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: shaven, bristled, bumpy, bulbous, veined, oval, egg-shaped, pointed, wide, elongated, narrow…
Things Heads Do
- nod: dip, incline, duck and lift, bow, tip, bob
- shake: wag, jerk, waver, sway, rock, tremor
- tilt: slant, cock, twist, shift, lean, turn, pitch, bend
Key Emotions and Related Head Gestures:
- People often move their head without thinking, especially when interacting with others, so it’s a good way to spot a shift in emotion. During conversation, a person may tip their head forward when they are feeling vulnerable (uncertainty, nervousness, fear, shame, embarrassment, confusion, etc.) Rubbing the back of the head can be a self-soothing gesture for worry…
Clichés to Avoid: Calling a bald man egg-headed or a cue ball
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: Dusty scraped his hands over his bristly head, pacing erratically. As he muttered to himself, glancing at the emergency doors every few steps, I noticed his fingers would linger on the twisted scar just above his right ear before traveling back. My heart squeezed painfully for him. The car accident, of course. He was just a child, too young to remember it, but it left him without parents. What a terrible memory to have surface as he waited for word on his son’s condition from the hit and run.
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!
Angela is a writing coach, international speaker, and bestselling author who loves to travel, teach, empower writers, and pay-it-forward. She also is a founder of One Stop For Writers, a portal to powerful, innovative tools to help writers elevate their storytelling.