Physical Traits Entry: Athletic Build

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: Broad shoulders and back, narrow waist, flat stomach, toned and enlarged muscles, lean frame, low body fat, well-proportioned, a ripped physique

People Likely to have an Athletic Build: professional and amateur athletes, health-conscious individuals, physical trainers, firefighters, police officers

Famous Examples:
  • Bruce Lee
  • Channing Tatum
  • Usain Bolt
  • Lolo Jones
  • Michael Jordan
  • Bo Jackson

Simile and Metaphor Help:                         
  • Andy stuffed stack after stack of pancakes into his mouth, his muscles bulging in his perfectly-proportioned body like boulders being pushed to the surface by tectonic activity. It wasn't fair, the differences between guys and girls. I picked at my fruit salad and scowled.
  • Muscular and scowling, she held the tennis racket like a club and hopped from foot to foot—a lion, scenting weaker prey and biding its time. I gripped my own racket to keep it from shaking and swallowed. Hard.
Clichés to Avoid: the athletic body being compared to a machine

Twists on the Stereotypical Athletic Build:
  • Athletic builds are almost always tanned, dark-skinned, or some other enviable shade. How about an athletic body that's a little less desirable, like pale, veined, acned, or sickly?
  • This body type is almost always well-proportioned according to society's standards. What about an extremely short person with an athlete's body?
  • Athletic bodies usually take a lot of deliberate work to get into the desired condition. A character with a naturally athletic build who doesn't have to work at it can cause for some interesting conflict among jealous or petty friends—especially if the character doesn't have the typically disciplined mindset to accompany it.

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 treadmill beeped and Jess slid off, trying not to fall over. The workout had been a killer, and then the run on top of that...She wiped her face and caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror. Her muscles stood out, nearly pulsing after what she'd put them through. And by the looks of it, she'd managed to work off that cookie from yesterday. But volleyball tryouts were tomorrow, and she wasn't the only one vying for a starting spot. She tossed the towel over her shoulder and headed for the pull-up bar.


Jemi Fraser said...

Great advice! Love turning those expectations around :)

healingbywriting said...

The physical traits are always hard to describe well. Thanks for the good advice.

Jack Durish said...

I can't think of a better example of the athletic physique than dancers. With the growing popularity of dancing on American television - Dancing With The Stars and So You Think You Can Dance to name just two popular shows - we are treated to watching some of the finest and fittest athletes in action. Indeed, I remember a story of a professional football coach who invited a choreographer to training camp after watching chorus members sing and dance their way through a Broadway show. The professional football players were soon passed out on the ground attempting to keep up with her.

C. Lee McKenzie said...

Loved your examples. Excellent.

Laura Hebbeln said...

I appreciate this post- it is so difficult to describe characters without being list-like or cliched. That is why, in my writing- I either avoid it entirely or try to give hints at characters appearances in subtle ways- how other characters respond to MC, how much difficulty the MC does (or doesn't have) walking up a flight of steps, food choices the MC makes, etc. This post shed some new light on the topic for me, so thanks again!

Becca Puglisi said...

Oh, Jack, I can't believe I left off dancers. Great pick up. :)

chidimma said...

Nice blog!


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