1st Person Point of View & Character Description

"In 1st person point of view, what is the best way to describe the main character's physical appearance?"
- James, Cornwall, England

Good question, James.

In 3rd person point of view, it is simple for the narrator of the novel to describe a character. It might look something like this: "On the day Veronica Green turned fifty, she had the figure and the looks to turn women half her age jealous. Her skin was as smooth as china still and..."

(Read the Point of View section for the theory of viewpoint in literature.)

As the reader of this novel, you accept what the narrator is telling you. But translated to 1st person point of view, it would sound all wrong: "On the day I turned fifty, I had the figure and the looks to turn women half my age jealous. My skin was as smooth as china still and..."

Nobody talks like that about themselves. If they do, they comes across as either obnoxiously vain or, more likely, vain and deluded.

You can describe yourself in a factual way using the "I" of 1st person: "I had brown hair and green eyes." But that is boring.

To make the description interesting, you need to inject some opinion into it: "I had silky brown hair and eyes so green they sparkled like jewels." But that is plain weird.

The solution, then, is for a character in a first person novel to describe themselves in an interesting, opinionated way, but for it not to be them providing the opinions. Here are a few suggestions.

  • At Veronica Green's birthday dinner, a friend could say to her: "How do you stay looking so young? It's obscene!"
  • Or the birthday girl herself could write: "There wasn't a person at the table who hadn't said how great I looked, but I didn't feel it. Fifty was a lot closer to the end than the beginning, right? Old felt old, no matter how many people told you they'd kill for your legs."
  • Alternatively, you could have the character provide facts about herself which suggest how she looks without spelling it out. So if Veronica tells you she used to be a model and that she still works out every day, she is suggesting a picture of a great-looking older woman without sounding vain about it.

Also remember not to overdo the description - in 3rd or 1st person point of view. Present the readers with a few vivid details and leave them to paint the rest of the picture for themselves.

Remember, too, that in a first person multi viewpoint novel, you could have each viewpoint character describe the other.