The Fairest One of All: When to Let Characters Enjoy a Good Mirror

I’ve noticed several writing advice blogs caution against having your character look into a mirror because it’s a somewhat lazy way to let your reader know what a character looks like. Furthermore, does it even matter what color a character’s eyes are?

By and large “no mirror gazing” is okay advice. Unless … there is a reason for a character to look into a mirror. Consider this passage from one of the first novels I read as a youngster, Riders of the Purple Sage by Zane Gray:

Seldom did Jane Withersteen enter her room without looking into her mirror. She knew she loved the reflection of that beauty which since early childhood she had never been allowed to forget. Her relatives and friends, and later a horde of Mormon and Gentile suitors, had fanned the flame of natural vanity in her. So that at twenty-eight she scarcely thought at all of her wonderful influence for good in the little community where her father had left her practically its beneficent landlord, but cared most for the dream and the assurance and the allurement of her beauty. This time, however, she gazed into her glass with more than the usual happy motive, without the usual slight conscious smile. For she was thinking of more than the desire to be fair in her own eyes, in those of her friend; she wondered if she were to seem fair in the eyes of this Lassiter, this man whose name had crossed the long, wild brakes of stone and plains of sage, this gentle-voiced, sad-faced man who was a hater and a killer of Mormons. It was not now her usual half-conscious vain obsession that actuated her as she hurriedly changed her riding-dress to one of white, and then looked long at the stately form with its gracious contours, at the fair face with its strong chin and full firm lips, at the dark-blue, proud, and passionate eyes.

That excerpt is from Chapter II, pretty early on in the story, and it tells something of importance about our Miss Jane: she intends to use her appearance as an influence on other people (namely the sad-faced, gentle-voiced Mr. Lassiter). In this instance, Mr. Gray has used another “rule” of writing: show-not-tell. Rather than writing “Miss Withersteen knew she looked good and she intended to use it to her advantage,” we get instead the description-filled paragraph above.

Featured photo “lady and mirror” by oleg66 via iStock


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