Two years ago I assistant taught a fiction-writing class at my local community college. When faced with a character-description assignment, a lot of students asked, “How do I describe a first-person narrator?” Without having the character look in a mirror, of course. The students seemed really stumped.
Now the easy answer is to have the character describe him- or herself. As in this excerpt from “An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England” by Brock Clarke:
About my looks: I was tall and skinny as a kid, but with a big head. I looked like a vertical matchstick. … My face is the most prominent thing about me: it’s red, and sometimes it looks healthy and windburned and full of what you might call life, and sometimes it just looks enflamed.
(The description goes on for a while longer.)
But it doesn’t always seem right for a character to describe him- or herself. I mean, how many of us would really want to do that if we were narrating our own lives?
In that case, a lot of writers employ a sort of mirror technique, without the actual mirror: They have the point-of-view character describe another character, and through the description we get a sense of how the character sees him- or herself. Passages like these appear in the opening chapters of “Girl With A Pearl Earring” and “Prep.”
Although the example below, from “Wolves of the Crescent Moon” by Yousef Al-Mohaimeed, is in the third person, I think it does the job nicely. The point-of-view character is missing one ear. He hides that fact by wearing a scarf wound tightly around his head. Here he’s buying a shawerma sandwich:
As the Turkish shawerma man sharpened his long knife, Turad gazed at his clean, finely defined ear, which glowed red in the light and heat of the flames. The Turkish shawerma man swaggered proudly showing off his beautiful ear as he carved tender slices from the huge cone-shaped column of chicken wrapped around the spit, piled them up with his spoon, added some fries, and spread a dollop of mayonnaise on the bread. His other ear glowed with every jolt of his body, thanks to the strong light of the halogen lamp that was positioned just above his head and the pile of chicken. And all the time the Turk was singing a sad song in a language Turad could not understand; he just kept staring at that captivating left ear as he wondered about the secret of the sad singing. How on earth could someone who possessed such a wonderfully perfect ear be sad?
I’d want that shawerma if the rest of the description weren’t so … creepy.
The point is, sometimes character descriptions, whether of the person narrating or of another character, can do more than show readers physical characteristics. In the same way that descriptions of setting can establish a mood, descriptions of characters can tell us how a character feels about him- or herself.