Physical Feature Entry: Skin

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: olive, caramel, brown, black, tan, pale, white, yellowish, gray, ivory, pink, freckled, splotchy, smooth, flawless, rashy, wrinkled, dry, spotted, pocked, hairy, rosy, scarred, saggy, itchy, tingling, acne-spotted…

Things Skin Does (and other words/phrases to describe those actions)

  • Shiver: shudder, jitter, tremble, quiver, tremor
  • Tingle: prickle, sting, tickle, prick
  • Blush: flush, bloom, gild, pinken, stain, tint, tinge

Key Emotions and Related Skin Verbs: 

  • Fear: a tightening sensation, prickling or tingling, the hair rising on the arms and back of the neck, over-sensitivity to stimuli, shuddering/trembling/shivering, numbness in the extremities, a sensation of the skin “crawling”
  • Embarrassment…

Clichés to Avoid: alligator skin, peaches-and-cream complexion, skin that’s paper thin…

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: Lines meandered over her skin, intersecting with scars and puckering where they criss-crossed. It was a roadmap of her past, marking not only the pain but also the changing points that had made her the woman she was today.

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!

About ANGELA ACKERMAN

Angela is an international speaker and bestselling author who loves to travel, teach, empower writers, and pay-it-forward. She also enjoys dreaming up new tools and resources for One Stop For Writers, a library built to help writers elevate their storytelling.
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14 Responses to Physical Feature Entry: Skin

  1. oh, thank you for this post. I have a set of characters/ paranormal creatures in my story and I was completely stuck on skin descriptions. btw, I hope this one comes out in book format soon. I bought the emotional thesaurus. Without it, I’m useless.. 😀 Thanks!

  2. Nice Post..Thank you so much for taking the time to share such a nice information…
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  3. You’re going to have quite the thesaurus for me when I get to this point in my edits. 😀 Thanks ladies!

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  5. Yours is one of the most unusual… and helpful… blogs in the whole darned blogosphere. I don’t comment often, but I wanted you to know your efforts are very much appreciated. (I LOVE your book, and sincerely hope you plan on coming out with a bunch more of ’em.)

  6. Thanks for the post. As always, you continue to give me ideas of different ways to describe people. Very helpful.

  7. Rosi says:

    Another great post. Thanks for this.

  8. A great post, Becca. When writing short stories, it is hard to get the balance of description and action right – too much and your reader loses interest and too little and they cannot ‘see’ teh person in their imagination.

  9. Jemi Fraser says:

    Love these! Skin isn’t something I always remember to describe! 🙂

  10. @karoline, definitely you don’t want to over describe. Picking out a few details that help paint a picture is all that is needed, especially at first introduction. It is simply our suggestion that when a writer picks a few details, or later adds an extra bit of description to further that first initial image, that they do it in a way that doesn’t feel list like. If skin were one of the details a writer chose to focus on, then this entry gives ideas on how to make that aspect of physical description add to the movement and flow by being active, and by providing a characterization hint. For example, the quality of skin can tell us if a person is hard working (chapped, lined, scratched, etc) or lives a life of privledge (smooth, creamy, soft) all through our choice of adjectives. 🙂

  11. Physical attributes can be a powerful reflection of not only emotion but personality. However, is it wrong to be so specific about a character’s looks to the extent that the reader can hardly imagine them?

  12. As usual, you give great ways to express what we see in words. Thanks ladies.

  13. Al Diaz says:

    All your posts always help me learn more English in an interesting way. Thanks!

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