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: skinny, scrawny, bony, malnourished, anorexic, skeletal, gaunt, emaciated
People Likely to Have an Underweight Build: people with eating disorders, malnourished and impoverished people, drug addicts, homeless people, the terminally ill, models and actors
- Angelina Jolie
- Kate Moss
- Calista Flockhart
- Keira Knightley
- Nicole Richie
Simile and Metaphor Help:
- I couldn’t tell if he was too tall or too thin or if his head was just too big for his body. When he nodded, he looked a little like a bobble-head doll.
- Mary didn’t quite prance out of the doctor’s office, but there was a definite bounce in her step. The chemo was working! She’d dance if she could, but her spaghetti straw legs wouldn’t cooperate—not yet, anyway. But soon enough. Joy bubbled up and out of her in the form of a huge smile. Soon enough.
Clichés to Avoid: skin-and-bones; a skinny person being compared to a skeleton; legs and arms compared to sticks or twigs; once-healthy people being a shadow of their former selves
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: Mindy untucked her legs and stretched them in front of her. Her heart sped up at the thought of even looking at them, but she forced herself. People kept telling her to eat more, to stop obsessing, but they weren’t the ones stuck in this roly poly body. With shaking hands, she encircled one thigh. The fingers almost met, but not quite. Her breath bottled up in her throat, right behind her Adam’s apple. It was disgusting, how fat she was.
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.