How to describe a person | Using descriptive words
In The Prince and the Pauper, Mark Twain paints a word picture of King Henry VIII using descriptive language:
Before him, at a little distance, reclined a very large and very fat man, with a wide, pulpy face, and a stern expression. His large head was very grey; and his whiskers, which he wore only around his face, like a frame, were grey also. His clothing was of rich stuff, but old, and slightly frayed in places. One of his swollen legs had a pillow under it, and was wrapped in bandages. This stern-countenanced invalid was the dread Henry VIII.
And in The Bronze Bow [aff. link], Elizabeth George Speare describes a young Roman soldier:
When he straightened again, the Roman was pulling off his helmet, revealing crisp fair hair. He wiped the back of his hand across his wet forehead where the metal had left an uncomfortable-looking crease. With a shock, Daniel saw that he was very young… The beardless cheeks and chin scarcely needed a razor. His skin was white, mottled and peeling from exposure to the sun, so that he could not have seen service long under the Galilean skies. The eyes that stared back at Daniel were a clear bright blue. He looked as though he might be about to speak.
Using Descriptive Writing Tools
Can your high schoolers describe a person using vivid vocabulary like the above examples? Without good observation skills or an arsenal of strong words, this can be a challenging task!
Can they describe their subject in detail without turning it into a narrative or story? When I was teaching writing classes, this was a hard concept for my students to grasp. Even with careful guidelines, many still ended up focusing on what the person was doing instead of how they looked.
Use the following tips as teaching tools in one of two ways:
- Discuss the many ways to describe a person before letting students loose to brainstorm; OR
- Once the rough draft has been written and edited, give this list of ideas to stimulate creativity and to help them write a meatier revision.
Either way, whether you work on better brainstorming or focus on more polished revisions, improved description will result.
How to Describe a Person
It’s good to let your kids struggle with the initial writing process. As they wrestle with ideas and words, it will remind them of the importance of thorough and effective brainstorming. The following word lists will help them improve their descriptive paragraphs as they think of more concrete ways to describe a person’s appearance.
TIP: Students shouldn’t be expected include every descriptive element listed below. Rather, a few well-chosen details will go a long way toward bringing their subject to life.
Skin and Complexion
- Wrinkled: covered with lines or loose folds of skin; often associated with age
- Freckled: sprinkled or covered with light brown spots
- Ruddy: skin that has a reddish tint; may have the appearance of sunburn
- Sallow: skin that has a yellowish tint; may be associated with illness
- Tanned: skin with a warm, golden-brown tint
- Rosy or fresh-faced: pink-cheeked, fair complexion that glows with a hint of pink
- Other skin-related adjectives: pale, fair, spotless, silky, smooth, creamy, dewy, baby-soft, peaches-and-cream, glowing, paper-thin or translucent (as with a very old person), sunburned, peeling, rough, callused, weathered, weatherbeaten, craggy, leathery, mottled, dry, brown, dark
- Shape, size, and appearance: large, small, almond-shaped, round, squinty, crinkly, bulging, heavy-lidded, hooded, deep-set, close-set, hollow, tear-filled
- Eye color: black, brown, hazel, green, blue, violet, gray, amber
- Eye expressions: piercing, mesmerizing, sad, sorrowful, haunted, gentle, sympathetic, warm, compassionate, expressive, bright, twinkling, lively, dancing, laughing, shifty, sly, distrusting, sleepy
- Other: brown-eyed boy, bright-eyed sister, wide-eyed child, gold-flecked eyes
Mouth and Lips
- Lip shape and size: thin, full, pouting, rosebud (baby’s lips, often), pursed (puckered up, as when concentrating)
- Mouth expressions: laugh, smile, beam, grin, frown, grimace, scowl, sneer, curl, pout
- Adjectives describing the mouth or mouth expressions: toothy, toothless, gap-toothed, kind, sweet, dimpled, relaxed, firm, serious, cruel, snarling
- Hair color: black, brunette, brown, chestnut-brown, blond, honey-blond, golden-blond, ash-blond, fair, cornsilk, auburn, red, strawberry-blond, gray, silver, white, salt-and-pepper
- Texture or appearance: wispy, fuzzy, wavy, curly, kinky, frizzy, wild, untamed, unmanageable, straight, spiky, stiff, buzzed, shaved, trimmed, parted, neatly-combed, tamed, cascading, long, short, cropped, dull, shiny
- Hair styles: braids, ponytail, pigtails, bun, messy bun, twist, bob, ringlets, flip, cornrows, extensions, bangs, buzz, layered, feathered, chopped, gelled, spiked, slicked down
- Lots of hair: thick, full, lustrous, bushy, coarse, wiry, stiff
- Little hair: thin, scraggly, fine, baby-fine, downy, wispy, limp, flat, balding, bald, bald spot, receding (gradual loss of hair at the front of the head)
- Treated hair: permed, dyed, bleached, highlighted, weaved, streaked, colored
- Hair: beard, goatee, mustache, soul patch, sideburns
- Beard growth: stubble, fuzz, peach fuzz, bristles, five o’clock shadow (describes new beard growth that’s shadowy in appearance. It’s usually more noticeable late in the day on the jaw, chin, or cheek area, but some men purposely grow five o’clock shadows.)
- Adjectives: bearded, bushy, stubbly, bristly, scratchy, unshaven, shaggy, whiskered, beardless, clean-shaven, smooth, trimmed, neatly-trimmed, pencil-thin
TIP: Choose strong verbs and adjectives.
- Build: small, slim, slight, thin, lean, willowy, skinny, angular, bony, fine-boned, chunky, chubby, large, portly, plump, round, stout, pudgy, full-figured, ample, broad-shouldered, burly, solid, muscular
- Posture: stand, sit, slouch, flop, lean, recline, rest, stretch, sprawl, curl up, roost, squirm, arch, slump, stoop, bend, hunch, scoot, walk, run, race, jog
- Fabric: denim, twill, wool, cashmere, cotton, linen, seersucker, gingham, lace, chiffon, tulle, velvet, velveteen, fleece, flannel, tweed, polyester, jersey, corduroy, spandex, leather
- Bottoms: jeans, skinny jeans, cargo pants, yoga pants, pleated pants, slacks, trousers, overalls, sweatpants, crop pants, capris, skirt, shorts, board shorts, bermuda shorts
- Tops: sport shirt, dress shirt, polo shirt, button-down shirt, chambray shirt, tank top, blouse, tunic, long-sleeve, short-sleeve, sleeveless, collared, T-shirt, V-neck, scoop-neck, boat-neck, turtleneck, sweatshirt, hoodie, pullover, sweater, cardigan, sweater set
- Other clothing: dress, gown, frock, pinafore, uniform, coveralls, costume, pajamas, bathrobe, robe, vest, jacket, blazer, coat, apron
- Footwear: socks, stockings, shoes, slippers, sandals, flip-flops, mules, loafers, heels, pumps, boots, ankle boots, riding boots, slouch boots, athletic shoes, sneakers, tennis shoes, gym shoes, runners, trainers, Chucks
- Accessories: mittens, gloves, hat, cap, head wrap, bandana, scarf, muffler, necklace, choker, bracelet, ring, earrings, cuffs, cufflinks, purse, clutch, bag, tote, sunglasses, eyeglasses, glasses
- Adjectives (appearance): stylish, natty, smart, chic, classy, elegant, polished, draped, flowing, sheer, casual, relaxed, carefree, starched, crisp, sharp, dressy, lacy, shiny, shimmering, sparkling, glittery, sloppy, torn, ripped, tattered, disheveled, slovenly, tacky, unkempt, faded, scratchy, worn, frayed, nubby, rough, smooth, pliable, warm, soft, quilted, knit
- Adjectives (patterns): argyle, striped, solid, plaid, checked, gingham, ikat, paisley, dotted, polka-dotted, floral, houndstooth, herringbone, chevron, geometric
Sentence Starters Describing Clothes (Encourage your students to write more maturely by using strong sentence openings.)
- Smartly dressed in (name of garment), the attorney …
- Casually clothed in (name of garment), the young woman …
- Wrestling wildly, Tim and Ethan tore holes in their (name of garments) when they…
- Elderly but spry, my grandfather sported a (name of garment) and (name of garment) …
- Wearing a (name of garment), the detective …
- Quick as a flash, the acrobat whipped off his (name of garment) and began to …
There are so many ways to describe people! What other words would you include?
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Do you need help teaching descriptive writing to your middle and high school kids? WriteShop I provides a strong foundation in concrete description, teaching students how to describe an object, animal, person, food, season, and place. Students learn to choose strong words to bring their subjects to life. WriteShop II continues by offering several lessons in advanced descriptive narration, where students weave vivid description into a story or other narrative.
Photo credits: Dave Rosen (street man), Loren Kerns (blue eyes), Paul Arps (Dai boy), Dylan Walters (mountain woman), Connie Liegl (redhead), Spigoo (newborn), courtesy of Creative Commons
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