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Description in the Mirror

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The reader wants to know what your characters look like. But how do you get your point-of-view character to rattle off his height, weight, and skin tone? Easy! Frog-march him to the mirror! Unfortunately, this is so obviously a convention of bad fiction that it might as well read, "Looking in the mirror, Joe saw a tall, brown-haired man, trapped in a poorly written novel."

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]. A work set recently enough can use a security camera instead of, or in addition to, a mirror.

But be warned, dear Writer: this trope is looked down on in some circles, partly because it's seen as a cliché and partly because of the amount of amateur fiction that use it poorly. The most common abuses are using it as a lazy substitute for feeding the audience a description naturally over the course of the story, and incongruously describing the character's appearance in much greater detail than is used in the rest of the story, which is usually just another way to tell us how awesome your character is. It is also subject to a bit of Fridge Logic - you'd think most characters would know what they look like without having to check in the mirror, so having them examine themselves carefully and note down every detail comes off as unnatural.

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."

Don't confuse this with Mirror Reveal, which is when a transformed character discovers their new appearance via a mirror.


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    Fan Works 
  • Done in the first chapter of Bait and Switch to describe viewpoint character Eleya.
    "As always, my dark green eyes are drawn first to the two angry pink lines across my left cheek."
  • Evershade: Of Face Doodling done by a mad / sad sister, leading to a Mirror Reveal with the same mirror as well:
    I looked in the mirror to see my face, and my reflection seemed as surprised as I was.
    Pink hearts on my left cheek, flowers on my forehead, eyeshadow all around my eyes, cat whiskers coming from my nose and outward, and huge red lips all around mine. All done in bright markers.
    Gabby! I growled as I immediately grabbed a wet towel, and began to wipe the drawings off my face.
  • Subverted in Tealove's Steamy Adventure. Tealove looks into the mirror, and there's a paragraph-long description of the face staring back at her. It finishes with: "In short, it looked nothing like her." (It turns out Pinkie Pie has found a way to appear inside this mirror—that's who Tealove is looking at.)

  • James Bond
    • Bond does this in the novel Casino Royale.
    • Vivienne, the main character of The Spy Who Loved Me, gives a rundown on her face when she checks herself on a mirror after being in a receiving end of an electric shock.
  • Used rather neatly to show both Terisa's appearance and a large part of her characterisation in The Mirror of Her Dreams.
  • In Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire we get the following narrative after Harry wakes from his accidental Dream Spying on Voldemort:
    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 uses this technique in her novel Forerunner Foray to give a description of the protagonist Ziantha.
    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.
  • R.L. Stine uses this technique to describe Gary in Why I'm Afraid of Bees, as well as Wade in Revenge R Us
  • This is Bella's occasion for describing her own appearance in The Twilight Saga. She considers her appearance unremarkable, but the description she gives suggests good looks, similar to those of the author.
    • She gets it again after she has become a vampire, only this time she does consider herself pretty.
  • Parodied in The Glimpses of the Moon by Edmund Crispin.
    Here he paused by the mirror, from which, not unexpectedly, his own face looked out at him. In the fifteen years since his last appearance, he seemed to have changed very little... At this rate, he felt, he might even live to see the day when novelists described their characters by some other device than that of manoeuvring them into examining themselves in mirrors.
  • Shadow of a Dark Queen: Erik von Darkmoor describes himself at length, complete with comments on his demeanor and public image, in the course of washing his face.
  • An unusual example occurs in More Than Human as it occurs six chapters into the book, not at the beginning.
  • Done by Taylor in the first chapter of Worm, after getting drenched in fruit juice:
    I had inherited a thin lipped, wide, expressive mouth from my mother, but my large eyes and my gawky figure made me look a lot more like my dad. My dark hair was soaked enough that it clung to my scalp, neck and shoulders. I was wearing a brown hooded sweatshirt over a green t-shirt, but colored blotches of purple, red and orange streaked both. My glasses were beaded with the multicolored droplets of juice and soda. A drip ran down my nose and fell from the tip to land in the sink.
  • Used in Altered Carbon when the narrator, a frequent body surfer, sees his new face in the mirror for the first time.
  • Whateley Universe: Used at least once. Absinthe has her Curtains Match the Window revealed this way:
    I [...] turn[ed] to look into the small bathroom mirror. The same girl with the green hair and beautiful emerald eyes stared back.
  • Handbook for Mortals features this when the Author Avatar gets a glimpse of herself in her car's side mirror, including the I'm Not Pretty cliche.
  • Isaac Asimov:
    • Foundation Series:
      • "Search by the Foundation": In the first chapter, Arkady Darell turns to her bedroom mirror so that she can examine her appearance. She's disappointed that she isn't a bombshell beauty at two days past fourteen, having too much baby fat in her cheeks.
      • Forward the Foundation: In "Cleon I", Raych looks into a mirror to describe his "plucked" baby-face after being given a disguise to join the Jorumites in sector Wye.
    • "What If— (1952)": When the strange little Traveling Salesman shows up in their train car, Liwy tries to ignore him and pulls out her mirror to inspect her appearance. This is when the reader learns she has brown hair and blue eyes.
  • The Mandarin Cypher. A different version of this trope occurs when Quiller is being hunted by Red Chinese agents and finds that one of them is carrying a surveillance photograph of him, taken while on a previous mission.
  • Temeraire: Justified in Blood of Tyrants when the protagonist suffers a major head injury that temporarily damages his memory. He's unaware that he's lost eight highly eventful years, so when he looks in the mirror for the first time, he's shocked by how much older and more heavily worn he looks.
  • In Lay Your Sleeping Head, Michael Nava has his protagonist look at himself in the mirror, and be seen by others through a security camera, to describe his physical appearance, his wrinkled seersucker suit, and the act of straightening his tie.

    Live-Action Television 
Quantum Leap had a rare visual version of this trope. Once an Episode, protagonist Sam Beckett "leaps" into someone else's life. He has to look into a mirror to find out who he looks like, also showing the audience the same thing.

  • Northward's "Storm in a Glass" has the female protagonist looking in the mirror, apparently after a good cry relating to her significant other.
    A second look in the mirror
    Bewildered eyes, slightly red
    A second chance to calm down
    I'm not that crazy
    Take a deep breath, easy now