Physical Attribute Entry: Fingernails

Marcello Casal Jr/ABr @ WIKIMEDIA
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, short, ragged, chipped, uneven, bitten, painted, decorated, glossy, pointed, curved, waxy, thick, peeling, missing, cracked, acrylic, false, manicured, yellowed, rounded, curled, flat, blackened, stubby, thin, misshapen, claws, brittle, diseased, colorful, shiny, healthy, shaped, pierced, dirty, polished, buffed, translucent; groomed, hangnail, trimmed, split

Things Nails Do:
  • Pluck: pick, pull, drag, collect, draw, harvest
  • Lift: pry, wedge, lever, manipulate, force, tamper, raise, heave, jimmy
  • Scratch: scrape, scuff, cut, scar, chafe, rub, graze
  • Protect: defend, cover, guard, ward off, cut, slice, repel

Key Emotions and Related Fingernail Gestures: 
  • Nervous: bite, pick at, chew, nibble, strip
  • Anger: attack, cut, slash, slice, pierce
  • Pride: admire, paint, polish, shape, manicure, flaunt, adorn, show off

Simile and Metaphor Help:                           
  • Clawed: The necromancer's thick nails clicked against the tabletop, a set of yellowed dragon claws ready to strike.
  • Bitten: Randy's mangled fingernails looked like a dog's well-loved chew toy.
Clichés to Avoid:
  •  Overusing nail biting to show nerves
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: 

Aunt Mary was the eccentric of the family, refusing to cut her nails until they literally began to curl into corkscrews that you could comb your hair with.

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...

Tapping. I have a tendency to have my characters tap their nails on a tabletop.

Al Diaz said...

Very useful information! :D

Southpaw said...

This is a good one!

jennifermzeiger said...

Somehow I overlooked how useful finger nails can be. Bad writer! Thanks for the tips=)

Elizabeth Varadan aka Mrs. Seraphina said...

Nice tips! I hadn't really thought of fingernails as indicators, but they really do show a lot.

Donna K. Weaver said...

So when are these going to be a book? ;) Love the example with the nail. But ew!

Angela Felsted said...

Nails are versatile, aren't they? People bite them when they're nervous, tap them when they're fidgety, paint them when they're relaxed.

They can be so short that the skin of the finger makes a hood over them if their owner is extremely compulsive. They might be well trimmed and short if their owner is a string player. They may be long and painted fancy colors. There are just so many ways to use nails. A fabulous detail to focus on!

Traci Kenworth said...

I love the details you two come up with!!

Teresa Robeson said...

I have never thought about the fingernails of characters when writing and I think I'm missing out on a nice detail. Thank you!

Donna S. Fernandez said...

I keep a binder of dialogue tags, describers, possible character names +++. I'm adding this great take on character description to it. Thanks a mint for pulling it together and sharing it. Best wishes for a successful writing new year.

Angela Ackerman said...

Thanks guys! Glad this one helps. I just finished watching Iron Man 2 again and I was continually draw to Mickey Rourke's fingernails--they were thick and yellowed, yet his hands were always purposeful in each close up. It was a perfect way to show the balance between his environment and poverty and yet his determination for revenge.

Becca Puglisi said...

This is awesome stuff. Fingernails can really tell a lot about a person, and yet I overlook them all the time in my writing. Thanks for this, Ange!

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Kelly Polark said...

Interesting post, and I do actually highlight fingernails in a scene in my mg. Fingernails can be important to preteens and teenage girls! I remember painting my nails twice a week in high school!


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