Mirror Moment: a moment in midpoint scene of a novel or screenplay when the character is forced to look within and reflect on who he is and who he must become in order to achieve his goal. If he decides to continue on as he always has, he will surely fail (tragedy).
If the story is not a tragedy, the hero realizes he must either a) become stronger to overcome the odds or b) transform, shedding his biggest flaws and become more open-minded to new ideas and beliefs. One way or the other, he must better himself in some way to step onto the path which will lead to success.
When I think of a ‘mirror moment’ I think of a movie, in which a character looks into a mirror, or a reflection in a shop, or perhaps even a father looking at his son or a similar variation. Novels allow for much more interiority, and therefore a mirror moment doesn’t need an actual mirror. The reader can be told just what any character is thinking (depending on the POV choice).
In her book Second Sight, editor Cheryl Klein says this of mirror moments in children’s literature, and I’ve heard it said by a variety of lit experts:
We base our first impressions of people off what we see and what they say — so your descriptions of your character’s appearance can be important to establishing him in the reader’s mind. I say “can” because too much emphasis on appearance can cut both ways. There’s a terrible cliche in fiction where the main character will stop and look in a mirror and catalogue his or her features somewhere in the first chapter in order to establish the person visually in the reader’s mind. But that never really works for me — partly because it’s such a cliche that it annoys me and marks the writer as less interesting than s/he could be, and partly because that description defines the character in the reader’s mind as someone who likely looks different than the reader, which perhaps weakens the reader’s identification with the character. (None of Sarah Dessen’s book covers feature the faces of her protagonists, at her request, because she wants readers to be able to imagine themselves into the lives of her characters.)
On the other hand, there are are certain types of novels — fantasy especially — where you really want to have the characters described so the reader can visualize them, because the point of the book is that the reader falls into this world and experiences it fully. Or, if your novel is written in first person, we want to see what that main character sees when she looks at other people, which will help characterise those other people for us (and characterize your main character by showing us what she notices about others). So it depends on the point you’re going for whether you’ll want to spend time on appearances.
I have noticed that readers differ in the amount of description they want for a character. I remember once writing a short story then uploading it to my writing group for critique. In the short story I’d mentioned about halfway through that the main character had a beard. I’ll probably always be amused by one beta reader’s comment: “It’s a bit late to spring a beard on us.” (My emphasis.) Now I look at beards on men and think of how the beard might suddenly ‘spring upon’ me… which has pretty much ruined beards, if they hadn’t sort of ruined themselves… Anyhow, moral of that story is that some readers didn’t mind learning he had a beard whereas others had already constructed a strong visual in their mind and didn’t want it altered. So if you are going to describe a person, do it early. That said, I’ve read plenty of popular work in which description is drip fed to the reader.
There is a term used in reference to literacy: Concretization. It is thought that children are better at ‘concretizing’ than adult readers, who no longer require it in order to follow a story. So it’s possible (hypothetically) that children’s literature might provide more in the way of description than books for adults.
EXAMPLES AND ALTERNATIVES TO MIRROR MOMENTS IN CHILDREN’S LITERATURE
Fairytales are not necessarily ‘children’s literature’, at least not until the Grimm Brothers saw a lucrative hole in the kidlit market, but mirrors and reflections have a long tradition in fairytales around the world:
In The Giver, by Lois Lowry, the absence of mirrors is significant to the story. In this book, individuality comes a far second to the welfare of the group, and this is symbolised by the absence of mirrors:
Mirrors were rare in the community; they weren’t forbidden, but there was no real need of them, and Jonas had simply never bothered to look at himself very often even when he found himself in a location where a mirror existed. Now, seeing the newchild and its expressions, he was reminded that the light eyes were not only a rarity but gave the one who had them a certain look — what was it? Depth, he decided; as if one were looking into the clear water of the river, down to the bottom, where things might lurk which hadn’t been discovered yet. He felt self-conscious, realizing that he, too, had that look.
Even in the absence of mirrors, Lowry manages to create a ‘mirror moment’ by having the protagonist, Jonas, see himself in another person.
Another interesting thing about visual revelations in The Giver is that [SPOILER ALERT] we don’t know until partway through the book that Jonas’ world is devoid of colour. For readers who don’t like beards sprung upon them, I wonder if this works so well.