Physical Attributes Entry: Skin

Rhinocerous skin, courtesy of Sanjay ach
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: olive, caramel, brown, black, tan, pale, white, yellowish, gray, ivory, pink, freckled, splotchy, smooth, flawless, rashy, wrinkled, dry, spotted, pocked, hairy, rosy, scarred, saggy, itchy, tingling, acned, oily, glistening, glowing, sweaty, dirty, translucent, veined, warm, hot, cool, icy, shivery, drawn, tight, sensitive, loose, flushed, discolored, ashy, leathery, sickly, wan, pasty, feverish, clammy, sallow, jaundiced, puckered, frostbitten, rough, bruised, sun-damaged

Things Skin Does (and other words/phrases to describe those actions)
  • Shiver: shudder, jitter, tremble, quiver, tremor
  • Tingle: prickle, sting, tickle, prick
  • Blush: flush, bloom, gild, pinken, stain, tint, tinge

Key Emotions and Related Skin Verbs: 
  • Fear: a tightening sensation, prickling or tingling, the hair rising on the arms and back of the neck, over-sensitivity to stimuli, shuddering/trembling/shivering, numbness in the extremities, a sensation of the skin "crawling"
  • Embarrassment: blushing/pinking/reddening, a flush crawling over the skin, sudden warmth, feeling overheated

Simile and Metaphor Help:                         
  • The back of his neck was thick and dark like a leatherback turtle's.
  • Her skin was a minefield of moles and cancer spots waiting to do her in.

Clich├ęs to Avoid: alligator skin, peaches-and-cream complexion, skin that's paper thin, a sun-kissed hue, porcelain skin

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: Lines meandered over her skin, intersecting with scars and puckering where they criss-crossed. It was a roadmap of her past, marking not only the pain but also the changing points that had made her the woman she was today.

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


Also, Angela's posting today at Lisa Voisin's blog:  Do Your Characters Have Emotional Pull? If you've got a minute, stop by and say hi. Happy Saturday!


Al Diaz said...

All your posts always help me learn more English in an interesting way. Thanks!

Francene Stanley said...

As usual, you give great ways to express what we see in words. Thanks ladies.

Karoline Kingley said...

Physical attributes can be a powerful reflection of not only emotion but personality. However, is it wrong to be so specific about a character's looks to the extent that the reader can hardly imagine them?

Angela Ackerman said...

@karoline, definitely you don't want to over describe. Picking out a few details that help paint a picture is all that is needed, especially at first introduction. It is simply our suggestion that when a writer picks a few details, or later adds an extra bit of description to further that first initial image, that they do it in a way that doesn't feel list like. If skin were one of the details a writer chose to focus on, then this entry gives ideas on how to make that aspect of physical description add to the movement and flow by being active, and by providing a characterization hint. For example, the quality of skin can tell us if a person is hard working (chapped, lined, scratched, etc) or lives a life of privledge (smooth, creamy, soft) all through our choice of adjectives. :)

Jemi Fraser said...

Love these! Skin isn't something I always remember to describe! :)

Wendy's Writing said...

A great post, Becca. When writing short stories, it is hard to get the balance of description and action right - too much and your reader loses interest and too little and they cannot 'see' teh person in their imagination.

Rosi said...

Another great post. Thanks for this.

jennifermzeiger said...

Thanks for the post. As always, you continue to give me ideas of different ways to describe people. Very helpful.

Susan Flett Swiderski said...

Yours is one of the most unusual... and helpful... blogs in the whole darned blogosphere. I don't comment often, but I wanted you to know your efforts are very much appreciated. (I LOVE your book, and sincerely hope you plan on coming out with a bunch more of 'em.)

Traci Kenworth said...

Good one!!

Daniyal Memon said...

You want Hot Girls Pictures or Hot Videos.?? Most popular and famous hot Girls

Stina Lindenblatt said...

You're going to have quite the thesaurus for me when I get to this point in my edits. :D Thanks ladies!

Alieen Stewart said...

Nice Post..Thank you so much for taking the time to share such a nice information...
Skin Care Clinic in Chandigarh

Cecilia Robert said...

oh, thank you for this post. I have a set of characters/ paranormal creatures in my story and I was completely stuck on skin descriptions. btw, I hope this one comes out in book format soon. I bought the emotional thesaurus. Without it, I'm useless.. :D Thanks!