Physical Attributes Entry: Toes

Courtesy of DaniJace @ WANA Commons
Physical description of a character can be difficult to convey—too much will slow the pace or feel 'list-like', while too little will not allow readers to form a clear mental image. If a reader cannot imagine what your character looks like, they may have trouble connecting with them on a personal level, or caring about their plight. 

One way to balance the showing and telling of physical description is to showcase a few details that really help 'tell the story' about who your character is and what they've been through up to this point. Think about what makes them different and interesting. Can a unique feature, clothing choice or way they carry themselves help to hint at their personality? Also, consider how they move their body. Using movement will naturally show a character's physical characteristics, keep the pace flowing and help to convey their emotions.


Descriptors: hairy, wrinkly, gnarled, bunioned, calloused, knobby, long, dirty, dainty, blistered, arthritic, rough, soft, stubby, broken, dry, bruised, frostbitten, webbed, pruned

Interesting Toe Factoids: 
  • The length of the second toe (whether it’s longer than the other toes or shorter) is determined by genetics.
  • You can’t serve in the U.S. Army if you’re missing any toes. This led to drastic measures for some who wanted to avoid being drafted into the Vietnam War.
  • Syndactyly is a condition wherein two digits are fused or webbed. Famous individuals suffering from syndactyly of the toes include Ashton Kutcher, Dan Aykroyd, and Joseph Stalin.
  • Marilyn Monroe had six toes on one foot.
  • the first known prosthetic limb replacement was for an Egyptian woman’s big toe, in 1000 B.C)
  • Toe cramps are painful and inconvenient, particularly at 3 in the morning. (Yes, I speak from personal experience). I'm sure they could drop a grown man to his knees, which could be an interesting flaw for a manly hero-type character.

Key Emotions and Related Toe Gestures: 
When someone is nervous or uncomfortable, toes can fidget or twitch like any other extremity. Adrenaline can cause the toes to tingle. And raucous, bladder-convulsing laughter can occur when the toes are tickled. 

Simile and Metaphor Help

  • Winter is not good for my toes. They dry out and get chalky and resemble aging mushrooms. It’s not pretty.
  • I hadn’t realized I’d been in the pool so long. My toes looked like shrunken walnuts. 

Clichés to Avoid
: toes that “curl” when someone is appalled or disgusted; the kiss that one feels all the way down to one’s toes; toes that are gnarled like tree roots

HINT: When describing any part of the body, try to use cues that show the reader more than just a physical description. Make your descriptions do double duty. Example: His toes were slender and snakeish, like fingers, the long one curving way out past the rest. Between them and the fossilized nails, I shuddered to think of the damage he could do with just his toes.

BONUS TIP: The Colors, Textures & Shapes Thesaurus in our sidebar might help you find a fresh take on some of the descriptors listed above! 


JeffO said...

I am SO not a foot person.

S.P. Bowers said...

I have to admit I'd never thought of describing a character by her toes.

I do ascribe to the less is more theory. All we know of Elizabeth Bennett in Pride and Prejudice is that she had fine eyes.

Natalie Aguirre said...

Great tidbits on toes, like about the genetics and the second toe and Marilyn Monroe. Thanks for sharing them.

Traci Kenworth said...

This would be a hard one. Unless maybe it's a villain. I don't know if I want my readers focusing on my character's hairy toes. Lol.

Miranda Hardy said...

Interesting facts about toes. I had no idea.

Becca Puglisi said...

Less is definitely more when it comes to describing a character's physical appearance, imo. And everyone seems to focus on the hair, eyes, and build. So I wasn't sure how many people would be interested in toes, but that's the point, I think—to branch out and think beyond the common body parts to find new things to focus on when working on characterization. But I fully agree that you need to have a good reason to focus on an obscure body part like toes or knees. A description like that does have to fit the character.

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jennifermzeiger said...

I never considered using the toes for description. Love this series, it give me so many ideas. Oh, and I bought the Emotion Thesaurus. Loving it so far...again for ideas outside the box of my own brain. Thanks so much for the resources!

Janet Hartman said...

As a Yankee transplanted south, I've noticed that all native Southern women paint their toenails at the start of sandals weather and continue until fall. I have yet to see one that doesn't, no matter what her age.

Leslie S. Rose said...

Toes have an ewww factor for me. Reminds me, I am in desperate need of a pedi.

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nutschell said...

Never thought of toes that much, but what a great post this is!


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