#3 Post of 2020: 7 Tips to Writing a Physical Description that Works

(Post originally made on July 8, 2020.)

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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11 Responses to #3 Post of 2020: 7 Tips to Writing a Physical Description that Works

  1. L. Marie says:

    Another good one! Is this topic one you also would cover in your fantasy writing book?


  2. Good material, Charles. I liked your direct narrative here. Almost like you were speaking to me. 😁


  3. This is good stuff. Very helpful.


  4. Great post. These tips are spot on. I especially like number 7. I think we are so caught up in being politically correct and not offending anyone that we are afraid to use descriptive terms that might be unflattering. I’m going to share this on my blog as well. Nice job, Charles.


  5. Reblogged this on Author Don Massenzio and commented:
    Check out this excellent repost from Charles Yallowitz’s blog with the topic: 7 Tips to Writing a Physical Description that Works


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