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.
One more thing–
For people too shortsighted to recognize faces at a distance, voices are how to find someone in a crowd. Voices carry, and someone standing in the way can’t obscure them at all (unless they’re shouting, in which case you should be more concerned with what they’re shouting about than who’s standing behind them). When I meet someone for the first time, I only note basic physical details (height, hair color + style, shirt pattern) and focus mostly on their voice. It’s how I’ll recognize them, after all.
Kelly Allen says
Thank you for this post! It’s easy to skip over details such as voice, but it really adds to the sensory experiences for the reader. A very helpful post.
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Maris McKay says
Great tips. I always enjoy your posts, and I use The Emotion Thesaurus almost every time I sit down to write.
Wow! great tips. Your posts are always helpful. Thanks
Jemi Fraser says
Great timing – the voice of one the mcs in my SNI is important and these tips are great as always!! 🙂
Becca Puglisi says
Thanks, everyone! And thanks to our two followers who suggested highlighting the voice as a Physical Attribute entry. For some reason, this one slipped by us 🙂
Joylene, I’ so glad you’re enjoying your copy of the book!
Joylene Nowell Butler says
I have the ebook and I just love it! Visting from S. Drazic’s blog.
Kristin Lenz says
Thanks for this. I’m spending time catching up on blogs today and realizing how much I’ve missed!
This is such a good post. I will be linking it on my blog. Thanks!
Becky Shillington says
Excellent, post! I especially agree with your clichés to avoid!
Martha Ramirez says
Good one! Thank you!
Angela Ackerman says
Great one– nice work, Becca!
Oh good post!
Stina Lindenblatt says
Voice in this context is one I sometimes struggle with. Thanks.
Magical Mystical MiMi says
Great tips. I really do love your blog. I learn so much here. 🙂