Physical Feature Entry: Shoulders

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: muscled, broad, narrow, thin, willowy, thick, freckled, tanned, sunburned, veined, bulky, rounded, tattooed, strong, roped with muscle, bony, sloped, iron, pale, pimpled, solid, lean, big boned…

Things Shoulders Do

  • lift: raise, curl, hoist, heave, boost
  • tense: tighten, harden, strain, bulge, ripple, twinge
  • push: nudge, jam, shove, knock, thrust, prod, poke, jostle
  • drop: sag, lower, cave, plummet, bow

Key Emotions and Related Shoulder Gestures: 

  • Disappointment or Resignation: shoulders tend to drop or cave in a moment of defeat, or pull forward and as body posture loosens, curl over one’s chest
  • Indifference or Confusion…

Clichés to Avoid: The shrugging of shoulders is often overused when a character is being non-responsive during a dialogue exchange. It’s not a gesture to avoid, but one to take care in not overusing.

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:  Andrew’s t-shirt peeled off like a second skin, revealing broad, sun-browned shoulders that my fingers ached to touch. The hard life of a ranch hand certainly agreed with this cowboy.

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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15 Responses to Physical Feature Entry: Shoulders

  1. Never thought of shoulders as an entity like this. I must go do a search for “shrugs.”

  2. Love the list of synonyms. Aren’t we lucky to have so many words that we can choose just the right one we need to create the image we want.

    Thanks, Angela

  3. M Pax says:

    My editor recently pointed out that you don’t need to say shoulders shrug. That the body part need only be named if it’s not shoulders.

    Great tips on using shoulders.

  4. Karen Lange says:

    Good post, thank you! You guys are so good at this, you should write a book! 🙂

  5. Kelly Polark says:

    Another great post!
    Shoulders above the rest! (okay, I couldn’t resist… 😉

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  7. Oo, I love this one! 🙂

  8. I love the idea of describing unusual characteristics like shoulders instead of the usual. Can’t help this though. “rippled shoulders” *snort* te he he. I’m so mature!!

  9. Heather says:

    This makes me want to describe shoulders better. And I happen to be working on a scene where I can do just that. Thank you!

  10. Excellent post as always. I usually have to go back and replace shrugs with other actions. 😀

  11. What a great post. You guys always come up with good ones. Thanks Ange and Becca!

  12. I remember in the book Holes, Stanley Yelnats often responded by shrugging one shoulder. It was unique, and that probably contributed to his nickname, “Caveman.”

  13. Hi Angela,
    It always amazes me how you come up with so many great descriptions. 🙂

  14. Another great entry, Ange. I tend to notice shoulders, so I appreciate this one 🙂

  15. I like how you take the time to go beyond the cliche and help us (the writer)dig deeper as well.

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