Writing Physical Descriptions

Ughhhhh, physical descriptions are the actual worst. My arch-nemesis. You know how I said in my blog that one time… about challenging myself to be better? Physical descriptions will likely never be on that list. Why? 

Because I hate writing them. I despise them.

For the most part, I write rather free-flowingly. Once the fingers start going, everything just comes right out. But when it comes to describing a character physically, my brain goes, “Yeah, no. Not happening.” I would love if I could just write, “they have a face, with two eyes, a nose, a mouth, they were clothed. Goodbye.” Unfortunately, that’s not how it works. If wishes were riches and all of that.

I want to start off by saying that there is no one right way to write physical descriptions. Like with most things, there will be something that works for one writer and doesn’t work for the other – or for one reader and not the other. There is never going to be a situation where everyone is pleased. With that disclaimer in mind, let’s get into the nitty-gritty of my least favorite part of novel-writing.  

First, let’s break it down.

It would be nice to be able to slap a picture of a physical representation of your character into the pages of your book and call it a day. Unfortunately, that’s not frowned upon. After all, we are writers, we should be able to paint a portrait with our words (if the tone is bitter there, it’s because it is). 

When you’re imagining a character, here are the basic things you’ll need to take into consideration. 

  1. Physique
  2. Complexion
  3. Facial Features, Eyes, and Hair
  4. Distinguishing Features
  5. Dress

The important thing to remember, after all of this, friends, is that it sincerely doesn’t really matter what you write. People are going to imagine that they want to at the end of the day

All that being said, let’s get down to business (to defeat the Huns).

The General Rules

Rule Number One: You do not have to keep explaining how your character looks. You told your reader the first time, they do not need a reminder every other page for the rest of your novel. Trust me. 

Rule Number Two: The fewer details the better. Your reader is going to hold onto the basics – complexion, eye color, hair color, basic face/body shape, and whatever color you said they were wearing.

Rule Number Three: Please, don’t get precious with the descriptions. If I have to google a color name to know what color their eyes are, it’s already at a disadvantage.

Rule Number Four: Try to break apart the description to the best of your ability. A common grievance readers have is that the physical descriptions read like ‘shopping lists’ and not descriptions. Maybe try to break it apart with some natural narrative/internal monologue.

Rule Number Five: Get it in as early as possible. I’m not saying the first paragraph or even the first page. But I’ve read some books where I’ve waited until the third chapter to figure out what this character looks like, only to be wildly disappointed that they aren’t who I imagined. Get it in quickly and organically.

Physique

So, here’s the thing. You don’t want to go too crazy when it comes to describing a character’s body. I know we’ve all read books where the author just got way too into describing them. Especially as a first impression. It will never not jar me to read about someone for the first time and know the color of their nipples. Like, what? No.

Going back to our number two rule, the fewer details, the better. So, let’s look at some descriptors. 

  • Athletic
  • Blocky
  • Bottom-Heavy
  • Bulky
  • Chubby
  • Curvy
  • Emaciated
  • Frail
  • Hourglass
  • Overweight
  • Pear-Shaped
  • Sexless 
  • Skinny
  • Slender
  • Toned
  • Top-Heavy
  • Weak

Each of those words summoned a body type to mind, right? Easy-peasy. There’s your writing hack. The simpler the better

Now, if we want to get into describing monsters… But that’s a job for another time. 

Complexion

I’m not just talking about oily, dry, zitty. I’m talking about skin color. And boy do I have a bone to pick. 

Stop, for all that is holy, describing skin color as foods/flavors. It is gross and fetishizing, and yuck. I mean, “she had the complexion of spoiled milk” is not enticing. Nor is, “her caramel-butterscotch-white-chocolate skin.” Just… no. 

Describe skin color as colors, my friends. That’s it. There is this beautiful resource on Tumblr called, “writing with color”. I think that the author says it best:

I’ve read loads of descriptions in my day of white characters and their “smooth rose-tinged ivory skin”, while the PoC, if there, are reduced to something from a candy bowl or a Starbucks drink.”

Let’s not be gross about skin color, mkay? Mkay.

Facial Features

I mean, I’m not trying to sound like a broken record, but remember rule number two? To keep the details as few as possible? Yeah. Same goes here. 

Some writers don’t even go this far. They say, “body type, complexion, eye and hair color, off you go.” Frankly, I don’t necessarily think that’s a bad way to go about it, but I understand that there is the compulsion to share more about how they look. I’ve certainly fallen victim to these desires. So, let’s just break things down to the simplest terms. 

Face Shape:

  • Round
  • Heart-Shaped
  • Oval
  • Square
  • Pear
  • Diamond

Eye Shape: 

  • Almond
  • Round
  • Downturned
  • Upturned
  • Hooded
  • Monolid

Eye Color: 

Again, my friends, I beseech you to honor rule number four. Doth not get precious with thine descriptors. What’s poetry to you might be cringe to someone else – never mind hue variants… Just stick to the boring color names. Feel free to add a fancy descriptor to go along with it, but I’ve never read “cerulean eyes” and not wanted to punch the author in the throat.

  • Blue
  • Brown
  • Gray
  • Green
  • Hazel

Nose Shape:

  • Small
  • Large
  • Bulbous
  • Bent
  • Slender
  • Aquiline
  • Roman
  • Grecian
  • Hooked
  • Button
  • Upturned

Mouth Shape: 

  • Full
  • Thin
  • Heart-Shaped
  • Round
  • Downturned
  • Upturned

Hair: 

I’m going to sound like a broken record at the end of this but, keep it simple my friends. 

  • Long
  • Short
  • Closely-cropped
  • Shaved
  • Shoulder-length (chin-length, titty-length, ass-length, whatever)
  • The general color

I will say if we are reading more than one sentence about each, it’s time to scale it back, Tolstoy.

Distinguishing Features

Thank f*ck! Onto something a little different. Distinguishing features is something that is in a league all of its own. It can be a scar, a tattoo, a piercing, deformity, etc. 

The same general rules apply. You don’t need to remind the writer more than once – unless it’s important to the narrative in some way. You also don’t need to go into a great amount of detail. 

I would also like to encourage sensitivity, if it is something like a deformity, or amputation, etc. There is a very thin between explanation and fetishization. Too often, I read people waxing poetic about these sorts of things in a way that ‘others’ or lessens the character. Reducing them to little more than their distinguishing feature. Which, by extension, can make the real people reading it feel like side-show performers. Just be mindful of the words you use – pretend that someone who also lives with the condition is reading and ask yourself if you’d be comfortable letting them see the language you’re using.

If not, then ax it. Again, people can do a pretty damn good job imagining what you’re explaining without going into painful detail about it.

Dress

I’m sure you’re tired of hearing me say this, but, in general, less is more. There are very few instances where an outfit will sincerely matter in the grand scheme of your story.

Sometimes, it helps to just establish aesthetic descriptors early on – “she looked like punk rock royalty”, “she dressed like a Witch at Thanksgiving”, “she looked like she box-jumped her way out of a Lulu Lemon catalog.” This allows your reader to have a baseline of what they enjoy wearing, so they can envision them in whatever they feel fits that vibe.

Generally speaking, there are very few places in an overarching story where their ‘day-to-day’ garb is going to matter. It’s really only important when it’s a deviation from the norm. Take for example if your character someone who prefers sweats, but now they’re in a structured gown. Tell me about it. Are they in sweats for the fifteenth time in the book? I really don’t care. It can be assumed. 

Putting It All Together

To get the most ‘bang for your buck’, remember that you don’t need to write a novel’s worth of description. Especially since, like the laundry, or your dishes, it’s thankless work. Your readers are going to imagine what they want to and the more you remind them of what your character looks like, the more it intrudes on the narrative. 

As I mentioned earlier, some people take issue with grouping all of the descriptions in together because it can read like a grocery list. I suggested breaking it apart with narrative or some other kind of monologue – let me demonstrate. 

“Sophia leaned across the bar, her black lacquered nails drumming impatiently on the surface. She had never been shy – least of all when it came to how she dressed. Her work attire seemed to be more skin than fabric which made it impossible to look anywhere but at her overflowing cleavage. Judging by the impish smile that parted her round mouth, she knew it, too. Red-lipstick left its mark on the cheap plastic straw as she leaned back, her fingers raking through her perfectly kept curly brown hair.” 

There’s a lot of physical description to take in, but there’s movement, there’s personality. As opposed to:

“Sophia wore a low-plunging shimmering purple halter top that was fastened together by string so slender, it resembled dental floss. She wore a pair of high-waisted, black jeans and a pair of six-inch stilettos that drew her to an impressive height.”

To be honest, I don’t even want to finish writing that. But I’m sure you catch my drift.

In Conclusion

The giant takeaway here is to just fight the compulsion to overcomplicate things, while simultaneously trying not to be a bull in a china shop and barrel straight through the description. If you’re like me, they’re never going to come naturally, but hopefully, reading this blog helped you come up with a plan of attack that best suits your writing style!


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