How to Describe Characters' Physical Features, Regardless of Age, Race, Gender, Etc.

Thiswriterinme

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I posted this on another writing site and got some pretty positive feedback. I think it is beneficial to writers everywhere to have a reference list for physical features and descriptions for new writers and writers looking to broaden their character creation.

If anyone wants me to add more descriptive features, change the terminology, or add other traits, please let me know. I will try to update this post somewhat regularly and stay away from foods as much as possible (some colors are also foods, and I won’t drive myself crazy deciding whether or not to include or exclude those).

There should be plenty to get people started with physical descriptions of characters regardless of race, age, gender, etc. This list is designed to reflect human features and not encompass the innumerable variations that can apply to fantasy and science fiction characters.

Skin Tone/Color
Black
White
Beige
Brown
Tan
Pink
Umber
Ebony
Sepia
Ochre
Russet
Terra-cotta
Caucasian
Tawny
Taupe
Fawn
Khaki
Gold
Sandy Brown
Sunkissed Brown
Rich Ebony
Dark Brown
Warm Beige
Golden-Hued
Alabaster
Pale
Olive (both a color and a food)
Ivory
Reddish-brown
Reddish-tan
Suntanned
Fair
Amber
Hazel (both a color and a food)
Rosey
Flushed
Sallow

Undertones for Skin
Yellow
Golden
Bronze
Copper
Orange (both a color and a food)
Orange-red
Coral
Red
Pink
Blue
Blue-red
Magenta
Rose
Sapphire
Silver

Eyes
Close-set
Wide-set
Narrow
Angled
Round
Wide
Puffy
Thin
Bulging
Prominent
Hooded
Deep-set
Triangular
Small
Large
Beady
Heavy-lidded
Sunken In

Eye Colors/Descriptors

Blue
Black
Brown
Gray
Green
Hazel
Gold flecked
Ice blue
Amber
Liquid gold
Liquid sapphire
Azure
Cerulean
Coal-black
Deep brown
Light brown
Blue-green
Gray-green
Restless
Bright
Dull
Sad
Old soul
Verdant
Emerald

Face Shape
Round
Heart-shaped
Square
Angular
Pointed chin
Square jaw
High cheekbones
Pudgy
Fleshy
Sharp features
Soft curves and angles
Young
Old
Wrinkled
Spotted with age
Youthful
Flushed
Red

Lips
Full
Thin
Narrow
Prominent
Puffy
Bee-stung
Swollen
Puckered
Sharp
Firm
Soft
Dark
Light
Pink
Brown
Red
Glossy
Dark-skinned

Noses
Long
Short
Hooked
Upturned
Button
Beak-like
Prominent
Bulbous
Lumpy
Crooked
Flat
Narrow
Broad
Pointed
Dainty
Aquiline

Teeth
Straight
Crooked
White
Yellow-stained
Pitted
Neat
Decaying
Gapped
With Braces

Hair Color
Black
Brown
Blond
Red
Gray
White
Silver
Silver Fox (generally reserved for men)
Salt and pepper (a hair color and also a food)
Golden blond
Strawberry blond
Auburn
Deep red
Light red
Light brown
Dark brown
Ash brown
Mousey brown
Jett black
Ebony
Raven
Crimson
Bleached
Bleach blond
Platinum blond

Hair Style/Texture
Straight
Wavy
Curly
Corkscrew curls
Pin straight
Glossy
Silky
Long
Short
Medium length
Shoulder length
Course
Frizzy
Fuzzy
Untamed
Brittle
Fragile
Thick
Stringy
Thin
Greasy
Mohawk
Dreadlocks
Half-shaved
Bald
Shaved Head
Comb-over
Toupee
Balding
Thinning
Wig
Synthetic Hair
Hair Extensions
Bob
Pixie cut
Weave
Bee-hive
Afro
Braid
Plait
Ponytail
Messy bun
Tight bun
Pigtails
Cornrows
Unruly
Crimped

Facial Hair
Course
Prickly
Soft
Curly
Chinstrap
Clean-shaven
Five O’clock Shadow
Mutton chops
Soul patch
Goatee
Full beard
Sideburns
Mustache
Beard
Handlebar mustache
Thin mustache
Foo Manchu
Unkept
Trimmed
Styled

Ears
Small
Large
Dainty
Prominent
Rounded
Pointed
Large-lobed
Small-lobed
Noticeable
Concealed

Body Type

Thin
Slender
Thick
Fat
Large
Athletic
Muscular
Trim
Lanky
Gangly
Hourglass
Curvaceous
Voluptuous
Withered
Wizened
Wasp-waisted
Anorexic
Emaciated
Curvy
Potbellied
Lean
Pudgy
Short
Tall
Petite
Rubenesque (usually used for women)

Chest
Broad
Muscular
Voluptuous
Flat
Narrow
Well-endowed
Prominent cleavage
Wide bust
Rounded bust

Muscles

Athletic
Trim
Thick
Defined
Flabby
Sculpted
Chiseled

Hands and Fingers
Slender
Pudgy
Meaty
Beefy
Dainty
Slender fingers
Piano fingers
Elegant
Smooth
Course
Rough
Wizened
Thinning
Frail

Other Features for Individualization
Scars
Birthmarks
Piercings
Tattoos
Dyed/ Unnatural hair color
Physical deformity
Physical disability
Muscular or Facial tics

There are so many ways to describe physical features and a lot of different features that can be described. Now, I am a firm believer that characters are multidimensional and physical features are only half the battle. There should be a nice balance between individualized features and personality traits and characteristics. Two-dimensional characters (characters lacking depth and well-rounded features and traits) can be offensive (if race, gender, sexual orientation, etc. are involved) and boring to readers.

Obviously, this list could quite literally go on forever with the many ways to describe and enhance features. Hopefully, this post gives writers a starting point to get their characters individualized, in-depth physical descriptions. Keep in mind that you might never get the chance to describe your character from head to toe, however, knowing what they look like in full detail in your writing notes is a great way to bring them to life for yourself and keep consistency throughout your writing.

I would also encourage writers to combine some of the different descriptors and features, playing around with more enhanced descriptions.
 

Brian G Turner

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It's a great list. :)

But ... one lesson I've learned is that the author's job is not to paint any detailed objective description of how a person looks for the reader, but instead to encourage the reader to paint their own image based on a few well-chosen descriptors which may not even be physical.

The other day my eldest was describing a story idea to me, and without any descriptions at all I was able to form clear and vivid images of the main characters just from their roles.
 

CupofJoe

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I like the list.
The only thing I would add, is that on another site I was a passive participant [i.e. a reader] in a discussion about describing people. There was as strong feeling that some people of colour get annoyed at having their skin colour described. It isn't usually done for white characters.
My personal philosophy is only describe those attributes that affect the story.
I don't mind if someone imagines a character in one way and I another.
It only matters if it becomes important to the story. It is sort of a Chekov's Gun thing...
 

Finch

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I personly would not find a list useful. The reason I describe a character is to add something to characters personality and the role they are playing in the story. So, if the character is neglecting themselves you might describe them as shabbily dressed and smelly.
I was interested in a wide bust? I don't know what that is.
 

HareBrain

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At least detailed descriptors might prevent fan wars if your story becomes massively popular and is turned into a film/TV. The more specific the better in my view.

"Her hair had gone Humbrol Enamel Matt 93 (AA1033 Desert Yellow) in the sun"
 

Thiswriterinme

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Location
Maine
This post was actually inspired by a discussion about describing characters of color where a lot of writers said they were uncomfortable with it and preferred to just use race as a descriptor.

The aftermath was that several users from racially diverse backgrounds felt offended by that, because not everyone within a race looks exactly the same. I found a blog called Writing With Color to come up with this list of non-offensive descriptors, as it was also discussed that using foods like chocolate, brownie, plum, almond shaped, etc. Were considereal offensive when describing characters of color.

Anyway, this isn't meant to spark a discussion on race in writing, but be a writing resource for anyone who wants it or needs it. To each their own.

@Brian G Turner Yes, I think it is important for readers to use their imagination, and for writers to encourage that. One of the issues that came up in the aforementioned conversation was the "White as Default" phenomena that is most prevalent when characters aren't designated a race. Sometimes the imagination is biased and doesn't allow literature to exist on equal grounds for all.

@Finch a wide bust describes breasts that are wider than the frame of the chest or rib cage.

@CupofJoe I do agree with the Chekov's Gun piece. However, I think characters are more than just personality traits. Race, gender, age, sexual orientation, these are all important aspects that make people who they are, and in a character's case can completely inform their role in a story. Some of these aspects can definitely be displayed through mannerisms and behavior, but they can also be described physically.
 
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