6 ways first person narrators can describe themselves

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Photo by Sodanie Chea

Photo by Sodanie Chea

If your main character is narrating the story, how do they describe themselves? You could just start in “I have long blonde hair and blue eyes,” but somehow it feels like the next part should be “and I like long walks on the beach.”

It’s awkward for a reason: normal people don’t walk around reminding themselves of their own hair color, eye color and height.

That’s why the mirror is such a bad cliché. I don’t know about you, but when I look in the mirror, I’m not thinking “I have brown hair and brown eyes,” I’m thinking “Man, my teeth are really starting to look coffee stained. I need to do a serious peroxide rinse.”

So unless your protagonist is surveying the results of his face transplant, try one of these alternatives.

1. Don’t describe him at all

Do your readers have to know what the protagonist looks like to understand the plot? If not, consider leaving it out altogether. After all, you want your reader to look through the hero’s eyes, not at them.

Especially if your character is only “average-looking.” Average-ness implies itself and need not be explained. That’s like saying water is wet.

2. Give it to your reader straight

This one is dependant on the style of narration. If you are actually telling the story to someone (with frequent quirky asides to your “dear reader”), rather than telling a story that someone else just happens to read, your hero can simply describe himself during introductions. But be warned: don’t try to force it if this isn’t your style.

3. Embarrass them

Make them self-conscious about a physical flaw. She only smiles close-mouthed because she’s embarrassed by the gap in her teeth. He wishes he had biceps like the head jock.

If you want to get all the important details in at once, have someone super good looking stare at them, to make them extra aware of all their flaws, like John Green does when The Fault in Our Stars protagonist Hazel notices hot boy Augustus is staring at her in their cancer support group, and she thinks about her jeans that sag in weird places, unbrushed pageboy haircut, and ridiculously fat chipmunked cheeks – a side effect of chemo. A laundry list, but the thought flow is logical and natural.

4. Compare and contrast with another character

“My daughter has my crooked smile, but her father’s blue eyes.” or, “We were the strangest pair you’ve ever seen. I was tall and stringy, he was short and pudgy. Standing next to each other, we looked like a lowercase ‘b.’ Or ‘d,’ depending on who was on which side.” These can even create a poetic effect, as you can simultaneously compare and contrast personality traits as well.

5. Use dialogue

Her best friend gently explains dark roots are out of fashion. His father remarks he really ought to cut his hair (he looks like a hippie). Her enemy asks if she’s a natural redhead. Use compliments (“I with I had your thighs!”) and nicknames (Shorty, Stringbean, Pineapple Head).

6. Show, don’t tell

Don’t try to describe the character all at once, but little by little, showing, not telling. If they are short, have them struggle to reach something most others could get. If tall, have them duck through doorways. If they are unattractive, make them self-conscious around people of the opposite sex. If attractive, have others flirt with them. This is a figurative mirror – your hero’s appearance is reflected in the way other characters react to it.

How do you describe your narrator? Tell us in the comments!

girl looking in mirror

Describe your main character without the tired old “looking in the mirror” cliche.

About Stephanie Orges

Stephanie is an award-winning copywriter, aspiring novelist, and barely passable ukulele player. Here, she offers writing prompts, tips, and moderate-to-deep philosophical discussions. You can also find her on and Pinterest.
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17 Comments

  1. I’ve always found that too many ‘I’s are clumsy. Thanks for the useful post.
    Don’t think I’ll bother with the peroxide rinse … a waste of effort.

  2. The only story I have that is in first person is told by more than one person, which lets me cheat in this way. The main protagonist does not describe himself much, but some of the other characters do.

    Normally I favor describing people little by little, which has presented me with a minor issue in describing a main protagonist. Her complexion is a point of conflict in her story, and the reactions of other characters to her need to be paired with the reader having an idea of what is “wrong” with her appearance. I am trying out a few things to see what works.

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  4. I always look for the subtle, descriptive ways to explain my characters, or anything, in my writing. That was one thing my professors always complimented me on in college, so I took to doing it more often. Although, there are writers out there, such as Toni Morrison, who can expertly “tell” their readers about what’s going on. I like “telling” my readers in a story when the situation is write, but for me the joy in working with language is doing it in a way that’s not as obvious to the audience.

  5. Thanks for bringing this topic to the forefront of my conciousness. If not for this article, I would just be struggling with too many repetetive ‘I’s while trying to describe the Protaganist.

    One example of how I may describe the character(after reading this article) :

    We walked inside the Open air café and took a table
    with two chairs, in the far corner. After settling in she excitedly took out the day’s newspaper from her light blue leather handbag and put her finger on a picture on the front page. The picture was of a tall man, who looked in his early Forties, had a thick moustache and a muscular frame, barring the plump belly which was carefully tucked in.
    “What are you trying to show?” I demanded, confused.
    “This picture sent my heart racing! For a silly moment, I thought your picture is in the Newspaper” She said with unmistakable amusement.

  6. Once I described my character when she was comparing herself to her mom. Everyone noticed the resemblance of the character and her mother, but the character didn’t see it herself. ‘Course it would get annoying if it’s overused, but it works a few times at least.

  7. Thank you so much for this, it helped me a lot with the book I am writing, I had been searching for a way for the main character to describe herself.
    When I had done it before I had been describing how other people said she looked like, but It just never worked out!
    Charity

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  9. Thank you for not encouraging the mirror-trick! It’s a terrible cliche – I’ve put books down for using it. Ghastly.
    As I reader, I really like it when authors leave it to my imagination. A great scene builds the character in my mind anyway – how they are interacting with their physical space. And that tells me what I need to know about them!

  10. Pingback: How to Avoid the Mirror: Description Tips - Alyssa Hollingsworth

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