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”
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!
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.