How to describe a person | Homeschool high school writing skills

by | Mar 16, 2020 | High school, Word Banks

Does your homeschool teen know how to describe a person using vivid vocabulary? Because students can struggle with good observation skills or summoning up an arsenal of strong words, description can be a challenging task!

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.

Likewise, in The Bronze Bow , Elizabeth George Speare describes a young Roman soldier with vivid words:

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.

Descriptive Writing Tools

Can your homeschool high schoolers describe a person using great detail as in the above examples? Can they describe their subject in detail without turning it into a narrative or story? 

When I was teaching homeschool 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:

  1. Discuss the many ways to describe a person before letting students loose to brainstorm; OR
  2. Once they’ve written and edited their rough draft, 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 teach descriptive writing to younger children

How to Describe a Person

It’s good to let your teens struggle with the initial writing process. When they wrestle with ideas and words, it reminds them why it’s important to thoroughly and effectively brainstorm. 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: Don’t expect students to include every descriptive element listed below. Rather, a few well-chosen details will go a long way toward bringing their subject to life.

Face Shape

  • Square
  • Oval
  • Round
  • Triangular
  • Heart-shaped
  • Thin
  • Wide
  • Chiseled

Skin and Complexion

Complexion is the natural appearance and color of the skin, especially of the face. For example, “Mary’s soft, creamy complexion radiated health and happiness.”

  • 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), loose, sagging, drooping, sunburned, peeling, rough, callused, weathered, weather-beaten, craggy, leathery, mottled, dry, brown, dark

Eyes

TIP: Pay attention to the eyes, because they often reveal a great deal about a person.

  • Shape, size, and appearance: large, small, almond-shaped, round, squinty, crinkly, bulging, heavy-lidded, hooded, deep-set, close-set, wide-set, hollow, vacant, 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, sparkling, 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

  • Hair color:
    black, brunette, brown, chestnut-brown, blond, honey-blond, golden-blond, ash-blond, fair, towhead, corn silk, 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, ombre

Facial Hair

  • Hair: beard, neck beard, goatee, mustache, handlebar mustache, soul patch, sideburns
  • Beard growth: fuzz, peach fuzz, bristles, stubble, designer stubble, 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 “designer stubble.”) 
  • Adjectives: bearded, bushy, stubbly, bristly, scratchy, unshaven, shaggy, whiskered, beardless, clean-shaven, smooth, trimmed, neatly-trimmed, pencil-thin

Body 

TIP: Choose strong verbs and adjectives, since they help flesh out description.

  • 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, reach, stretch, sprawl, curl up, roost, squirm, arch, slump, stoop, bend, hunch, scoot, walk, run, race, jog, skip

Clothing

  • 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, tights, 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, knit cap, head wrap, bandana, scarf, muffler, necklace, choker, bracelet, ring, earrings, cuffs, cufflinks, purse, clutch, bag, tote, sunglasses, eyeglasses, glasses, shades

Adjectives Describing Clothing

  • When writing about 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
  • When describing patterns: argyle, striped, solid, plaid, checked, gingham, ikat, paisley, dotted, polka-dotted, floral, houndstooth, herringbone, chevron, geometric

Sentence Starters Describing Clothes 

Encourage your homeschool students to use strong sentence openings because their writing will sound more mature.

  • 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?

WriteShop I and WriteShop II

Do you need help teaching descriptive writing to your middle and high school homeschoolers? WriteShop I provides a strong foundation in concrete description, teaching students how to describe an object, animal, person, food, season, and place. When students learn to choose strong words, they 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.

Can your homeschool teen describe a person using vivid vocabulary? Without good observation skills or an arsenal of strong words, this can be a challenging task!

6 Comments

  1. khalil mercier

    i leant alot

  2. Erika

    Excellent article. Thanks a lot!

  3. Nandhini Ravi

    Thank you so much…It’s very useful for me…

    • Kim Kautzer

      You’re welcome, Nandhini. Hope you return to this page often when you’re writing descriptions of characters and people.

  4. Kim

    Thanks, Heidi!

  5. Heidi

    Great article! Added to my favourites.