Tuesday, May 3, 2011

How One Looks=How One Feels

In my writing, a character’s physical appearance is more than what they look like. Their physical traits often hint at their emotional wellbeing. That’s one of the reasons why I find describing physical characteristics difficult. It’s too easy to exaggerate and make the characters look too perfect or too plastic or too ordinary. It’s also easy to make them one dimensional. One of the ways I tackle this problem is to start with brief descriptions of their general characteristics and add emotional texture:
She stood motionless in front of a painting. The spotlight above illuminated her brown hair, turning it a fiery red tinged with gold, her skin a luminous peach. Her blouse, made of some gauzy material he couldn’t name, but longed to touch, draped gracefully over her shoulders and down her back. With the lights pouring down on her, he could just see the outline of her body.
In real life, I tend to notice specific parts of people’s bodies—no, I’m not talking about THOSE parts—and that carries over into my writing. Because I have a hearing problem, I do a lot of lip reading, so obviously, I notice mouths (and yes, that definitely helps when I’m describing a kiss). In the example below, not only do you learn what this character’s mouth looks like, but you also get a hint about her personality:
Bright red lipstick, that matched the red of her dress, painted beautifully proportioned lips, but the lipstick bled around the edges.
I talk a lot with my hands (it drives my husband nuts) and I also notice those as well. I love looking at people’s hands and watching how graceful or clumsy they are; how the veins and tendons play as the fingers open and close—and I’ll take an opportunity to describe those. Hands can tell a reader how a character is feeling. They can also help to build sexual tension. For example:
She recognized his hand, his left hand to be exact — long fingers, squared-off nails, and a mole at the knuckle by the pinky. She’d spent the entire movie staring at that hand as it rested ever so close to her own. That tanned hand with the light colored hairs on it — not too much hair, but just enough to ooze masculinity.
Then there are the eyes. Describing eyes involves more than just color, size or shape. Eyes also relate to emotions. A character’s blue eyes may look sky blue when he’s happy, slate blue when he’s angry or almost black when aroused.
His eyes darkened to a foreboding brown; the murky brown of an impenetrable medieval forest, barring all from entering, promising terror to all who ignored its warning.
… her moss green eyes sharpened to a finely cut emerald, its icy sharp edges glinting.
So for me, describing a character’s physical appearance is more than just what they look like. It’s also a way of illustrating a character’s emotions and providing depth.


  1. Superb descriptions there, Jennifer, you really do have an eye for detail.

  2. Hi,

    Great examples, Jen. And, it's like every thing detail wise, less is more when trickle fed rather than read as list of physical attributes. ;)


  3. Thanks so much for this I have such a hard time with describing my characters physical aspects. I look forward to following your insightful posts.

  4. Jen, I think you've hit the nail on the head here. Our descriptions can do more than itemize so the reader can build a mirror image. Better that they give just enough to build an image, or create a feeling.

  5. Thanks to all! And Josh, thanks for stopping by--as I said, it's difficult to make descriptions realistic and not like a laundry list. Everyone here has great and varied ideas, so I hope you'll check out everyone's posts!

  6. Oh, I'm a hand-talker, too, and I find that carried over into my writing. My characters tend to do a lot of gesturing.