Physical Descriptions Put Readers in Your Place

By Mark Nichol

Writers deliver their stories — fiction and nonfiction alike — to readers more effectively when they use appearances of people, places, and things to help drive the narrative and illuminate personalities. Consider these ideas:

People

Some writers omit or minimize description of physical characteristics, considering them peripheral details, but revealing details about a person’s appearance can be a valuable narrative tool, especially when the description up-ends expectations. Helping readers picture a diminutive authority figure — or a sturdy, six-foot-plus word nerd, for that matter — lets them know that the tale isn’t going to be trite.

Practice by jotting down notes about people you know or have seen in person or in images, but take care not to write as if you’re filling out a police report. Instead of describing someone as extremely tall, note how they have to duck their head to walk through a doorway. Rather than using a pedestrian word like huge or petite, use formidable or bantam.

In describing hair or eye color, avoid “lustrous raven locks” and “limpid azure pools of light” phraseology (unless you’re penning a romance novel), and reach for unusual imagery like “hair like a tangle of copper filaments” or “milky-green eyes open wide in an attitude of perpetual astonishment.”

Places

For locations, employ the same strategy: Rehearse your writing by explaining the feel of a room, a street, or a park. Is it expansive, or economical? Friendly, or foreboding? Clean, or chaotic? What do your other senses tell you? What is the noise level? How does it smell? What are the textures like? Is it easy to walk through or along, or to otherwise navigate, or do obstacles interfere?

If your story takes place in a natural landscape, describe the terrain and what associations it has based on whether it conjures a sense of grace, harmony, and peace or whether it is full of bleak, harsh, jagged features. How does the presence of vegetation, or bodies of water, contribute to the feel of the terrain? What effect does the weather produce?

Place your characters in the context of their locations by showing, without telling, whether they are at home in their setting or whether the environment is alien to them, and how they respond to their feelings.

Things

Objects may seem devoid of interest, but even everyday devices can resonate and can be integral to a story. The way belongings are displayed and arrayed can say much about the personality of their owner, as can whether they were bought at a dollar store or from an upscale online catalog.

Things can exude an aura, or can be imbued with qualitative or quantitative value. The ubiquity of an electronic device can convey how essential it is to its user, or how integral it is to that person’s self-perception because it (to their mind, at least) awards status.

A possession can foreshadow an event or otherwise be key to a plot: A tech-dependent person, one who smugly employs a GPS but can’t read a map, is lost in the wilderness without either. An adored stuffed animal conceals a weapon or a treasure. An innocuous object regarded off-handedly but often ultimately becomes the linchpin (or is a MacGuffin).

Even in nonfiction, descriptions of objects can be used to great effect. An account of an interview with a powerful person who fidgets with tchotchkes, for example, can reveal them as nervous or insecure without saying so in so many words.

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7 Responses to “Physical Descriptions Put Readers in Your Place”

  • Janice

    Am I not seeing a print button or do I need to copy and paste. If I print from this screen it is 7 pages. Thanks for your help and all the good advice.

  • Leif G.S. Notae

    These are good tips, Mark. I have to admit sometimes I tend to gloss over some of the descriptions I made in my writings, I go for a little more generic but I think you are right in some instances. it does allow the reader to frame a better picture of who or what they are seeing.

    I have to describe a new character now, I’ll have to start jotting down some notes. Good timing, nice article!

  • Mary Hodges

    What are “tchotchkes” please?

    Liked the article. The amount and kind of physical description does depend on the type and purpose of the writing. What suits a short romantic story won’t go down so well in a factual report of a council meeting!

  • thebluebird11

    @Mary Hodges: Tchotchkes are knickknacks, any little junk, dust-collecting-type stuff, usually visually cluttering but not necessarily. It’s a Yiddish word but perhaps used in German as well.

    This was a very interesting post. I especially liked the part where you advise not to just describe a person as “tall,” but to describe how he has to duck thru a doorway. Food for thought.

  • Rebecca

    Some writers do overuse use words and phrases such as “lustrous raven locks” and “limpid azure pools of light.” Travel writers have been known to overuse “azure” when they describe a body water. Thanks for reminding writers to push beyond the same old, same old words and phrases.

  • AnWulf

    Could you perhaps have thrown in a few more Latinates? Geesh!

  • James White

    I would agree with those that say it depends on the writing. Unless the person’s appearance is very important or unusual, one should mention it sparingly.

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