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: plump, full, pouty, sultry, thin, fat, dry, cracked, scabby, split, pierced, chapped, swollen, collagen-inflated…
Things Lips Do (and other words/phrases to describe those actions)
- Smile: grin, smirk, simper, sneer, twist, upturn, lift
- Frown: grimace, moue, scowl, pout
- Kiss: smooch, smack, peck, graze, caress, skim, tickle, flick, brush
Key Emotions and Related Lip Gestures:
People mess with their lips quite a bit. When nervous or uncertain, it’s common for people to bite or chew on the lips as well as rubbing a hand or fingers over them. The lips are often mashed together when someone is holding back their true feelings or opinions. When someone is feeling happy…
Clichés to Avoid: a sensual person with plump, full lips; the flirty girl with pouty lips
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: I watch myself in the mirror across the room. Ugh. Two muddy-circle eyes under black-dash eyebrows, piggy-nose nostrils, and a chewed-up horror of a mouth. I can’t stop biting my lips. It looks like my mouth belongs to someone else, someone I don’t even know. I get out of bed and take down the mirror. I put it in the back of my closet, facing the wall. (Speak, by Laurie Halse Anderson)
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.
Traci Kenworth says
Nice details!! Sometimes we can forget the smallest thing that can make a difference in bringing our character to life.
The Pen and Ink Blog says
What a wonderfully informative post. I refer back to you blog often whenever I need inspiration for a revision
Love that line about lips the size of California.
Tracy Campbell says
I’m amazed you come up with so many great body part descriptions. And I certainly commented to hopefully win the awesome prize. Congratulations again on five years together. 🙂
Susan Gourley/Kelley says
Great ideas for creative description.
Susanne Drazic says
Would “lip smacking good” be considered a cliche? I’ve heard it used when talking about how good some food dishes are.
Melissa J H. says
Loved this, it will really help me with my story.
Kai Strand says
Lips are a great mood indicator and sprinkled throughout the text a strong character developer. Yet so easy to forget to use!
Thanks for the post.
Becca Puglisi says
Charlene, good catch! I should have put ‘licking the lips’ as a common sign of nervousness and unease. I don’t think it’s a cliché as much as it is a universal sign for those emotion. Obviously, it shouldn’t be overused, but using it here or that during a scene of high emotion can go a long way toward drawing the reader in, since they’ll recognize that cue.
Karoline Kingley says
These tips are so helpful! Sometimes it’s difficult to find different words to describe lips, but you made the possibilities seem endless.
Martina at Adventures in YA Publishing says
Love this post and all the others in the series. It’s wonderfully useful to think about things while seeing them all consolidated like this!
Thanks so much for these!
Have a great weekend!
As always, this helps me think beyond my own way of describing things. Very helpful, thanks=)
This is useful, thank you.
I noticed licking your lips isn’t on there. Is that considered cliche even if it isn’t done in a sensual manner?
Natalie Aguirre says
Thanks for the tips. That was a great example of a good description of lips by Laurie Halse Anderson. This is a hard one not to be cliche.
Leslie S. Rose says
The simile/metaphor killed me. I’m going to be staring at people’s lips all day.