Physical Attribute Entry: Fingernails

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: long, short, ragged, chipped, uneven, bitten, painted, decorated, glossy, pointed, curved, waxy, thick, peeling, missing, cracked, acrylic, false, manicured…

Things Nails Do:

  • Pluck: pick, pull, drag, collect, draw, harvest
  • Lift: pry, wedge, lever, manipulate, force, tamper, raise, heave, jimmy
  • Scratch: scrape, scuff, cut, scar, chafe, rub, graze
  • Protect: defend, cover, guard, ward off, cut, slice, repel

Key Emotions and Related Fingernail Gestures: 

  • Nervous: bite, pick at, chew, nibble, strip
  • Anger…

Clichés to Avoid: Overusing nail biting to show nerves

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: Aunt Mary was the eccentric of the family, refusing to cut her nails until they literally began to curl into corkscrews that you could comb your hair with.

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, an online library packed with powerful tools to help writers elevate their storytelling.
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14 Responses to Physical Attribute Entry: Fingernails

  1. Kelly Polark says:

    Interesting post, and I do actually highlight fingernails in a scene in my mg. Fingernails can be important to preteens and teenage girls! I remember painting my nails twice a week in high school!

  2. This is awesome stuff. Fingernails can really tell a lot about a person, and yet I overlook them all the time in my writing. Thanks for this, Ange!

  3. Thanks guys! Glad this one helps. I just finished watching Iron Man 2 again and I was continually draw to Mickey Rourke’s fingernails–they were thick and yellowed, yet his hands were always purposeful in each close up. It was a perfect way to show the balance between his environment and poverty and yet his determination for revenge.

  4. I keep a binder of dialogue tags, describers, possible character names +++. I’m adding this great take on character description to it. Thanks a mint for pulling it together and sharing it. Best wishes for a successful writing new year.

  5. I have never thought about the fingernails of characters when writing and I think I’m missing out on a nice detail. Thank you!

  6. I love the details you two come up with!!

  7. Nails are versatile, aren’t they? People bite them when they’re nervous, tap them when they’re fidgety, paint them when they’re relaxed.

    They can be so short that the skin of the finger makes a hood over them if their owner is extremely compulsive. They might be well trimmed and short if their owner is a string player. They may be long and painted fancy colors. There are just so many ways to use nails. A fabulous detail to focus on!

  8. So when are these going to be a book? 😉 Love the example with the nail. But ew!

  9. Nice tips! I hadn’t really thought of fingernails as indicators, but they really do show a lot.

  10. Somehow I overlooked how useful finger nails can be. Bad writer! Thanks for the tips=)

  11. Southpaw says:

    This is a good one!

  12. Al Diaz says:

    Very useful information! 😀

  13. JeffO says:

    Tapping. I have a tendency to have my characters tap their nails on a tabletop.

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