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: round, narrow, heart-shaped, long, squished, square, oval, fleshy, fat, drawn, skeletal, baby-faced, wrinkled, freckled, acned, happy, sad, mournful, open/bright, closed-off, worried, downcast, uplifted, tired, tanned, pale, pasty, pallid, expressionless, smooth, bearded, jowly, wide
Things Faces Do (and other words/phrases to describe those actions)
- Fall: sag, droop, sink, crumple
- Brighten: shine, gleam, glow, uplift, beam, radiate
- This is a tough one, because many of the things that happen to the face (tics, twitches, etc.) aren't attributed to the face, but to the specific body part involved (eye, jaw, cheek). Remember that for the face to get credit for an action, multiple parts need to be in play. This is why feelings are usually attributed to the face, because so much of it is involved when emotions are being expressed.
Key Emotions and Related Face Gestures:
- Fear: The eyes grow wide; the nostrils may flare; the mouth may open wider to take in more oxygen or squeeze closed in an effort to gain control of oneself.
- Happiness: the eyes may shine or glisten with tears; a smile will emerge; the entire faces brightens or becomes more animated
- Sadness: the eyes grow dull and limpid and may take on a blank gaze; tears appear; the mouth downturns and may quiver with the effort to hold back tears; the entire face appears to sag, droop, or crumple
- Anger: cheeks flush; teeth and jaws clench; lips mash together; eyes often narrow and take on a hard or steely glint; the tendons may stand out, showing tenseness; nostrils may flare
- Worry and Nervousness: eyes shift, darting here and there and blinking rapidly; tics may start up in various places; the teeth may lick, bite, or chew on the lips;
- Surprise: The eyes grow wide and may cease blinking for a time; the mouth gasps open; the face may become still or appear frozen
- For more information on how to express emotions using the face and other body parts, see our sampling of The Emotion Thesaurus, or check out the complete version at Amazon and other retailers.
Simile and Metaphor Help:
- Her face brightened in a suitably gentle way—not a sudden sunburst, but an oil lamp being turned slowly up.
- At the word "no", the little boy's face turned red and squeezed shut. He looked like a sunburned Pekingese.
Clichés to Avoid: the wrinkled face that is described as a roadmap or atlas of lines; the face as an open book or closed door; the pointy-chinned face being "elfin"
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: The woman put her sad moon-face in at the window of the car. "You be good," she said to the little ones. "Mind what Dicey tells you." Then she slung her purse over her shoulder and walked away, her stride made uneven by broken sandal thongs, thin elbows showing through holes in the oversized sweater, her jeans faded and baggy. -- Homecoming, Cynthia Voigt
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: Paul Stevenson via photopin cc