Advice, Writing Prompts

Describing Faces: Significant Detail

Most novice writers, when describing their characters, mention only hair and eye color and figure they’re done. However, hair and eye color are the least telling aspects of a person. You don’t have to tell us a lot about how your character looks, but give us some physical details that set them apart from other people and somehow symbolize their character, such as a wide mouth for someone who is expressive and has lavish appetites, or a Roman nose for someone who has that certain gravitas.What we mean by significant detail, is detail that does double duty, that tells us how a person looks as well as how they feel or behave, what kind of personality they have. The length of their eyelashes or color their hat is irrelevant when they are setting by a hospital bed watching their mother die of cancer. However, their bitten fingernails or dark circles under their eyes are significant.

A good way to develop your ability to describe people is to practice. I’ve composed a series of faces, paired only by similarity of hair and eye color to show you how DIFFERENT people of the same hair and eye color look.

Directions: Spend 60 seconds per slide. Quickly write down what distinguishes one face from the other by describing one or both faces using concrete detail about the shape and composition of face and features. Think about the spacing of the nose or eyebrows, or about the shape of the chin or forehead. Do NOT use judgement words (such as pretty, handsome, ugly, mean) or make assessments about personality. Simply describe what you SEE. This can be hard, at first. Try one or two slides with your writing group or in class. Compare notes, then continue. If you get stuck, try some of the metaphors from the sites below.


500 Ways to Describe Faces: While I don’t hold with everything said on this site, it has some great ideas in the first three sections for face shape, colors and animal metaphors. For this exercise, avoid the opinion adjectives like (“frank” or “cheerful”). This is not a permanent ban, just a temporary one until you get a handle on really seeing and describing the physical.

Don’t stop practicing here. Keep a notebook with you or use your phone note taker, and when you’re standing in line at the store or sitting in a coffee shop, do some people watching and try to jot down one or two significant and distinguishing physical traits of the people in front of you. If you find you are always describing chins and noses, force yourself to notice different traits like forearms and feet.

Happy writing!

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