, and seeing if I could make the "mirror trick" work based on that premise.

    In theory, my example carries (1) some description of Jane, (2) a scrap of description of Mom, (3) some character information about Mom, (4) some character information about Jane and her interests, (5) some information about Jane and Mom's relationship, and (6) some information about upcoming events and how Jane feels about them. But I don't know that even that much freight excuses the mirror trick.
     
  8. minstrel
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    minstrel Leader of the Insquirrelgency Staff Supporter Contributor

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    I've never understood the necessity of the mirror trick. A character knows what he looks like; he doesn't have to look in a mirror in order to describe himself. Just let him describe himself and skip the whole mirror thing.

    Of course, I've said several times before that I don't usually bother describing my characters much. It isn't necessary. An appropriate image will form in the reader's mind whether you describe the character or not.
     
  9. Corgz
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    Corgz Senior Member

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    you do not need a mirror to describe them well.
    Just make it casual... like, her brown hair bobbed up and down as she ran, her emerald green eyes filled with terror.
    She spotted a drain. She dove for it, lucky she was only small.
     
  10. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    See, I think that this "tuck in a descriptive fact" ploy can often be worse than the mirror trick. If you see someone running in terror, are you going to say, "Hmmm, her hair is brown."? The descriptive fact isn't relevant to the action, so it announces itself as being sneaky and disrupts the story. The "small" example, on the other hand, is specifically relevant to the action, so it's fine.

    If the story is third person, I think it's best to just bite the bullet and _describe_, without pretending that you're not describing. You don't have to go into a flowery multi-paragraph description, but accept that you're describing. For example, the following:

    "Across the street, a young brown-haired woman was running pellmell down the sidewalk, a terrified expression on her face."

    is IMO better than the following:

    "Across the street, a woman was running pellmell down the sidewalk, her brown hair bobbing up and down as she ran, her young face terrified."

    "young brown-haired" is deliberate description, and there's nothing wrong with that.

    If the story is first person but it's one of those chatty first person stories where the narrator addresses the reader, again I think it's fine to describe, ideally with some excuse for the description:

    "Have I mentioned that Jake worships long-haired willowy tall blonds? He does. I'm short and brown-haired; I'm never going to be anything but buddy material for Jake. He once called me a 'pixie'; lucky for him it was on the phone, because if I'd been there in person I would have slapped him."
     
  11. jazzabel
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    jazzabel Contributing Member Contributor

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    I avoid gratuitous descriptions of physical appearance (whether it''s a mirror trick or adding unnecesary information like "she removed long brown hairs from her brush". If you think about it, the fact that hairs are brown is not something she, the POV character, would notice. But if the POV character was examining someone else's brush for hairs, it would be a different matter).
    I had a bad experience with disappointing the readers in this way and now I am really careful.
    A while ago I was writing a fictional story on a blog, around 2k words at the time, so technically the reader feedback could affect the direction of the story. I didn't describe my protagonist with any specifics at all, the appearance was indicated based on her job, where she lived etc. But no details. A while later, when I was writing a sequel to another scene, it was a silly thing, her hairdresser retired and she could no longer find anyone to maintain her "sunkissed" look with blonde highlights, all of a sudden there was this enormous outcry from the readers about how blonde is the wrong hair colour, how they were sure she was a brunette. And even though I tried to explain that sorry, no, she is a bottle blonde, they just wouldn't have it. Even though they never saw her, I never said she was a brunette, and there was no particular reason why she had to be a brunette, they actually campaigned for her to dye her hair back to brown.
    It was really quite remarkable, and I could only imagine how annoyed a reader would feel at home, unable to affect the change, and yet constantly bothered by the unexpected differences between their mental image of a character, and what is written in the book.
    Once the readers are thrown off like this, they find it difficult to get into it again, and as writers, that's the last thing we want to happen.
     
  12. Ziggy Stardust
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    Ziggy Stardust Active Member

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    That has nothing to do with the "mirror trick" jazzabel.

    I liked ChickenFreak's description of Jane looking into the mirror. I think as long as it's written well it really doesn't matter how you do it.
     
  13. jazzabel
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    jazzabel Contributing Member Contributor

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    Read my previous comment Ziggy ;) I thought the discussion moved on since then, from the mirror trick to any specific descriptions of physical appearance.
    I agree with you, de gustibus non disputandum est, and the large number of books with physical descriptions abounding in them testify that many people will not mind them, and even if they mind them, will get over it because they like the book.
    I'll give you an example, Hamilton's "Void Trilogy" (I don't know if you read it) I loved the books but I had a total hate relationship with his obsessive need to let us know just how attractive every woman was and why, and also he kept describing the clothes with the fashion insight of an Asperger's 54 year old. So for me it didn't work but I imagine for a lot of blokes reading it, it was perfectly fine.

    So all I'm saying is, I don't like them as a reader, and as a writer I experienced a backlash from specifying physical traits also.
    In my example the description was unavoidable because the scene with the hairdresser depended on the difficult hair colour that the protag preferred, but I mentioned it in order to illustrate how any specifics of this kind can annoy the reader. Because that is most likely the reason why the mirror and general physical descriptions are advised against. Keeping in mind that it is only advice and everyone can do whatever they choose :)

    Having said all that, I think ChickenFreak's description is excellent, but it is really a characterisation, not just a mere description, that's why it works so well, imo :)
     
  14. Ziggy Stardust
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    Ziggy Stardust Active Member

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    Yes I was referring to your previous comment. You received backlash because you decided to write a description in your second short story instead of in the first when you introduced the character. If you're going to describe your character you should do it early on. It has nothing to do with how you should describe a character or even if you need to describe them at all. Presumably you didn't plan your second story when you were writing your first, which is understandable. But he's writing a novel so it's irrelevant.

    Descriptions are just an element of characterization anyway. But yes ChickenFreak made the description interesting (not just a list of physical features), and that's the point.

    And no I haven't read "Void Trilogy", but what you describe just sounds like bad writing.
     
  15. jazzabel
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    jazzabel Contributing Member Contributor

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    Ay, Ziggy. Either I am not making myself clear, or you are looking for something wrong in what I said.

    When I said "a story" I wasn't referring to a short story, but a 55 000 novelette I was writing on the blog, 2 000 words or so at a time. I appreciate your opinion, but it might be a little bit overreaching to simply assume that I don't know what I am talking about, or that you know what you are talking about, especially in reference to something you never read, and you don't even know what it is.

    Since you brought it up, my novelette was read by over 200 000 people, and on the basis of popularity it has received a publishing deal, albeit in another country. Personally, I didn't think it was the best I could do but there you have it, based on the feedback, I could assume it was relatively good.
    So who is to say whether I know what I'm doing or not? Until you read it, you won't know either, but to assume the negatives, I am not quite sure what is the point?

    So, you see, your comment is quite irrelevant because it does not pertain to anything I said at all.

    As I said before, de gustibus non disputandum est. I have absolutely no idea how good a writer you are, but I know that Hamilton is a very well respected author and the Void Trilogy in itself is a remarkable demonstration of storytelling. Is it perfect 100% of the time? No. Is any book perfect, 100% of the time - I can't say for sure, but having read a lot of literature, I have never found one that was.

    So anyway. I am not a big fan of sweeping generalisations, or antagonistic style of communication, so I hope we can discuss this without pointing fingers and assuming stuff about one another :)
     
  16. hootertooter
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    hootertooter New Member

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    I don't think Ziggy meant to imply your writing isn't good, jazzabel, and I too think that placing the physical description right where the character is introduced would avert that issue. Also, it sounds like the problem between you and Hamilton's POV character is just a matter of not being able to identify with a character who finds women attractive, which is bound to happen occasionally since people in real life are diverse. I bet it's either that or simply that the physical descriptions are too long/detailed for your tastes.

    With that being said, I appreciate all of the responses. They've helped me greatly. And to ChickenFreak in particular, thank you for taking the time to write that example; it must've taken some time. :)

    I've decided to change it in mine though, because the mirror trick is generally disliked and because I noticed that I only wrote such a detailed physical description back then because I didn't know whether what I'd write next would put an image of the POV character in the reader's head. After reviewing the other stuff I wrote, I found that everything except his attire are either implied or stated elsewhere (and all within the first 5 pages). So I'm just going to have him undress at that point instead. And if I come up with something clever, I can describe the color of the clothes without it sounding artificial (like by saying the clothes were a gift and that's why his clothes are purple even though he hates the color purple... or something).

    (to the mods: it may be smart to lock this topic before a fight breaks out.)
     
  17. mammamaia
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    mammamaia nit-picker-in-chief Contributor

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    it's not so much despised as it is an eye-rolling 'ho-hum!' thing, since it's so trite...

    there are other ways to do it, but that's the easiest/quickest for first person narrative, so too many writers take the easy way out...
     
  18. Ziggy Stardust
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    Ziggy Stardust Active Member

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    I think you are over reacting.

    Describing a character's hair colour is not a "gratuitous description of physical appearance". It's a perfectly reasonable physical trait to describe. Your problem was that you didn't do it early enough. Your readers had time to form their own mental picture of your character, which you then broke. It was not the description itself, it was just when you did it.

    Your explanation of Hamilton's excessive descriptions in "Void Trilogy" made it sound like he wrote bad descriptions, ie "describing the clothes with the fashion insight of an Asperger's 54 year old".

    I didn't make "sweeping generalisations", I believe I was quite specific. I did not "assume" anything about you or point any fingers at you, nor did I even make any comment about either your ability or the quality of your writing.

    I did not "bring it up", but I'm very happy for you that your blog had such a large readership and it led to further success, congratulations.

    ChickenFreak managed to use the "cliched" mirror technique to write an interesting description, and there it is. Descriptions are not inherently bad, not even ones involving mirrors. It all depends on how you write it.
     
  19. jazzabel
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    jazzabel Contributing Member Contributor

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    You are probably right Ziggy, I overreacted. But your comment seemed so rude! Now when you said it this way, it seems perfectly ok. I agree, I made a mistake to mention it later in the story, and if I was editing it all before I showed it to anyone, I'd probably change that. But as it was read as it was written, it made it possible for me to see the reaction to such a mistake.
    I was offended by your tone, and also, by you using the term "short story". Having written short stories before, I feel there is a huge difference between those and a novel, and I felt that you misunderstood and made wrong assumptions about me and what I said.
    But in any case, thanks for clarifying, and I'm ok if you are :)
     
  20. Ziggy Stardust
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    Ziggy Stardust Active Member

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    It was my mistake to assume your blog was short stories instead of a novelette, I apologise.

    I did not mean to convey a negative tone, again I apologise.

    No worries,

    And I'm always ok ;)
     
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  21. Nicholas C.
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    Nicholas C. Active Member

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    I did this once when attempting a novel -- about 7 years ago, when I had absolutely no clue what I was doing. So if that tells you anything...

    Not that I totally know what I'm doing now or anything ;)
     

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