The mirror scene. You know it. This is often used by beginning writers as a way to show the reader what the POV character looks like. It goes something like this:
Courtney peered into the mirror and gasped. Her makeup was smeared from her blue eyes to her rosy cheeks. Tears rolled into the creases of her full lips. Her blonde hair was matted and in desperate need of a brushing.
The reader can picture Courtney with blue eyes, blonde hair, and full lips, and will be able to do so even after she’s cleaned herself up. But at what expense? The reader’s been torn from the story in order to learn these things. Were they really that important and worth the risk of losing the reader? Does it matter that this character has blonde hair? Do her full lips or blue eyes move the story forward or cause conflict?
If the story were in deep POV, Courtney may notice the smeared makeup and the matted hair, but she wouldn’t think of her eyes as being blue, her hair as blonde, or her lips full. She sees herself every day and would only notice differences in her appearance, unless she’s vain, which she’s not. Would the scene work if the writer removed these descriptors? That’s subjective. Some might say it would, but the scene would be weak.
A better method of introducing physical attributes to a character is through the eyes of someone else. In this case, someone could walk in on Courtney and make the exact observation (internally) as she did in the above sample. If this person was someone who knew her well, they wouldn’t necessarily notice the color of her eyes or hair either. However, they would notice she’s been crying and what that’s done to her appearance. A stranger could see more than that. Someone who’s attracted to her may see beyond the smeared makeup and matted hair, and only take in the vulnerability in her blue eyes and the poutiness of her full lips.
What if the story wouldn’t work to have someone come in on Courtney? This can drive some newbie writers crazy. The novel would start without the reader knowing what the POV character looked like. True. However, most stories begin with an inciting incident (or should), so the reader is busy reading about what’s going on rather than worrying about the color of Courtney’s hair. If not, you haven’t done your job hooking her.
Focus on getting the reader hooked on the story, then sneak the physical attributes in when the pace slows.
Have you used a mirror scene? Why or why not? How do you feel when you read mirror scenes in the work of others?