Physical Attributes Entry: Sickly 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: sallow, delicate, ill, bruised, pale, white, bony, anemic, frail, shaky, weak, pallid, wasted, peaky, wan, spotted, hollowed, sagging, trembling…

People Likely to have a Sickly Build: people with chronic illness or disease, the elderly, those with poor nutrition, poverty-stricken…

Famous Examples:
Michael J Fox
Michael Douglas
Amy Winehouse…

Thoughts on Sickly: Sickly characters are often underweight, with their skin sagging and bones protruding, offering knobbiness and sharp angles that make the person appear frail and weak. Hair may be thin and lackluster, and eyes have a pinpoint look to them, glass bright and “wet,” or pinched and dull. Their completion is pale and waxy, with almost a greasy look to it. Posture…

Metaphor and Simile Help: 

  • I tried not to gasp as cousin Lenard entered the room, his feet tapping the floor in the slow, doddering steps of a man twice his age. His slight shoulders dragged in his suit and he moved carefully, pausing for balance before taking the next step. His MS diagnosis had stolen the lively dance partner I’d twirled against at the various Bar Mitzvahs and weddings, leaving behind a chipped, worn Dreidel too unstable to spin anymore…

Clichés to Avoid: using “frail and sickly” together; saying one is “as pale as a ghost”

Twists on the Stereotypical Sickly Build:

  • We think of the sickly stereotype as someone who is small with a slight build, the kind of person born frail and destined to become ill one day. Why not write a character who is brawny and tough and show readers the transformation he goes through as the result of an illness beyond his control?

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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13 Responses to Physical Attributes Entry: Sickly Build

  1. Gabbi B says:

    This compilation of physical attributes is fascinating – thanks for posting. Very inspirational.

  2. estetik drew says:

    This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  3. Kathy, thanks so much for the kind words! It’s encouragement like this that keeps us chugging :).

  4. Hi Angela and Becca: Thank you for continuing to add to our repertoire of character descriptions. Your book and the added extras have been such a blessing to me. It has definitely improved my writing. Thank you so much for sharing your talents with everyone.

  5. Haha, good catch Meredith! Yes that definitely changes the meaning, doesn’t it? LOL

  6. Meredith says:

    Helpful post – I shall buy the book! FYI, I believe there’s a typo in the second bullet under “Twists on the Stereotypical Sickly Build” – did you mean for morality to be mortality?

  7. The saggy skin is usually indicative of quick weightloss.

    Great suggestions here! Love those examples, too.

  8. Rosi says:

    Great post, as usual. Lots of good ideas here. Thanks.

  9. Jemi Fraser says:

    Super suggestions – thanks 🙂

  10. This is great! I especially like the examples you give. A friend lent me your Emotion Thesaurus and I am now getting my own–it is fabulous! THANK YOU! = )

  11. KQuintana says:

    Thanks so much! I have a hard time describing characters, and you’ve shown me so many different ways of looking at it. Thanks again!

  12. Constitution effects so much else in life, but it’s not something that immediately comes to mind when writing about a character. And it should! 🙂 Thanks for this!

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