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.
Joanne Fritz says
This is so helpful. Thanks!
Genital estetik says
for six year, you have changed the way of my blogging. After reading your post, I change my life as you advice. Thank you for your blog, I found yours very useful.
Love this one on hands! They do so much, can be so expressive and tell us so much about a character. Love to think about using them in unique ways in writing. (my husband’s hands were what drew me to him:)
Sharon K. Mayhew says
Great tips on hands. I’ll have to go back over my manuscript again and do a hand check. 🙂
I love the sound of this new thesaurus, and what a great example! You two are simply brilliant! :o) <3
I’ve always been fascinated by hands. They tell so much about people, so they definitely tell a lot about characters. Great post.
Stina Lindenblatt says
Ooooh! I love this thesaurus! 😀
Tracy Campbell says
Keep them coming!
Traci Kenworth says
Hands can do so much for a character, we often don’t realize. Thanks for reinforcing the idea to use every body part to convey more than just the ordinary, to really showcase what it can do.
Susanne Drazic says
A great post!
Melissa Pearl says
This is a great post. Thank you so much for sharing 🙂
Another awesome entry to begin a fabulous thesaurus! 🙂
Angela Ackerman says
Thanks everyone! I think this will be a super fun thesaurus to take on–there are so many possibilities to show using a character’s body and movement!
Kristin Lenz says
I shuddered reading the octopus example!
Laura Pauling says
Awesome guys! This will be a great addition to your collection!
Martha Ramirez says
This one’s a good one! Thank you, Becca!
These are great, guys. Hands are always a tricky part because–just like in life–it’s hard to figure out what to do with them sometimes.
These are great! Thanks for these and keep them coming! I love your Emotion Thesaurus. It’s a wonderful tool.
The Magic Violinist says
Oh these are so cool! I can’t wait to see more. Your Thesauruses help me so much in my writing. 😀
Wonderful suggestions! Hands can tell us so much about a person.
Heh, ‘Man Hands’ — one of my favorite Seinfeld episodes of all-time. It still makes me laugh out loud.
I have a tendency to have too much focus on hands. It’s important, a good way to help show emotion in addition to action, but I have to reign it in a bit, I think.
Thank you for sharing this.