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: sallow, delicate, ill, bruised, pale, white, bony, anemic, frail, shaky, weak, pallid, wasted, peaky, wan, spotted, hollowed, sagging, trembling, ashen, feeble, slight, faint, brittle, fragile, wispy, spindly, slight, off-color, pasty, unhealthy, rheumy, doddering, reedy, lethargic, waxy, thin, blotchy, yellowed, gaunt
People Likely to have a Sickly Build: people with chronic illness or disease, the elderly, those with poor nutrition, poverty-stricken, prisoners of war, victims of crime and abuse, drug addicts
Michael J Fox
Thoughts on Sickly: Sickly characters are often underweight, with their skin sagging and bones protruding, offering knobbiness and sharp angles that make the person appear frail and weak. Hair may be thin and lackluster, and eyes have a pinpoint look to them, glass bright and “wet,” or pinched and dull. Their completion is pale and waxy, with almost a greasy look to it. Posture may be broken and slumped, hands are bony, clothing appears too big or ill-fitted, and bright colors only create starkness, drawing further attention to the unhealthy or yellowed pallor of their face and exposed skin. Sickly characters walk slower or move awkwardly as if in pain and lack energy and drive. They may be slow to smile or show emotions, almost as if it takes a greater effort to react.
Metaphor and Simile Help:
- I tried not to gasp as cousin Lenard entered the room, his feet tapping the floor in the slow, doddering steps of a man twice his age. His slight shoulders dragged in his suit and he moved carefully, pausing for balance before taking the next step. His MS diagnosis had stolen the lively dance partner I’d twirled against at the various Bar Mitzvahs and weddings, leaving behind a chipped, worn Dreidel too unstable to spin anymore.
- Luca sat in the backseat, shoulders crumpling over his thin chest as he waited for Mom and Dad to drive him to the rehab clinic one state over. A sheen of sweat made his gaunt face greasier than an egg frying in the pan. He caught my gaze through the glass window and flashed me a brief smile, but it trembled, telling me withdrawal was setting in.
Clichés to Avoid: using “frail and sickly” together; saying one is “as pale as a ghost”
Twists on the Stereotypical Sickly Build:
- We think of the sickly stereotype as someone who is small with a slight build, the kind of person born frail and destined to become ill one day. Why not write a character who is brawny and tough and show readers the transformation he goes through as the result of an illness beyond his control?
- One of the hardest parts of being sick is the time that comes before diagnosis. Feeling terrible and not knowing why sets the imagination afire with worry and brings mortality into focus. If you have a sickly character, don’t forget the psychological effects his condition will have on his personality and outlook on life.
- Illness is terrifying because most people know if can strike at any time. No one likes to feel weak, tired, low. Show the contrast of sudden frailty on a driven character with big goals and how this sudden affliction forces him or her to work within new limitations. If they can still hang on to their drive to succeed despite body weakness, readers will cheer them on like no other character.
BONUS TIP: The Colors, Textures & Shapes Thesaurus in our sidebar might help you find a fresh take on some of the descriptors listed above!