7 Tips to Writing a Physical Description that Works

Jessica Rabbit (She’s Not Wrong)

Don’t go jumping to the comments just yet.  Jessica makes a good point.  Our characters are what we make them, so we shouldn’t blame them for it.  We do have to be careful on how we go about doing a physical description.  Know what you’re aiming for and make sure it’s what you want.  Of course, none of these tips will matter if you want to keep it as vague as possible.  Now, let’s get to it.

  1. If you’re describing a woman as sexy, don’t fixate the chest, hips, legs, and butt.  Yes, those are factors that should be taken into account if you’re goal is to make a highly attractive character.  Yet, it can also be done with a simple word and then moving on to paint the rest of the picture.  A lot of people will get angry at overly sexual descriptions, so only use them if they are required for the character.  For example, in War of Nytefall I never described Mab in such terms beyond slender because that isn’t a key point of the character.  I use ‘voluptuous’ and ‘curvy’ for Chastity Sullivan because she uses her physical appearance to her advantage and is a sexual character.
  2. Let’s keep things even here.  While men have fewer sexy parts to describe without going NC-17 or making readers think you’re obsessed with tubular meats, you should consider how far to go depending on their personality.  If they’re eye-candy or sexual characters then go for the muscles, butt, (I’m sorry) bulge, and whatever else you think would work to get the point across.  Now, this can also be done simply by saying they’re attractive much like the female characters that aren’t using sexuality.  Nothing wrong with taking that route with either sex then going for the same physical descriptors (hair, eyes, skin, etc.) you use for everyone else.
  3. Now that we got two elephants out of the room, we can move on.  Do not be afraid to add flaws to your character’s physical appearance.  Moles, scars, pimples, freckles, near-sighted, and the list keeps going.  We tend to only mention these things with ‘ugly’ or ‘plain’ characters.  This creates a world where you have the physically perfect and the physically flawed with a clear sign to who readers should enjoy more.  That’s not realistic and can cause readers to have trouble connecting to your cast.
  4. Tattoos should be carefully considered instead of slapped on a character.  They don’t always mean edgy in real life.  Many have a story behind them.  Think about that if you’re going to give them a tattoo and make it a highlight.  Other characters might be interested too.  (This might turn into a bigger post in a few months now that I think about it.)
  5. In fantasy, you don’t have to stick to standard eye and hair colors.  In general, you should try to have a favorite of colors and, in regards to hair, styles.  Imagine being in public and watching others walk around.  You see a big variety, which is how your world should be.  This goes for your supporting cast too.  It’s weird if every woman is sporting long black hair and every man has short brown hair, but the male lead is a spiky blonde and the female is a curly redhead.  Again, you need some variety to make your world believable.
  6. Try to keep track of how you describe your characters.  I’ve run into a few pure pantsers who make the following mistake and even miss it with edits.  A character begins the story with green eyes, they’re brown in the middle, and blue in the last scene.  You need to keep the physical details consistent because readers will notice.  Not to point solely at pantsers either because plotters can do it as well.  I remember Luke Callindor began with green eyes and I ended up making them brown by accident a book later because I had so many other green-eyed characters.  It kept jumping, so I eventually had an even happen to make the change permanent.  Not a solution that works for everyone and I made sure to always catch the mistake in edits before I made the permanent fix.
  7. Trying to think of a good way to put this, but I can’t.  DO NOT be afraid to describe characters in unflattering terms.  Chubby, balding, beer belly, unshaven, short, and other words that typically have a negative connotation can be used if that is what the character is.  With this, it comes down to the character’s personality as well.  I’ve read far too many books where the ‘unattractive’ character is made worse by being depressed about their appearance.  Some short people are proud of it.  Some chubby people are proud of it.  Some balding people are proud of it.  Typically, the thing that makes a person hate such things is how others and society respond to such physical traits.  Hard to take pride in yourself when you’re constantly being told that you’re flawed and ugly . . . Geez, I’m hurting myself here.  My point on this one is that you need to have the character consider their own appearance and take either pride in their flaws or hate it.  Personally, I think we’ve seen more than often characters who feel they’re ugly and not enough reveling in the fact that they’re not supermodels.

About Charles Yallowitz

Charles E. Yallowitz was born, raised, and educated in New York. Then he spent a few years in Florida, realized his fear of alligators, and moved back to the Empire State. When he isn't working hard on his epic fantasy stories, Charles can be found cooking or going on whatever adventure his son has planned for the day. 'Legends of Windemere' is his first series, but it certainly won't be his last.
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26 Responses to 7 Tips to Writing a Physical Description that Works

  1. I resemble the panster remark. I have been fortunate to have a good editor because I have been known to do the eye color faux pas. My worst was when I changed the make of a car. Had to laugh at the “don’t jump to the comments,” advice. All these tips are good to keep in mind.

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  2. L. Marie says:

    Great tips, Charles! I’ve copy edited books where the authors clearly forgot what hair and eye colors they assigned to characters. I also have trouble with that since two of my characters have heterochromia iridis. Talk about making things hard on yourself! I have to remember which two eye colors I assigned to each character. 🥺

    I hear you on the tatts. So many people have them now. I know pastors with tattoos. They always have a story about their tatt choices.

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  3. Reblogged this on Chris The Story Reading Ape's Blog and commented:
    More great writing advice from, Charles 👍😃

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  4. I love number 7. I think we need more average Joes in fiction. I admit to writing my beautiful characters, but sometimes I think readers relate to some of the flaws more than perfections.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Reblogged this on Author Don Massenzio and commented:
    Check out this great post from the Legends Of Windemere blog with the topic, 7 Tips to Writing a Physical Description that Works

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  6. Jaq says:

    If you want describe someone sexy, male or female, write about how they move. The way they use their eyes. The timbre of their voice. Body parts are very limiting.

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    • I think both should be used because people focus on different things. One reader might not pick up on the way people move or eye gestures, but they’ll get the more blunt physical description. Others find that crude and prefer the more subtle stuff. So, a combination of the two might work best.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. V.M.Sang says:

    A great post, Charles. In my books up until now, I think I’ve concentrated more on the physical rather than the movement etc. I’ll be more careful in future to add that to the descriptions. It will make the characters more real, I think.
    In a fantasy, book 4, I’m currently writing, my extremely handsome mage has been unable to get away from his own fireball and has sustained severe burns, including his face. At this pint, I’ve stalled. He’s had some treatment from a healing cleric, but I’m now stuck. A part of me doesn’t want to continue with scars spoiling his handsome face, so I’ve stopped writing at that point, (although I’ve continued with a scene with another character that he doesn’t appear in).
    It was his own fault. He shouldn’t have used a fireball when the enemy was so close!

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    • Movement can be spread out too. It’s fairly situational as well. A sexy sashay doesn’t make any sense when the character is rushing to catch a cab. I think sexy movements are typically done intentionally or at least have been honed over years of use.

      That’s a tough one. I get why you don’t want to continue with him having scars if his looks are that important to his character. Yet, it could be a way to have him grow. You could have him try to adapt to having the scars, which many people in our world have to do. He can find a stronger treatment down the road and even make that his quest. This can be used a knockdown for him that he rises from. If anything, it could help him get a sense of what it’s like to not have his looks. Not knowing his personality, I don’t know if he’s already humble, so a lot depends on that.

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  8. V.M.Sang says:

    Reblogged on Dragons Rule OK

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  9. Even for those who fly by the seat of our pants, it pays to plan a bit around how your cast will look when they’re all in a room together. It does help catch things like your example of too many characters having green eyes.

    And if there’s a dominant genotype, say if your setting is Asian-inspired and everyone has black hair and slanted eyes, you need an explanation for why any of the characters might have lighter brown hair and round eyes.

    For me, I think you need an interesting variety in their appearance. Some shorter and taller, men and women, light and dark skin, prim clothing styles and wild hair… you get the picture.

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    • Variety is necessary for a large cast. Even slight differences can help, which you need to denote in writing. Some people have told that the readers can add their own unique traits because they don’t want to impede on their imagination. I’m not sure about this myself.

      I have met pantsers who refuse to plan even physical appearance. They make changes in edits.

      Liked by 1 person

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