Describing First Person Narrators: This is Not A Fashion Show!

September 15, 2014

I recently had my manuscript read by test readers. One comment that came back indicated that I needed more description of my first person narrator at the beginning. She thought I described the other characters well in those first scenes…but:

What the heck did my heroine look like, hmmm?

Turns out I don’t describe my heroine’s physical characteristics until  the story really gets going…page 24, to be exact.

Why is this? I asked myself.

I realized I have a pet peeve. I dislike descriptions of first person narrators about as much as I dislike prologues, which is to say A LOT.

When I come across them in my readings of other books, I tend to eye roll because 9 times out of 10 the first person narrator is looking into a mirror and ‘fluffing out my long blond hair’ or ‘staring into my blue eyes pensively’ or ‘brushing my brunette bangs off my forehead’…or whatever.

OK I GET IT! I REALIZE YOUR EYE/HAIR COLOUR NOW! Thanks so much, narrator. Now bring me back to the story.

The other 9 times out of 10 I’m getting a fashion report. ‘I put on my jeans and a sweatshirt’ or ‘I decided to wear a turquoise halter top and a pair of black leather pants’ or ‘I couldn’t decide between the pink sweater or the leopard print one’…or whatever. Just get dressed and get out the #$@% door!


I think it’s because is seems so unnatural in first person narration. This mode of narrator is like listing to a friend. It’s very intimate, like they are right there with you, telling you a story over a cup of coffee…and when we share stories, we rarely stop to say: ‘so I looked in the mirror and put mascara on my long lashes to accent my startling green eyes’. Who says that in real life? Do you?

To me, description of any kind must be used judiciously (by which I mean, sparingly). Otherwise, it disrupts the flow. That’s why I tend to be a minimalist when it comes to description. I have been very  selective in my use of description, trying my best to a) use only as much as necessary (no mega paragraphs describing people, places and things) and b) incorporate it as much into the flow of the story, linking it to action, thoughts/observations.

This is tricky and I must confess to being a bit of a walking contradiction.

I avoided the ‘looking in the mirror’ tactic but page 24 has my first person narrator glancing at reflections in a window to compare/contrast her looks with another woman. (At last, she reveals her hair colour! Huzzah!)

I also must confess to describing her state of dress…but, for gods sake, this is the Regency period…have you SEEN what the women are wearing? I’ve spent hours researching women’s Regency wear, which is gorgeous, and also extremely important in the eyes of Regency Society, which is constantly evaluating the worth of both men and women by the cut of their cloth.

So, by god, whether it’s a pet peeve or not, that research is GOING IN THE BOOK.

It certainly is a delicate balance. I need to set the scene in the ‘minds eye’ of the reader and for that I need good, solid description. But too much and I worry I risk the reader’s annoyance.

(It can’t be a Regency Fashion Show!)

As to my beginning scenes, I went back to see if my first person narrator could throw in a few sentences about her looks. But there is so much going on in those first few scenes, it just didn’t seem to fit. It felt too awkward. Perhaps I’ll reconsider. But, for now, page 24 it is.

And is it wrong to have a vague impression of a character? Isn’t that how a reader can internalize a character, make them their own? Isn’t that why movies can sometimes ‘ruin’ books, by solidifying the looks of a character so firmly in the mind, they no longer became intimate/personal co-creations? (i.e.: Professor Snape will forever be Alan Rickman to everyone in the world who’s seen the HP films.)

What about you, fellow readers/writers? Thoughts?



One comment

  1. Nope. I sold a story to John Manning for his Dark Corners anthology where:

    1) You never learn the name of the heroine.
    2) You never learn the name of the antagonist (she calls him simply ‘The Bastard’)
    3) You get about a thousand words in before you realize that none of them are human, and you never get told what race they are (it’s a Fantasy).
    4) Neither the Heroine nor the antagonist are every described, though you do find out they are about the same size (and that this species doesn’t have boobs).

    I got so very non-specific that a my daughter (she’s 22) didn’t catch on that they weren’t human until we talked about after she read the story. No, this wasn’t a beta read – I sold it before I showed it to her.

    It was a fun story to write.

    Thing is, your protagonist is not going to be running around thinking “My name is Judy” or “I’m seven feet tall with eyes of blue”. Listen to your head – do you run around thinking that?


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