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: arched, curved, shaped, waxed, patchy, bushy, shaved, colored, bleached…
Things Eyebrows Do
- Furrow: gather, pinch, tighten, draw together, join, press, meld; knit
- Raise: lift, rise, arch, jump, boost, hike
- Lower: crouch, slump, slant, sink, collapse
Key Emotions and Related Eyebrow Gestures:
- Surprise: Eyebrow shoot up with shock or may rise gradually at a slower realization or surprise. The brows are difficult to control, and so even if a character is trying to hide their surprise, often their brows will lift slightly before they are able to bring them under control
- Fear: brows draw together…
Clichés to Avoid: raising a single eyebrow, overusing an arched eyebrow as a response to a stupid question; eyebrows that furrow constantly
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: Great Aunt Neddie slapped down her gin and tonic, hitched up her pantyhose and lurched across the dance floor to Edward’s handsome Uncle Reese. Her uneven gait made her feathery eyebrows weave like two battered rowboats, but her eyes were fixed on the one that got away.
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.
Angelica Samilin says
Great! Eyebrows can speak louder.
Timons Esaias says
No, eyebrows do not furrow. Foreheads furrow.
BECCA PUGLISI says
Correct! Yet many authors include this action for their character’s eyebrows. This is why we included alternatives, to give writers more options for how to write this physical feature without falling back on overused, generic, or (in this case) incorrect actions :).
Geez… I’ve just realized Angela has a book about this, adding to my shopping cart 😉
OMG! this post is serioulsy what I needed! thanks a lot!
Cynthia Chapman Willis says
Eyebrows can be fun, but like others who have commented here, I do tend to overdo the eyebrow “talk.” It gets a little ridiculous. Thank goodness for revisions. : )
Kelly Polark says
I am seriously obsessed with eyebrows. So I really, really like this post. 🙂 Seriously.
Becca Puglisi says
That Great Aunt Neddie example is awesome! And I love the idea of a character with dirty eyebrows…
Traci Kenworth says
Hmmm, I need to go back through and look for use of raising a single brow in response to something…
Melissa J H. says
This was a lot of fun, I just got back into writing and now will always think of your post when I think about eyebrows.
Tracy Campbell says
What can I say, but keep them coming.
I hadn’t thought much about eyebrows other the usual cliches.
I love eyebrows, but I do try not to overuse them, especially after reading some of my early stories. OMG, cliched eyebrows are everywhere!
Marian Perera says
The cliche to avoid is so true for me. I have to make a conscious effort not to have characters raising a single eyebrow a la Mr. Spock.
I once knew someone who had no hair on his head at all, so he drew his eyebrows on. They didn’t just look artificial, they looked scary. And each time I spoke to him, I had to concentrate on looking into his eyes instead.
Angela Ackerman says
Haha, Stina, I’ve one that too! I think the eyebrows are important because we naturally focus on he eyes as we communicate. What the eyebrows do as we speak often help us interperet emotion. In books we shouldn’t rely on eyes or the face overmuch, but it would ring false if we didn’t give a few mentions within the story.
Glad this post is helpful!
Stina Lindenblatt says
I love this post. I’ve stood in front of the mirror, analyzing what my eyebrows do with certain facial expressions. Now I don’t have to. 😀
Oh my goodness, thank you for this! I LOVE eyebrows, but I grimace every. single. time I have (do I really have to, or am I just really wanting to because I love them?) describe somebody’s eyebrows because I can’t seem to break away from the cliches. Thank you for this. I might have to print it and staple it to my wall where I can see it every time I sit to write.
E. M. LaBonte says
Great post. There are some great examples of how to be a bit more creative with describing/using eyebrows. I tend to overuse this myself. Thanks!
Sarah Kolb-Williams says
I love it! The “cliches to avoid” part — so true. I recently edited a book where the main character was constantly raising an eyebrow! We worked it out — but this was funny to see. Great post!
Donna K. Weaver says
Yes, it’s easy to overuse eyebrows because people tend to overuse their eyebrows. Like rolling your eyes.
Michael Offutt, Speculative Fiction Author says
Someone that tweezes their eyebrow could be meticulous or gay.
Thank you. This is very helpful/useful. 🙂
Natalie Aguirre says
Great tips to get away from those nasty cliches.
Francene Stanley says
Great words. Thanks once again.
Another part of the body I tend to overuse…