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: rich, full, sexy, throaty, breathy, high, low, thin, squeaky, husky, raspy, deep, baritone, soprano, alto, bass, tenor, rough, gravelly, harsh, hoarse, guttural, smooth, sonorous, twangy, drawling, babyish, whiny, nasal, tinny, booming, lilting, shrill, pinched, monotone, commanding, timid, fearful
Things Voices Do (and other words/phrases to describe those actions)
- Yell: shout, scream, shriek, shrill, bellow, cry, bawl, howl, roar, screech, wail, holler, squeal
- Whisper: mumble, murmur, mutter
- Sing: croon, chirp, yodel, scat, belt, serenade, vocalize
- Other noises associated with the voice: singing, humming, groaning, growling, whining, moaning, crying, laughing, talking
Key Emotions and How the Voice Responds:
- Fear: When someone becomes frightened, the voice may become thin and tremulous. It can also rise in pitch and break unexpectedly. Words become choppier, more clipped, and may sound squeezed or pinched. Breaths become shorter and more frequent, which will affect the speech.
- Anger: Anger can also raise the pitch of someone’s voice. Words come faster and burst forth violently, as if they’re being bitten off or chewed up and spit out. When someone is trying to control her anger, her cadence may slow down and her pitch may drop as she chooses her words carefully.
- Arousal: The voice drops and thickens, becoming husky or rough and more guttural.
- Excitement: In times of excitement, the voice can become shrill and squeaky. Words may trail off into nonsensical shrieks and squeals.
Simile and Metaphor Help:
- His voice was smooth and creamy, like caramel milk.
- I cleared my throat and winced at the feeling of rocks scraping over concrete—which, I knew, was exactly how my voice would sound as soon as I tried to speak.
Clichés to Avoid: a smooth voice being described as having ‘dulcet tones’; old men and women have gravelly voices
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: Her hair was pulled back in a half-hearted bun and the freckles across her forehead only accented her paleness. I expected her voice to be as lackluster as she was, but when she spoke, her eyes seemed to grow bigger, her lips fuller, her cheeks pinking and gaining warmth. I blinked, speechless. Her voice was like a magic spell, bringing the dead to life while silencing any other words spoken within its hearing.
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.