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: hairy, wrinkly, gnarled, bunioned, calloused, knobby, long, dirty, dainty, blistered, arthritic, rough, soft, stubby…
Interesting Toe Factoids:
- The length of the second toe (whether it’s longer than the other toes or shorter) is determined by genetics.
- You can’t serve in the U.S. Army if you’re missing any toes. This led to drastic measures for some who wanted to avoid being drafted into the Vietnam War.
- Syndactyly is a condition wherein two digits are fused or webbed. Famous individuals suffering from syndactyly of the toes include Ashton Kutcher, Dan Aykroyd, and Joseph Stalin.
- Marilyn Monroe had six toes on one foot.
- the first known prosthetic limb replacement was for an Egyptian woman’s big toe, in 1000 B.C)
- Toe cramps are painful and inconvenient, particularly at 3 in the morning. (Yes, I speak from personal experience). I’m sure they could drop a grown man to his knees, which could be an interesting flaw for a manly hero-type character.
Key Emotions and Related Toe Gestures:
When someone is nervous or uncomfortable, toes can fidget or twitch like any other extremity…
Clichés to Avoid: toes that “curl” when someone is appalled or disgusted; the kiss that one feels all the way down to one’s toes; toes that are gnarled like tree roots
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: His toes were slender and snakeish, like fingers, the long one curving way out past the rest. Between them and the fossilized nails, I shuddered to think of the damage he could do with just his toes.
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!
Becca Puglisi is an international speaker, writing coach, and bestselling author of The Emotion Thesaurus and its sequels. Her books are available in five languages, are sourced by US universities, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, editors, and psychologists around the world. She is passionate about learning and sharing her knowledge with others through her Writers Helping Writers blog and via One Stop For Writers—a powerhouse online library created to help writers elevate their storytelling.
Never thought of toes that much, but what a great post this is!
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Leslie S. Rose says
Toes have an ewww factor for me. Reminds me, I am in desperate need of a pedi.
Janet Hartman says
As a Yankee transplanted south, I’ve noticed that all native Southern women paint their toenails at the start of sandals weather and continue until fall. I have yet to see one that doesn’t, no matter what her age.
I never considered using the toes for description. Love this series, it give me so many ideas. Oh, and I bought the Emotion Thesaurus. Loving it so far…again for ideas outside the box of my own brain. Thanks so much for the resources!
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Becca Puglisi says
Less is definitely more when it comes to describing a character’s physical appearance, imo. And everyone seems to focus on the hair, eyes, and build. So I wasn’t sure how many people would be interested in toes, but that’s the point, I think—to branch out and think beyond the common body parts to find new things to focus on when working on characterization. But I fully agree that you need to have a good reason to focus on an obscure body part like toes or knees. A description like that does have to fit the character.
Miranda Hardy says
Interesting facts about toes. I had no idea.
Traci Kenworth says
This would be a hard one. Unless maybe it’s a villain. I don’t know if I want my readers focusing on my character’s hairy toes. Lol.
Natalie Aguirre says
Great tidbits on toes, like about the genetics and the second toe and Marilyn Monroe. Thanks for sharing them.
S.P. Bowers says
I have to admit I’d never thought of describing a character by her toes.
I do ascribe to the less is more theory. All we know of Elizabeth Bennett in Pride and Prejudice is that she had fine eyes.
I am SO not a foot person.