Physical Description - Cliches to Avoid

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Photo of red hair by Sunny Ripert Hair this pretty needs a better word than "copper." Photo by Sunny Ripert. See References below.

Physical Description Clichés to Avoid

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Clichés are descriptive phrases and comparisons that have been run into the ground with overuse.  Amateur writers tend to use them because they come quickly and easily to mind.  But they're dull and create no real mental picture and tend to make us readers disengage. 

I've also included perfectly good words like "slender" and basic colors like blue, brown, gold, and green.  This is because these words are not enough when used in description:  He was slender and his eyes were blue.  Used like this, these words (while not clichés) serve as basic labels and are boring.  You need to take them further:  slender as a birch twig, blue as a gas-jet flame.

Use everything on this list with caution.  I try never to say "never" and some of these clichés I like – such as flashing eyes.  So, with the exception of what's in the Cliché Hall of Fame, go ahead and use them if you have to, but be aware that they are clichés and keep your use sparing.  You can bet I'll be adding more clichés and worn-out words as I run across them.

Cliché Hall of Fame:  Stamp out these phrases like the roaches they are!

  • Dancing eyes.  Gack!
  • Full.  As in full breasts, full lips, and a full mouth (when you mean "full lips" rather than full of food)
  • Soft.  Soft eyes?  Surely there is a more precise way to describe a gentle or melting glance. 

The List of Words:  Look on this alphabetical list for the thing you want to describe.  After the dash, you will see words that are clichés, inadequate, or too basic.  You'll need to decide whether to avoid the word, go ahead and use it, or give it some help with the addition of some sharper details.  For example, Nalini Singh in Slave to Sensation described her heroine's eyes as "night-sky" dark, which is a cliché by itself.  But she turns a worn-out comparison into a beautiful image when she adds "an endless field of black scattered with pinpricks of cold white fire."

  • Blood – copper [smells and tastes like], copper pennies, coppery, metallic [smell, taste].  Comment:  what does metal and/or copper smell like?  Nothing, right? 
  • Body – fat, fleshy, heavy, slender, slim, stout,
  • Body, female – curvaceous, curvy, hourglass figure, lithe, lithesome, lush, slender, slim, voluptuous
  • Body, male – brawny, burly, hard, lean, muscular, powerful, slim, strapping, strong,
  • Breasts, Bosoms – ample, full, heaving, soft,
  • Eyes – beady, clear, cold, dancing, doe-eyed, fiery, flashing, glowing, limpid, liquid, piercing, rolling, shining, snapping, soft, sparkling, steely, twinkling, wide,
  • Eyes, blue – baby blue, china blue, cornflower blue, forget-me-not blue, ice blue, indigo, sapphire, sky blue, steel blue
  • Eyes, black – coal black, ebony, jet, midnight, night, night sky, obsidian, onyx, pitch black, smoky, soot, velvety
  • Eyes, brown – amber, doe-eyed, golden, nut brown, soft, topaz, velvety, walnut
  • Eyes, green – bottle green, cat's eyes, emerald, forest green, grass green, jade, leaf green, sea green
  • Eyes, gray – charcoal gray, cloud gray, silver, slate, smoke, steel,
  • Facial shape – horsey, heart-shaped,
  • Fingers – elegant, gnarled, slender, stubby, tapering,
  • Gaze – hypnotic, mesmerizing, passionate, penetrating, piercing, smoldering
  • Hair – cascading, flowing, mane, silky, soft, wavy
  • Hair, blond(e) – ash, flax, flaxen, gilded, gilt, gold, golden, honey, platinum, straw-colored, taffy, tawny, wheat,
  • Hair, brunet(te) – chestnut, mouse-brown, mousey, nut brown, raven, russet, sable,
  • Hair, gray – grizzled, hoary, pearly, snow white, winter white,
  • Hair, red – auburn, chestnut, cinnamon, coppery, fiery, flame, ginger, russet
  • Neck – slender, swan-like, thick,
  • Nose – beaky, button nose, hawk nose, prominent, pug nose, snub nosed
  • Skin – flawless, glowing, leathery, lustrous, soft,
  • Skin, dark – bronzed, chocolate, cinnamon, cocoa, coffee, coppery, dusky, mahogany, nut brown, swarthy, tan, walnut
  • Skin, dark/golden – gilded, golden, honey, sallow, waxy
  • Skin, fair – alabaster, chalky, creamy, milky, pallid, peaches-and-cream, pearly, porcelain, translucent, whey-faced
  • Skin, fair/reddish – apple-cheeked, rosy, ruddy.

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