With Your Protagonist Looking Into a Mirror
The other day as I stared at my reflection in the bathroom mirror of my north London flat I recalled that my hair is fine and dyed a darker brunette then it would naturally grow to match my darker than average brown eyes. The shadows under my eyes were also darker than they should be but I reminded myself that they were probably there because of all the reading I do for my job as an editor at a literary agency. The image looking back at me was quite pale now that the spray tan had worn off from my sister’s wedding but for the most part I looked just how a female human of twenty five years should look on her way to play laser tag.
And I thought to myself, “Vicki,” because that is my name, “Vicki,” I thought, “this is a transparent narrative technique to communicate basic character information to your readers and you really aren’t fooling anyone.”
OK, so the having-your-protagonist-look-into-a-mirror trick is not the worst literary device ever used. I mean most authors have used it to some extent at some point.
If I’m not mistaken J K Rowling has Harry look into a mirror at the beginning of Goblet of Fire. Oh for those heady days when saying the words ‘Harry’ and ‘Potter’ still did not immediately drum up a clear image of the glasses, the hair and the lightning bolt scar.
To use a more recent example, a certain sadomasochism bestseller starts thusly:
“I scowl with frustration at myself in the mirror. Damn my hair – it just won’t behave, and damn Katherine Kavanagh for being ill and subjecting me to this ordeal. I should be studying for my final exams, which are next week, yet here I am trying to brush my hair into submission.”
Again, there’s nothing wrong with this. I suppose. I mean, personally, it doesn’t make me immediately want to spend any more time with this character but there’s a lot of information crammed in there, fair dos.
However, Wikipedia tells me that 70 million people have bought this particular book and assuming that most of them got past the first paragraph we can safely assume that a lot of people are now familiar with this narrative technique if they weren’t already.
Beyond this, one demographic that I can say for certain will be familiar with the mirror technique would be literary agents. I would estimate that I come across some version of this technique at least twice a day when reading submissions. Although, I think my record is reading eight submissions in a row that had a mirror scene somewhere in the first chapter.
It might be a useful way to communicate information but it is not the way to go if you want to wow an agent. It’s just too familiar.
So, if you have started your novel with this technique my advice would be to take a long, hard look at yourself in the mirror and think of another opening line to really show off your individual writing style.
While you’re at it consider how weird it feels to take a long, hard look at yourself in the mirror. How often do we actually do that in real life? And how weird are eyebrows when you really take the time to look at them?
By Vicki Le Feuvre