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: round, narrow, heart-shaped, long, squished, square, oval, fleshy, fat, drawn, skeletal, baby-faced, wrinkled, freckled, acned, happy, sad…
Things Faces Do (and other words/phrases to describe those actions)
- Fall: sag, droop, sink, crumple
- Brighten: shine, gleam, glow, uplift, beam, radiate
- This is a tough one, because many of the things that happen to the face (tics, twitches, etc.) aren’t attributed to the face, but to the specific body part involved (eye, jaw, cheek). Remember that for the face to get credit for an action, multiple parts need to be in play. This is why feelings are usually attributed to the face, because so much of it is involved when emotions are being expressed.
Key Emotions and Related Face Gestures:
- Fear: The eyes grow wide; the nostrils may flare; the mouth may open wider to take in more oxygen or squeeze closed in an effort to gain control of oneself.
- Happiness: the eyes may shine or glisten with tears; a smile will emerge; the entire faces brightens or becomes more animated
- Sadness: the eyes grow dull…
- For more information on how to express emotions using the face and other body parts, see our sampling of The Emotion Thesaurus, or check out the complete version at Amazon and other retailers.
Clichés to Avoid: the wrinkled face that is described as a roadmap or atlas of lines; the face as an open book or closed door; the pointy-chinned face being “elfin”
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: The woman put her sad moon-face in at the window of the car. “You be good,” she said to the little ones. “Mind what Dicey tells you.” Then she slung her purse over her shoulder and walked away, her stride made uneven by broken sandal thongs, thin elbows showing through holes in the oversized sweater, her jeans faded and baggy. — Homecoming, Cynthia Voigt
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.