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: white, polished, orderly, straight, crooked, snaggle-tooth, twisted, yellowed, nicotine-stained, grey, rotten, pearly, buck toothed, healthy, bright, jutted, cracked, missing teeth, braces, crowns, capped…
Things Teeth Do (and other words/phrases to describe those actions):
- Cut: rip, slice, tear, shred, rend, split, cleave, pierce, strip
- Chew: masticate, gnaw, mash, dent, grind, flatten, crush, chomp, nibble, wad
*NOTE: Teeth also impact the sound of a person’s speech. Someone with missing teeth might adopt a slight whistle to some of their words. When dentures are removed, some words can sounds a bit muffled or slurry.
Key Emotions and Related Teeth Actions:
- Rage: Bearing the teeth at another; forcing harsh breaths through clenched teeth; biting to hurt or maim
Clichés to Avoid: Having “horse” teeth; that people from Britain have bad teeth; being told candy will rot your teeth…
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: Alan was efficient to the core. He didn’t savor his food, taking small, considerate bites, pausing to reflect on the complex flavors of the citrus duck and saffron rice stuffing. No, instead he shoveled in bite after bite, his teeth tearing and mashing, consuming fuel to power the machine.
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.