While the mirror technique often falls down at over description it’s important to remember that we don’t need to describe everything about a character or sometimes nothing. We’ve previously discussed how we can use character appearance to show character but we can also show character by what we don’t describe. For instance, if we’re writing a first-person narrator who has no particular interest in their own appearance why would they be looking in a mirror describing it in minute detail?
There’s also no rule that says we have describe everything about a character all at once. A complete physical description is not necessary to the introduction of a character. When we meet a new person in real life we usually don’t take in everything about them at once, taking in everything is not the same as simply looking at them and seeing everything. What we notice first about people is often affected by our perception of the world. For instance, as someone who isn’t particularly tall the first thing I tend to notice about people is their height, partly because of whether or not I have to look up at them and how far. As a woman I might find a tall man particularly noticeable because the potential threat, whether they are or not, and I might not notice much else beyond size at first. This doesn’t necessarily mean that all women my height think the same. Some people might notice clothes, hair, or nothing in particular when they meet a new person.
We can build can build character description up as we progress through the story, if we choose. With each meeting these characters can notice different things about them, we can even use this to develop character relationships based on how they perceive other people whether it’s size becoming less threatening or someone appearing more attractive. Different details might become more noticeable, such as that particular habit they have of fiddling with a watch strap, which draws attention to the watch, or a tendency to scuff their shoes as if by magic.
At the other end of the spectrum we might decide to describe little or nothing and let the reader fill the blanks in themselves. We can still make a vivid character without description of what they look like through who they are, a believable character is not defined by a lot of physical description but by who they are as a character. If we create a character who is inconsistent, if not deliberately so, then they won’t be vivid or believable however much we describe them.
If we choose not to use a lot, or any, description of their appearance we can imply what they look like through who they are and how they behave. A character who is portrayed as very precise might suggest a character who looks very precise. However, a stumbling block here is if we have a character whose behaviour is precise but are very haphazard about their appearance, here we would probably need some description because the contradiction tells us something about the character. For example, even the cliché of the brilliant scientist whose clothes are permanently crumpled only works if there’s a suggestion of it. If we always show them doing complex calculations laid out neatly for publication, never being ruffled by anything, and looking after themselves properly there isn’t anything to imply that the suit their wearing isn’t ironed, their tie is wonky and their shoelaces are always coming undone. Juxtaposition only works if there’s something to juxtapose.
How much description we use of a character depends largely on style, narrator (particularly a first-person narrator), and what we’re trying to do. There is not universal but we do need to consider what we want to do with a story and a character and how we want them to be perceived.