Physical description of a character can be difficult to convey—too much will slow the pace or feel ‘list-like’, while too little will not allow readers to form a clear mental image. If a reader cannot imagine what your character looks like, they may have trouble connecting with them on a personal level, or caring about their plight.
One way to balance the showing and telling of physical description is to showcase a few details that really help ‘tell the story’ about who your character is and what they’ve been through up to this point. Think about what makes them different and interesting. Can a unique feature, clothing choice or way they carry themselves help to hint at their personality? Also, consider how they move their body. Using movement will naturally show a character’s physical characteristics, keep the pace flowing and help to convey their emotions.
Descriptors: stubby, masculine, feminine, arthritic, knobby, clawed, elegant, manicured, rough, calloused, pale, gnarled, smooth, greasy, dirt-creased, fat…
Things Hands Do (and other words/phrases to describe those actions)
- Hold: grasp, grip, squeeze, bruise, clutch, clasp
- Tremble: quiver, shake, flutter, fidget, bounce, quake, tremor
- Gesture: flap the air, point, wave, dismiss others, shoo, slap, giving a thumbs up or ok sign, clap
- Connect with Others: shake hands, slap on the back, hold hands, squeeze a shoulder, pat a knee, rest approvingly on a child’s head, stroke hair
Key Emotions and Related Hand Gestures:
- Anger: slap, punch, strike, hit, shake, clench, curl, pound, slam, push, shove, rip, tear, destroy, kill, choke, grab
Clichés to Avoid: man hands, hands that look skeletal or spider-like, fists clenched in anger with nails biting into the palms
HINT: When describing any part of the body, try to use cues that show the reader more than just a physical description. Make your descriptions do double duty. Example: We girls called him The Octopus, because of his hands. They were rubbery and cold and seemingly everywhere at once.
BONUS TIP: The Color, Texture, and Shape Thesaurus might help you find a fresh take on some of the descriptors listed above!
Describe your character’s features in a way that reveals more than just a physical description. Show what he looks like while also reinforcing his personality and emotional state, thereby doing more with less.
Need concrete examples of how to describe your character in a compelling, magnetic way? Good news! This thesaurus has been integrated into our online library at One Stop For Writers. There, you can find help with metaphors and similes, as well as the best ways to describe your character using movement. The entire Physical Feature collection is cross-referenced and linked for easy navigation. If you’re interested in seeing a free sampling of the updated Physical Feature Thesaurus and our other descriptive collections, head on over and register at One Stop!
Angela is a writing coach, international speaker, and bestselling author who loves to travel, teach, empower writers, and pay-it-forward. She also is a founder of One Stop For Writers, a portal to powerful, innovative tools to help writers elevate their storytelling.