Physical Attribute: Toenails

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: shaped, trimmed, painted, glittery, decorated, colorful, glossy, tiny, thick, yellowed, rounded, curved, shiny, short, hangnail…

Things Toenails Do (and other words/phrases to describe those actions): Toenails, unlike other parts of the body, don’t actively “do” much. Their main function is to protect the toes from injury. People may use them to scratch at an itchy part on their leg, and women often showcase them in summer months by painting them fashionably.

Key Emotions Related to Toenails: 

  • Worry: because of the almost universal feeling that feet are not overly attractive, men and women are generally self conscious about their feet and so  take care to keep their toenails clean and healthy when they are visible to others (sandal season, going to the pool, etc.)
  • Pride…

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: Jenny walked across the ballroom, each step deliberate and slow, drawing all eyes to her. From the diamond hair clips holding back her thick blond hair to the glossy gold metallic toenails peeking out of her three inch Prada sandals, she was every bit the wealthy, well-bred society girl.

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. You can find Becca online at both of these spots, as well as on Facebook and Twitter.
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10 Responses to Physical Attribute: Toenails

  1. Pingback: Physical Attribute Entries | Writers Helping Writers

  2. Broken, peeling, clawed, dirty toenails… Ick. But such toenails would say something about a character. : ) As always, a wonderful, insightful, and informative post.

  3. Toenails can add flash or make you cringe, lol.

  4. As always, your posts get my brain working on good descriptions. Thanks.

  5. I think toenails must be the Rodney Dangerfields of the body. LOL! I’m kind of grossed out by them, but wouldn’t go as far as to say I’d rather be a proctologist! ;D

  6. I hadn’t thought about using toes to describe someone, but perhaps now I will. It’s interesting that there were no cliche’s associated with toes. Now I must go and paint my nails. 🙂

  7. I love this and although I do paint my toes I don’t like to draw too much attention to my feet. All those years in heels and stilettos were not kind but hey, I looked super hot then! Lol.. Great post. 🙂

  8. What you’ve done here with toenails is truly amazing ;). I have a friend who is so freaked out by feet, she says she’d prefer a career in proctology to podiatry. I should send this to her…

  9. D J Harrison says:

    I get it. Really good post, but toenails? These, thankfully, remain a mystery in most characters.
    I love blogs that help writers and yours is one of the best.

  10. JeffO says:

    At the risk of sharing too much, I used to suffer regular injuries to a toenail when I played hockey that would result in it turning black and falling off. It was pretty hideous, though not as painful as it sounds.

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