Physical Feature Entry: Athletic Build

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: Broad shoulders and back, narrow waist, flat stomach, toned and enlarged muscles, lean frame…

People Likely to have an Athletic Build: professional and amateur athletes, health-conscious individuals…

Famous Examples:

  • Bruce Lee
  • Channing Tatum
  • Usain Bolt…

Simile and Metaphor Help:

  • Andy stuffed stack after stack of pancakes into his mouth, his muscles bulging in his perfectly-proportioned body like boulders being pushed to the surface by tectonic activity. It wasn’t fair, the differences between guys and girls. I picked at my fruit salad and scowled…

Clichés to Avoid: the athletic body being compared to a machine

Twists on the Stereotypical Athletic Build:

  • Athletic builds are almost always tanned, dark-skinned, or some other enviable shade. How about an athletic body that’s a little less desirable, like pale, veined, acned, or sickly…

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 treadmill beeped and Jess slid off, trying not to fall over. The workout had been a killer, and then the run on top of that…She wiped her face and caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror. Her muscles stood out, nearly pulsing after what she’d put them through. And by the looks of it, she’d managed to work off that cookie from yesterday. But volleyball tryouts were tomorrow, and she wasn’t the only one vying for a starting spot. She tossed the towel over her shoulder and headed for the pull-up bar.

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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[…] Athletic Build […]

estetik Burun
7 years ago

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estetik drew
7 years ago

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7 years ago

Nice blog!


Becca Puglisi
7 years ago

Oh, Jack, I can’t believe I left off dancers. Great pick up. 🙂

Laura Hebbeln
7 years ago

I appreciate this post- it is so difficult to describe characters without being list-like or cliched. That is why, in my writing- I either avoid it entirely or try to give hints at characters appearances in subtle ways- how other characters respond to MC, how much difficulty the MC does (or doesn’t have) walking up a flight of steps, food choices the MC makes, etc. This post shed some new light on the topic for me, so thanks again!

C. Lee McKenzie
7 years ago

Loved your examples. Excellent.

Jack Durish
7 years ago

I can’t think of a better example of the athletic physique than dancers. With the growing popularity of dancing on American television – Dancing With The Stars and So You Think You Can Dance to name just two popular shows – we are treated to watching some of the finest and fittest athletes in action. Indeed, I remember a story of a professional football coach who invited a choreographer to training camp after watching chorus members sing and dance their way through a Broadway show. The professional football players were soon passed out on the ground attempting to keep up with her.

7 years ago

The physical traits are always hard to describe well. Thanks for the good advice.

Jemi Fraser
7 years ago

Great advice! Love turning those expectations around 🙂