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: flat, tight, pierced, round, thick, jiggly, bloated, puffy, stretch marked, bloblike, rolly, ballooned, pregnant, hefty, plump, obese, pudgy, portly, skinny…
Things Stomachs Do:
- Bounce: jiggle, vibrate, quiver, tremble, shake, judder, jounce
- Tighten: harden, tense, suck in, bind
- Slacken: release, bulge, balloon, billow, relax, stretch
Key Emotions and Related Stomach Gestures:
- Embarrassment: When people are self conscious and especially if they are embarrassed of their body image, it is common to suck in the stomach to make it appear flatter, or to use arms to hide the stomach by crossing them. People who are confident in their shape have no qualms about dressing so their midriff is exposed or clearly viewable through revealing/tight clothing, while those with less confidence dress to conceal this area.
- Shock or Surprise…
Clichés to Avoid: likening someone a beached whale; fat jokes that ask where Ahab is; the beer keg or barrel stomach…
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 loved watching Eric sleep–so quiet and composed, his small chest rising and falling in a pattern, his stomach smooth and flat. His stillness was so unlike him when awake. Then, he became a wild, electrified force that bounced all over the house. But while he napped, I had him all to myself, watching to see if he would smile, if his belly would shake with silent laughter at something only a three-year-old would dream.
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.