We’ve all been there, groaning as we read a passage where a character gets entranced by his reflection in a store window and describes himself in detail, or catches sight of her tangled blond hair in the chrome on her boyfriend’s Harley.
To avoid falling into that trap of lame character description yourself (and causing unwary readers to gag on their pre-dinner cheese nibbles), consider using the following techniques.
1. Compare and contrast
When we meet someone new, it’s natural to think of them in comparison to ourselves: taller, fatter, blonder, balder, better dressed, etc. You can hint at your protagonist’s appearance by having him make those comparisons: “The bully outweighed my 165 by at least 100 pounds, and was half a foot taller than me, to boot.” or “Mrs. VanPelt obviously had more money to spare than I did, since she was wearing Armani and Louboutin which made my Levis and Keds look totally out of place.”
2. Give him a good reason to look in a mirror
Was he punched in the face? He might inspect the shiner in the bathroom mirror the next morning, and happen to mention one or two other appearance details while doing so. Did someone call her ugly? That might result in a little mirror gazing. Does she have to buy a formal gown when her usual attire is cutoff jeans? Ditto.
In my WIP, the protagonist has found out that her biological father might be someone she despises, and she runs to the mirror to assure herself that her eyebrows don’t arch like his, that her thin lips aren’t like his full ones, that her aquiline nose bears no resemblance to his pug proboscis. You get the idea.
This is probably a subset of compare and contrast, but works well when your first person protagonist has known another character for a while. “If God had gifted me with golden curls like Jamie’s, instead of my straight, mousy locks . . .” or “I wished my folks could have afforded an orthodontist so my teeth could have looked like Lance’s.” (The inference being the protagonist has dingy and/or crooked teeth.)
Let another character comment on something related to your protagonist’s appearance. A friend: “That dress makes your green eyes pop.” A parent: “No child of mine is leaving the house dressed like a hooker.” A frienemy: “Those new bangs do a great job of balancing your nose.”
5. Show it
Is your protagonist short? Rather than saying so, let her have trouble reaching for something on a shelf. Is he movie-star handsome? Have other women pass him their phone numbers on receipts or napkins. Is she self-conscious about any body part or feature? Have her cover it up or try to hide it in some way. Showing frequently trumps telling.
6. Relax and let the reader construct their own picture of your protagonist
You might know that your protagonist stands five-foot-four, weighs 140 pounds, has cornflower blue eyes, a straight nose that veers off a bit at the tip and small teeth, broad shoulders, long toes with metallic silver polish on the nails, and a mole behind her right knee, but it is almost certainly not necessary for your reader to know all this to get attached to your character and enjoy the story. Don’t try to force description into your novel. Use one of the above techniques, if it makes sense, and otherwise, leave it to your reader to build his own picture.