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: long, slender, stubby, wrinkled, thin, fat, knobby, gnarled, arthritic, strong, frail, fragile, clawed, tremulous, deft, dextrous…
Things Fingers Do (and other words/phrases to describe those actions)
- Quiver: shake, shiver, shudder, tremble, flutter, jitter, quaver, tremor
- Tingle: smart, sting, tingle, prickle, tickle, throb
- Fidget: tap, drum, rub, pick, bounce, pat, flick, worry, fuss, squeeze, waggle, stroke, crack knuckles
Key Emotions and Related Finger Gestures:
- When a person is nervous or worried, the fingers are great indicators. They worry at each other, pick at loose threads, stroke or rub at a certain spot over and over, drum a tabletop, or tap the lip or chin. The fingers can play a great role in individualizing your character and creating those unique movements to show when your hero is anxious.
- A common sign of anger…
Clichés to Avoid: thin fingers described as skeletal, fingers curling into fists so tightly that the nails break the skin, fingers 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: I wasn’t sure about this deal, but Derek seemed to have no doubts. I examined his outstretched hand—the fingers were steady, without a flutter of uncertainty or greed. When I finally gave in, his handshake was firm, the fingers wrapping around mine like an arm around the shoulder, assuring me that everything would be all right.
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.