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.
Traci Kenworth says
I haven’t used head much either, but that may change…
sordar joy says
Great job .Thanks for sharing such an amazing blog.Keep up writing.
Stone Split Face
Leslie S. Rose says
I like a mix of hints and specifics. It’s fun to fill in the physical blanks in my own mind about a character, especially one I’m crushing on.
Angela Ackerman says
YES. What Becca said!
Becca Puglisi says
Nicole, this is something I’m finding that people just differ on; some people want you to spell descriptions out for them while others want to fill in the blanks for themselves. I’m a minimalist, so I prefer less physical description of characters. But when it’s necessary, I think it’s so important to choose details that say something about the character, and to describe things in a way that doesn’t apply to every other character ever created. That’s why I like this thesaurus, because it’s making me think of how we can use more obscure descriptors instead of just writing about eyes or hair ;).
Nicole Rivera says
In my writing group last week physical description of my protagonist came up. One member loved that I didn’t describe her, another said it confused her. The fact of the matter was it wasn’t omitted on purpose! As I am working on my current WIP during camp nanowrimo, I am trying to remind myself of the importance of this as I move forward and not miss opportunities to include them. Thanks for such an awesome (and timely) post!
Becca Puglisi says
When I hear “nicely-shaped head”, I always think of the Predator monster and his skull collection. 😉
Thanks for this one, Ange.
Angela Ackerman says
Glad this one helps, guys! As always, we’re not suggesting a writer use all the body parts and describe each, but more think about parts we usually don’t describe and how to use them to create fresh images, or how to look at a body part we do use often and use it to really show some strong characterization and emotion rather than just bland movement.
Have a great weekend, all! 🙂
Michael Offutt, S.F.A. says
Stephen over at the Chubby Chatterbox recently posted about a person with a nicely shaped head. Your post reminded me of that.
Donna K. Weaver says
Another excellent post. Wonderful example!
C. Lee McKenzie says
Now “stumpy” is an adjective I’ve never used. Making note of it right now.
Natalie Aguirre says
I haven’t ever done much with heads in my writing. Hair yes, but heads no. You’ve given me some great ideas on how to use them. Thanks so much.