Cultivate a Rich Bank of Physical Description for your Characters

When pressed to describe a person, most admit to noticing the “eyes,” the “hair,” a “smile.” This works in conversation, but in writing, where readers thirst for deeper introspections, a new charter will need more than: “Big blue eyes,” “long, red hair,” with “a smile that stretched from ear to ear.” Alone these sketches will make dull a character in your reader’s imagination.


Writer Sigrid Nunez calls a character’s name, eye color, height, and sex: the driver’s license. She recommends we avoid “handing the reader a driver’s license,” and instead, focus on describing other physical details. We would do well to cultivate a rich bank of physical description, as we move toward mastering character development.

(For exercise photos, click on the hyperlink.)

The Girl

  1.     What are your first impressions of the Girl? Write one or two sentences at the top of the page.
  2.     Fill the boxes with the corresponding body part (ex, “Hair” in the very top right box).
  3.     Write one sentence for each body part that describes the Girl. (ex. “Her hair is brown, short.” Feel free to have fun. “Her mahogany hair had shined the first day of class, but two weeks of growth revealed the unsteady hand of her mother on those bangs.)
  4.     What are your final impressions? Reflect on how a deeper look at this character has illuminated some aspect of her that you did not notice at first. First impressions are usually wrong. One or two sentences at the bottom will suffice.


The Pair

  1.     Read the various body parts. You will notice overlap between the male and the female, and, naturally, some unique elements per body (the latter tend to be absent in casual writing).
  2.     Reflect on your own writing. Are there body parts in this sketch that you refrain from writing, forget to mention, or haven’t considered?
  3.     Circle three or four body parts that you seldom write about.
  4.     Write a dialogue where both characters compliment the other’s body parts that you have circled. Have fun.


This exercise reminds us that we already have a rich bank of physical descriptions preloaded. As observers we notice much more than Hair, Eyes, Mouth, and a reader’s imagination only becomes fully quenched when given other aspects of the human body.

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