Created By: MarkKB on October 8, 2011 Last Edited By: MarkKB on March 16, 2013
Troped

Description In The Mirror

Where a mirror is used as a narrative device to describe the main character.

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Trope
Rolling Updates, probably Needs a Better Description, Needs More Examples, Do We Have This One??

Say you're writing a story from a certain person's POV, and you want to describe the main character without being awkward. Since the character's eyes are attached to their heads, they can hardly describe themselves, but there's a way around that - have the character look at themselves in a mirror, and describe what they see.

This is usually slipped into a Morning Routine sequence, or when the character catches themselves in the mirror abroad. As well as being used for descriptive purposes, it can effectively be used to reflect character - suppose this person hates her appearance and usually avoids mirrors, or else closes in to focus on the flaws (pimples, wrinkles, whatever); have her get a good look at herself (say, in a mirror at someone else's house) where she can't spend time obsessing over her flaws, or are unable to close the distance due to a crowd (so that she's forced to stand back and get a view she doesn't often see). It could also be used to show their vanity - reflection on how gorgeous they look, or how they were sure no-one has as stunning [body feature].

But be warned, dear Writer - this trope is looked down on in some circles because of the amount of amateur fiction that use it poorly, either through lazyness - instead of feeding the audience a description piecemeal - or much more description than in the rest of the story - as then it's usually just another way to tell us how awesome your character is), as well as a percieved overuse of the trope (a popularity probably earned for much of the same reasons).

That's not to say it can't be done well, just that it's easy to get wrong.

Often uses the syntax "[Character] looked in the mirror, and a [description of character] looked back."

Examples:

Literature

Harry ran his fingers over the scar again. It was still painful. He turned on the lamp beside him, scrambled out of bed, crossed the room, opened his wardrobe, and peered into the mirror on the inside of the door. A skinny boy of fourteen looked back at him, his bright green eyes puzzled under his untidy black hair. He examined the lightning-bolt scar of his reflection more closely. It looked normal, but it was still stinging.
  • Andre Norton used this technique in her novel Forerunner Foray:
She looked into the cruelly bright mirror, cruel because being so often used to check a disguising makeup, it revealed rather than softened every defect of complexion and feature. There was the real outward Ziantha. And with this hour and her great fatigue, that sight was a blow to any vanity.
She was very thin and her skin was pallid. Her hair, from the warm steam of her bath, curled tightly to her head, no lock of it longer than one of her fingers. In color it was silver fair, though in daylight it would show a little darker. Her eyes were gray, so pale as to seem silver too. The mouth below was large, her lips with little curve, but a clear red. As for the rest -- she scowled at the true Ziantha and shrugged on her night robe.

Non-Fiction

  • This is strongly discouraged in How NOT to Write a Novel under the title "What Color Am I?" (Where the character must be in front of a mirror to know what she looks like).
  • Discussed a few times in the Writing Excuses podcast, where they discourage and occasionally mock the practice.
Community Feedback Replies: 29
  • October 8, 2011
    69BookWorM69
    Of course, it can be done well. Smoothly insert it as part of a Morning Routine, for example.

    It can also reflect character. Suppose this person hates her appearance and usually avoids mirrors, or else closes in to focus on the flaws (pimples, wrinkles, whatever); have her get a good look at herself (say, in a mirror at someone else's house) where she can't spend time obsessing over her flaws, or are unable to close the distance due to a crowd (so that she's forced to stand back and get a view she doesn't often see).
  • October 8, 2011
    Sackett
    Or she really admire himself, showing that he is vain. Or maybe getting ready for a date or an important event that requires primping.
  • October 8, 2011
    thegrenekni3t
    • James Bond does this in the novel Casino Royale.
  • October 8, 2011
    SKJAM
    Very, very common in transformation fetish fiction, as the character gets a good look at their new self.
  • October 8, 2011
    MarkKB
    Okay, updated.

    I'm fairly sure one of the Harry Potter books does this, but I can't remember which one. (May be misrembering, so eh.)

    ^^^^ I was under the impression that the Morning Routine thing was the most common one, and the reason it's looked down on in those cases is that the character has little reason to check themselves out (well, in detail, I mean) so it kind of feels shoehorned to those people.
  • October 8, 2011
    69BookWorM69
    ^ You're likely thinking of the Mirror of Erised in the first book, or else the Foe Glass.
  • October 10, 2011
    MarkKB
    ^ Sorry, there, I should have specified that the mirror I was thinking of was a normal Muggle mirror, and it was in the initial chapter/s of the book. (I'm probably misremembering though - I think J.K. just described Harry without pretense in most of the books.)
  • October 10, 2011
    Folamh3
    • This is strongly discouraged in How Not To Write A Novel under the title "What Color Am I?" (Where the character must be in front of a mirror to know what she looks like).
  • October 10, 2011
    Irrisia
    Used rather neatly to show both Terisa's appearance and a large part of her characterisation in The Mirror Of Her Dreams by Stephen Donaldson.
  • October 10, 2011
    Beacon80
    Tempted to say it was in Prisoner of Azkaban, at the Leaky Cauldron, but I'm not sure.
  • October 21, 2011
    Hello999
    It's in the opening of Goblet Of Fire. Here's the description:
    • Harry ran his fingers over the scar again. It was still painful. He turned on the lamp beside him, scrambled out of bed, crossed the room, opened his wardrobe, and peered into the mirror on the inside of the door. A skinny boy of fourteen looked back at him, his bright green eyes puzzled under his untidy black hair. He examined the lightning-bolt scar of his reflection more closely. It looked normal, but it was still stinging.
  • November 1, 2011
    MarkKB
    ^ Thanks, that's exactly what I was thinking of.
  • November 2, 2011
    Arivne
    Literature
    • Andre Norton used this technique in her novel Forerunner Foray.
    She looked into the cruelly bright mirror, cruel because being so often used to check a disguising makeup, it revealed rather than softened every defect of complexion and feature. There was the real outward Ziantha. And with this hour and her great fatigue, that sight was a blow to any vanity.
    She was very thin and her skin was pallid. Her hair, from the warm steam of her bath, curled tightly to her head, no lock of it longer than one of her fingers. In color it was silver fair, though in daylight it would show a little darker. Her eyes were gray, so pale as to seem silver too. The mouth below was large, her lips with little curve, but a clear red. As for the rest -- she scowled at the true Ziantha and shrugged on her night robe.
  • November 9, 2011
    69BookWorM69
    Description needs tidying up, including spelling "amateur" not "ameteur".
  • August 23, 2012
    MarkKB
    ^ Which is why it's tagged as such. :p Suggestions are, of course, welcome!

    (Sorry for taking so long to get back on this, but Real Life intervened somewhat. ^^;)
  • November 14, 2012
    Stratadrake
    Bumping for activity. Anyone want to manage it?
  • November 20, 2012
    polarbear2217
    R.L. Stine uses this technique to describe Garry in Why I'm Afraid of Bees
  • January 9, 2013
    MarkKB
    ^^ Hiya, I'm still around. A little curious what specifically you mean by "manage".

    ^ Added!
  • January 26, 2013
    AP
    • The Who rock opera Tommy has the title character looking in the mirror in many of the songs as a reoccuring theme.
  • January 26, 2013
    Alvin
    Maybe not wht you're after, but the beginning of most episodes of the TV show Quantum Leap had the protagonist look in a mirror or somethig to see what iee3nttity he had assumed. (Please use the link for a better explaation, if needed.
  • January 26, 2013
    MarkKB
    ^ and ^^ : Yeah, I dunno if those would count.

    I've looked at articles about Tommy, and while mirrors are thematic, this isn't a trope about all narrative uses of mirrors, merely when they are used to tell the audience the appearance of the character.

    Oh boy... :p Quantum Leap is an interesting one, because we see Sam as Sam, and the mirror shows us (and him) who he really is. That said, I think it might be more The Mirror Shows Your True Self than this.
  • January 26, 2013
    Jorvikian
    Disagree about QL. The viewer sees the true self of Sam, but plus the clothes etc of the "target" for that week. What the mirror shows you is the appearance of that target - the image Sam is "projecting" that week and very precisely NOT his true self.

    Tho' it got a bit complicated when Sam was a heavily pregnant girl - what would happen when "she" went into labour?
  • February 7, 2013
    MarkKB
    I probably should have explained this better:

    This trope is about people looking in the mirror and describing themselves for the narrative purpose of looking in the mirror and describing themselves, despite already knowing what they look like. Sam looks in the mirror because he doesn't know what he looks like, not just because the audience doesn't know.

    (Additionally, since its a television show, we don't get a description but a visual image. I dunno if that's enough to make it distinct, but I feel there's a difference.)

    That said, I think it might be debatable enough. *shrug* I don't know, I just feel that we should avoid too many Tomato In The Mirror-esque things.

    (Related aside: I meant The Mirror Shows Your True Self as an inverted trope - Sam sees his 'true' self, and the mirror shows what everyone else sees.)
  • February 7, 2013
    McKathlin
    Literature
    • This is Bella's occasion for describing her own appearance in Twilight. She considers her appearance unremarkable, but the description she gives suggests good looks, similar to those of the author.
  • February 8, 2013
    MarkKB
    ^ Added, thanks!
  • February 8, 2013
    BlackMageJ
    Discussed a few times in the Writing Excuses podcast, where they discourage and occasionally mock the practice.
  • February 9, 2013
    MarkKB
    ^ Added! (And thanks, now I have a new podcast series to listen to! ^^)
  • February 27, 2013
    MarkKB
    Any more suggestions?
  • March 14, 2013
    MarkKB
    Okay, so if no-one has anything to add last minute, I guess I'll go ahead and launch this on Sunday. Alright?

Three days must pass before this YKTTW is Launchworthy or Discardable

http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/discussion.php?id=h2qq0sbhh37lzwgqzauytd67