Physical Attributes Entry: Lips

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.


Courtesy of Wikipedia

Descriptors: plump, full, pouty, sultry, thin, fat, dry, cracked, scabby, split, pierced, chapped, swollen, collagen-inflated, pursed, puckered, pale, blue, symmetrical, upturned, downturned

Things Lips Do (and other words/phrases to describe those actions)
  • Smile: grin, smirk, simper, sneer, twist, upturn, lift
  • Frown: grimace, moue, scowl, pout
  • Kiss: smooch, smack, peck, graze, caress, skim, tickle, flick, brush

Key Emotions and Related Lip Gestures: 
People mess with their lips quite a bit. When nervous or uncertain, it's common for people to bite or chew on the lips as well as rubbing a hand or fingers over them. The lips are often mashed together when someone is holding back their true feelings or opinions. When someone is feeling happy or content, they might whistle, hum, or smile, while disgust is shown by wrinkling or curling the lips back from the teeth. Frowning is a common sign that someone is unhappy, angry, sad, or confused.

Simile and Metaphor Help:                         
  • I woke up with lips the size of California. Must've been the sushi.
  • One more day in this cold and my lips'll be flaking off like fish scales.

Clichés to Avoid: a sensual person with plump, full lips; the flirty girl with pouty lips

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 watch myself in the mirror across the room. Ugh. Two muddy-circle eyes under black-dash eyebrows, piggy-nose nostrils, and a chewed-up horror of a mouth. I can't stop biting my lips. It looks like my mouth belongs to someone else, someone I don't even know. I get out of bed and take down the mirror. I put it in the back of my closet, facing the wall. (Speak, by Laurie Halse Anderson)

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


Leslie S. Rose said...

The simile/metaphor killed me. I'm going to be staring at people's lips all day.

Natalie Aguirre said...

Thanks for the tips. That was a great example of a good description of lips by Laurie Halse Anderson. This is a hard one not to be cliche.

Charlene said...

This is useful, thank you.
I noticed licking your lips isn't on there. Is that considered cliche even if it isn't done in a sensual manner?

jennifermzeiger said...

As always, this helps me think beyond my own way of describing things. Very helpful, thanks=)

Martina at Adventures in YA Publishing said...

Love this post and all the others in the series. It's wonderfully useful to think about things while seeing them all consolidated like this!

Thanks so much for these!

Have a great weekend!

Karoline Kingley said...

These tips are so helpful! Sometimes it's difficult to find different words to describe lips, but you made the possibilities seem endless.

Becca Puglisi said...

Charlene, good catch! I should have put 'licking the lips' as a common sign of nervousness and unease. I don't think it's a cliché as much as it is a universal sign for those emotion. Obviously, it shouldn't be overused, but using it here or that during a scene of high emotion can go a long way toward drawing the reader in, since they'll recognize that cue.

Kai Strand said...

Lips are a great mood indicator and sprinkled throughout the text a strong character developer. Yet so easy to forget to use!

Thanks for the post.

Melissa J H. said...

Loved this, it will really help me with my story.

Susanne Drazic said...

Would "lip smacking good" be considered a cliche? I've heard it used when talking about how good some food dishes are.

Susan Gourley/Kelley said...

Great ideas for creative description.

Tracy Campbell said...

I'm amazed you come up with so many great body part descriptions. And I certainly commented to hopefully win the awesome prize. Congratulations again on five years together. :-)

Marcia said...

Love that line about lips the size of California.

The Pen and Ink Blog said...

What a wonderfully informative post. I refer back to you blog often whenever I need inspiration for a revision

Traci Kenworth said...

Nice details!! Sometimes we can forget the smallest thing that can make a difference in bringing our character to life.


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