Physical Attributes Entry: Fingers

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: long, slender, stubby, wrinkled, thin, fat, knobby, gnarled, arthritic, strong, frail, fragile, clawed, tremulous, deft, dextrous, hairy, graceful, elegant, stiff, broken, bony, broken, swollen, jammed, limp,

Things Fingers Do (and other words/phrases to describe those actions)
  • Quiver: shake, shiver, shudder, tremble, flutter, jitter, quaver, tremor
  • Tingle: smart, sting, tingle, prickle, tickle, throb
  • Fidget: tap, drum, rub, pick, bounce, pat, flick, worry, fuss, squeeze, waggle, stroke, crack knuckles

Key Emotions and Related Finger Gestures: 
  • When a person is nervous or worried, the fingers are great indicators. They worry at each other, pick at loose threads, stroke or rub at a certain spot over and over, drum a tabletop, or tap the lip or chin. The fingers can play a great role in individualizing your character and creating those unique movements to show when your hero is anxious. 
  • A common sign of anger is the fingers curling into fists. And of course, most people in modern culture will recognize the most obvious finger sign given to show frustration or anger ;).
  • The fingers will quiver or tremble at the height of any strong emotion, like excitement, fear, or rage.

Simile and Metaphor Help:                         
  • Her fingers fluttered over the harp strings like birds too elegant to land.
  • I woke feeling bloated and swollen. My delicate fingers had turned to sausages stuffed into too-small casings.
Clichés to Avoid: thin fingers described as skeletal, fingers curling into fists so tightly that the nails break the skin, fingers 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: I wasn't sure about this deal, but Derek seemed to have no doubts. I examined his outstretched hand—the fingers were steady, without a flutter of uncertainty or greed. When I finally gave in, his handshake was firm, the fingers wrapping around mine like an arm around the shoulder, assuring me that everything would be all right.

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

**photo credit: Fiona in Eden via photopin cc


JeffO said...

I've tried to clench so tight I break the skin, but all I can manage are a couple of little crescents moons. I guess I have to get REALLY angry.

Natalie Aguirre said...

Great tips. Loved your example.

Gaurav joshi said...
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Jemi Fraser said...

Your examples always seal the deal for me - nicely done :)

jennifermzeiger said...

As always, this reference is very helpful in getting my brain on the right track for description. Thanks.

Traci Kenworth said...


Kristin Lenz said...

Your descriptions just get better and better. Thanks for these posts which continue to make me think deeper about what I'm conveying in my writing. In addition to adding depth to a work in progress, some of these physical attributes would make good short story starters too.

C. Lee McKenzie said...

I've always been fascinated by hands and I keep them in my long-term "visual" memory. I love to characterize, using hands, so this post is great for me!


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