The Editor Devil (@fairchild01) posed the question on Twitter:
#authors & #writers how do YOU deliver description for the POV character when they are alone? Avoiding the cliché mirror...
One response was: NOT; characters focused on personal appearance were either creepy, or vapid. And that got me thinking...Characters are people, too.
How many of us have stood in front of mirror fussing over the fit of jeans? Blouse? Sweated in a change room trying to struggle in/out of sports bra? Bathing suit? Sat in a stylist's chair and said, "Fix me" (like there was something inherently wrong with our straight/curly/red/gray/brown/long/short hair). Does that make us creepy? Vapid? I don't think so. I think it makes us human. And it makes sense that at some point in a story, a human POV character is going to experience some instance of self-awareness, while alone.
A Plus-size character trying to squeeze into a 0-size charter airplane seat. A petite character struggling to see over the steering wheel and reach the accelerator in her brother's sports car. A dyed-blonde fussing over her reverse-skunk look when she bumps into the guy she likes at the Supermarket. The overweight police chief struggling to buckle his holster. The mature woman slathering on face cream containing Retinol in a vain attempt to redirect her straying husband's attention back to her. The teen boy locked in the bathroom with his mother's seamstress tape measuring his biceps to see if his week at the gym made him "swoll" enough to interest the girl he's crushed on since grade five. And that's how POV self-image is best conveyed: indirectly.
It is a definite challenge to convey a POV character's appearance via the character without the easy mirror, but it is doable. Creatively. Carefully. Skillfully. It's not taboo. Tricky, and when done well, effective.
Here's a quick, not necessarily done well, example, purely for illustration purposes:
Damn. She'd grabbed the wrong shoes. These had to be Celeste's shoes. They were at least two-sizes too small. Ginny yanked the shiny satin pump off her toe, and glared inside it.
Nope. Four sizes too small. She'd have better luck stuffing French loaves in a set of thimbles, as shove her duck feet in these shoes. She dropped the pump back in the box with its mate.
Gad. Wasn't that going to be the theme of this wedding? Her the ribbed French loaf, Celeste and Noemi the shiny thimbles. What in hell was Laurel thinking, asking her, Hulkette, to be a bridesmaid alongside them? Ginny sucked in her stomach, glanced down.
Nope. Not even if she mastered the art of holding her breath without dying could she hope to display a quarter of the cleavage of the other two. She exhaled, bit her lip.
A pink-satin draped Stop sign tacked on the end of a triplet of hourglasses. How could Laurel be so cruel?
No, no, no. Laurel was not being cruel. Pink was her favorite color. Had been her favorite color since the first time they had watched Grease together, back in high school. She could hardly help that it was the least flattering color for someone with brick red hair and freckles. If anything, she should be grateful she had managed to sway Laurel toward a softer pink, instead of the fluorescent pink she'd wanted. Gad. What a disaster that would have been. She already stood a good six inches taller than most men. She didn't need to advertise it like a flashing neon sign. Ginny bowed her face to her palms.
Oh, God. What was she going to do? She couldn't be in this wedding. She was too tall, too flat, too red, too awkward—and what if James showed up? What would she say? What could she say? Sorry I stomped on your foot the other night. Hope I didn't break any toes--
"Ginny? Ginny? I think you have my shoes. We need to switch. Quick. The limo's here. We're all ready to go."
Drawing a deep breath, Ginny stifled a groan and pushed up off the toilet. She paused long enough to glance in the mirror and ensure none of the springy curls the stylist had so skilfully constrained in a neat chignon had escaped, smooth the wrinkles from the "Candy Floss Pink" gown and slip a hand inside it to adjust the push-up bra so it was more up, than push, and then retrieving the shoes off the floor, she unlocked the door.
"Oh, there you are. I figured these were yours." Celeste arched a golden eyebrow and smiled as she dangled Ginny's shoes with the tips of her long pink-lacquered fingernails, like she was holding out a pair of dead hens, instead of a pair of size elevens. Her ample cleavage, like her dimpled cheeks, glimmered with body shimmer.
Ginny forced a bright smile. "Yes. Can't imagine how we mixed that up."
"Is everything all right, Ginny? You're a little flushed." Laurel was ethereal in white, her creamy brown skin boasting a dewy glow seemingly reserved for brides, and new mothers, her dark eyes lit with a sparkle brighter than the flashes of light off the Hershey's Kisses-sized diamond drops dangling from her earlobes. Behind her, Noemi was primping in front of the hall mirror, applying yet another layer of lip gloss.
"Everything is perfect," Ginny said, and smiled as she grasped her shoes, one in each hand, like a pair of pistols. "Absolutely perfect. You are the absolutely, most perfectly stunning and beautiful bride, I could ever hope to attend."
It was Laurel's turn to flush. "Thank you," she said. "Now, get those shoes on girl, and let's go. I'm getting MARRIED today!"
Do you have a picture of Ginny in your mind? Yes, I slipped in the mirror at the end to add texture detail to her hair. Mostly I imparted her physical description through her emotional distress. Her self-image.
Sure, Ginny needs to work on learning to embrace, and celebrate what makes her unique and beautiful, like we all do. But that could well be her character arc, the growth she experiences, through the course of the story. James could help, or hinder her with that. That's at the author's discretion. As is a choice of methodology/focus in imparting character/scene description.
Writing is not like Math. There are no hard and fast rules. If you want to convey some aspect of your POV character's appearance via that character, do. If you can do so via action, or emotion, even better.
Just like no one likes to watch another person primp and preen in front of a mirror--taking obvious pleasure, or dismay, in one's appearance is still a cultural no-no--readers prefer not to receive a menu-order of character description. Mix it up. Dole out some aspects of character's physical description through other characters, some through the character. Going back to Ginny, in an earlier time:
"Hey, Red, how's it going up there?"
"Take a hike, James."
"Ooooh, hear that boys? Ginny wants me to take a hike. How about I hike you, Ginny? Scale you like Mount Everest."
James's companions laughed. Ginny clung to her backpack and stared straight ahead.
Why? Why, why, why did she have to look like Dad? Why couldn't she be five-foot nothing and blonde like Mom? But noooo...she had to get Dad's NBA genes, while her "big" brother would be lucky if he topped out at five-six and made the wrestling team--
"What's the matter, Carrot-Top? Cat got your tongue--" Carl's head snapped back and blood gushed from his nose a second later.
"Leave my sister, alone, freak--"
"Michael." Ginny grasped his arm. "Don't. You'll get expelled--" Ginny pitched forward, and managed to get a hand up to brace herself against the seat in front, as the bus ground to a halt.
"Mr. Gilbert," the driver called. "This is where you get off."
However you decide to get necessary aspects of your characters' appearance across to the reader, have fun with it. And remember, no character is perfect. Or entirely flawed. Just as there is good and bad in all of us, so too is there in our characters. Enjoy them. And be kind to yourself.
Happiness, that grand mistress of the ceremonies in the dance of life, impels us through all its mazes and meanderings, but leads none of us by the same route. ~ Charles Caleb Colton