Are you looking for a list of descriptive terms for fiction writers to help prod your imagination into action? Maybe words and their connotations fascinate you. When you're writing physical descriptions of your characters, you can use numerous terms depending on their sex and size.
This article is for describing the large male body type. You're welcome to print out this how-to for your own use, or your critique group's use, or you can link back to this article from your blog, but please don't copy this content to your blog or website.
A note on the advice to be found here. It is simply information on techniques that have worked for one published author (me). Only you can decide if my information will be helpful or not helpful to you.
For example, I point out clichés to avoid, and you can decide if you want to use them as they are, avoid them, or improve the terms with additional description. I personally love the cliché "flashing eyes," even though I know it is a cliche. I will go on using it in my writing.
Improving as a writer is all about experimenting. The only "ironclad rules" in writing fiction are the laws of physics and the principles of grammar, and even those can be bent, if you know what you're doing.
Be aware of your genre's expectations. In literary fiction, science fiction, and mystery fiction, readers may view too much physical description of characters as the mark of an amateur writer. Keep your descriptions limited to one or two distinctive features and show through action.
In fantasy fiction and romance fiction, physical description is more important. Of course, all rules were meant to be broken. If you're well read and know what you're doing, you can write your fiction however you want.
Here at Obsidianbookshelf.com I try not to specify a character's actual weight because it doesn't really help readers to know how he looks unless they know how much of that weight is fat and how much is muscle. Muscle weighs more than fat. Unless your character is a bodybuilder or a boxer or has some reason to be concerned with his actual weight, skip the numbers and just describe his build.
Note: The standard for male attractiveness is to be height-weight proportionate, and to have broad shoulders, a broad, muscular chest, a narrow waist and hips, and long legs. An overweight male usually puts on weight around the mid-section. This is what guys are talking about when they mention the beer gut and the spare-tire. The love-handles are those rolls of fat on the sides of his waist.
Some poor unfortunate guys gain weight in the typical female pattern: the pear-shape, which consists of more fat on the backside and thighs and less bulk on the upper body. When a guy gets very overweight, the fat will be evenly distributed all over his body and face.
Feel free to state your character's height. As an absolute measurement, it doesn't have the potential for error that stating his weight has. Below are some Western guidelines for the categories of short, medium, and tall males that may not apply to cultures outside of Europe and North America.
Short. Less than or equal to 5-foot 7-inches tall (170 cm). A male character shorter than 5 feet tall (152 cm) is unusual and needs further explanation – is he a dwarf, a gnome, a hobbit, a little person, or something like that?
Medium. Between 5-foot 8-inches (173 cm) to 6-feet tall (183 cm).
Tall. Greater than or equal to 6-foot 1-inch (185 cm). Some romance readers refuse to read books in which the hero is less than 6 feet tall! A male character taller than 6-foot 6-inches tall (198 cm) is unusual and needs further explanation – is he a basketball player, a giant, a superhero, a vampire, or something like that?
These terms are for the large male body type, which is tall or overweight or both. Most, if not all, of these words are worn-out clichés. Here at Obsidianbookshelf.com, I'm listing them as those terms that need to be sharpened and personalized with additional description and specific, vivid details.
In addition, sometimes words pick up additional shades of meaning over time that are irrational but exist, and you won't find these connotations listed in the dictionary. Below, I've given the dictionary definition in italics from The American Heritage Dictionary, Second College Edition (Houghton Mifflin, 1982, 1985, 1991, ISBN 0395329434). Then I add whatever additional connotations occur to me and why.
Beefy. Resembling beef. Muscular in build; brawny. Applies to a tall to medium size male with more muscle than fat. He could also be slightly overweight. The connotation here is big and strong and awkward. Bouncers in clubs and bodyguards and thugs are always getting described as "beefy" in fiction.
Big. Of considerable size. This is a neutral term that just means "not small." When I read the term "big man", I tend to think of a very tall man who has the big-boned frame and height to carry his heavy weight. Recently, the trend in marketing and politically-correct speech has been to refer to overweight men as "big men" to try to make it sound less pejorative.
Brawny. Strong and muscular. This is a tall or medium-height man with well-developed muscles, no fat, and a lot of strength. Note: A reader suggests, "Be careful with burly and brawny when describing characters of color. It carries old connotations of slaves being bred for muscle."
Bulky. Extremely large; massive. 2. Clumsy, unwieldy. I see this word as similar to beefy in that it applies to a medium-to-tall male who is muscular and strong, but here he has a greater fat to muscle ratio. So he's similar to a beefy male, but fatter and more awkward.
Bullish. Like a bull; brawny or bullheaded. Think of "beefy" combined with physical aggressiveness. This is a large, strong, tall man who overwhelms smaller people with his bulk and forcefulness to get what he wants. No subtlety here. It's a mix of positive connotations (we reluctantly admire him because he's forceful and no weakling) and negative connotations (he's pushy and overbearing).
Burly. Heavy, strong, and muscular. This is a term for a medium height to tall male who is strong and muscular. He could have a layer of fat over his muscles, but you'd need to bring this out with additional description. See note at Brawny.
Chubby. Rounded and plump. Synonym Usage Note at "Fat", p.492: Chubby implies an abundance of flesh, usually not to excess. This is a term for a slightly overweight male. He can be tall or short. It has connotations of cuteness, harmlessness, and possibly weakness. A chubby guy brings to mind the image of the friendly fat man. The word itself has a reductive sound: a chubby guy is only somewhat fat. A really fat guy is going to need a stronger descriptive term.
Corpulent. Excessively fat; obese. Synonym Usage Note at "Fat", p.492: Obese is employed principally in medical usage with reference to extremely overweight, and corpulent is a more general term for the same condition. See Obese. This is an overweight male who could be tall or short – but I tend to think of him as tall because this word suggests a lot of body mass. Think of the Baron Harkonnen from Dune by Frank Herbert. The term (corp = body) also makes me think of physical strength, gross sensuality, and extreme physical appetites. The word corpulent also looks similar to corrupt, and so it picks up that connotation for me as well.
Dumpy. Short and stout; squat. This is a term for a short, slightly overweight male. It's similar to chubby in its reductive cuteness but carries a further connotation of smallness and untidiness.
Fat. Having much or too much fat or flesh. Synonym Usage Note at "Fat", p.492: Fat always implies excessive weight and is generally unfavorable in connotations. This is an overweight male who could be tall or short. These days, the word "fat" has become a vague and worn-out term by people within five pounds of their ideal weight referring to themselves as fat. It's hard to know what is meant by a fat man. Here at Obsidianbookshelf.com, when I hear the term, I tend to think of someone who is very overweight – that is, so heavy that he looks obviously overweight when wearing clothes. Most of us standing around fully dressed can be as much as 40 or 50 pounds greater than our ideal weight and we still won't look more than slightly overweight. A fat male is heavier than that.
Fleshy. Having much flesh; corpulent. Synonym Usage Note at "Fat", p.492: Fleshy implies an abundance of flesh that is not necessarily disfiguring. I disagree with the dictionary comparison to "corpulent", especially since it is contradicted by the Synonym Usage Note that I just quoted (which I agree with). To me, fleshy is not as extreme as corpulent. Fleshy is similar to chubby and dumpy but without the connotations of cuteness or weakness. A fleshy male is slightly overweight and can be tall or short.
Hulking. Unwieldy or bulky, massive. This is a large male in the sense of being strong, awkward, bulky, and tall. He could be overweight but it's more likely that he has an overdeveloped physique like a bodybuilder.
Husky. Rugged and strong, burly. This is a medium height to tall male who is strong. He might be a little overweight but mainly he is ruggedly muscular and strong.
Looming. Loom - To come into view as a massive, distorted, or indistinct image. This describes a tall male like an imposing structure looming over smaller people. Along with considerable height, the word carries the connotation of body mass as well – a muscular or overweight man, but you'd have to bring it out with further description.
Massive. Consisting of, or making up, a large mass, bulky. This word applies to a tall male who is either very muscular or very overweight. Picture a mountain of flesh.
Obese. Extremely fat; corpulent. Synonym Usage Note at "Fat", p.492: Obese is employed principally in medical usage with reference to extreme overweight, and corpulent is a more general term for the same condition. An obese man is immediately recognizable as having a huge amount of body mass. Fat will overflow from his clothes. Every part of his body including his face will carry excess fat. He will probably also have many associated health problems such as high blood pressure, aching joints, and sleep apnea.
Plump. 1. Well rounded and full in form; chubby. 2. Abundant, ample. Synonym Usage Note at "Fat", p.492: Plump is applicable to a pleasing fullness of figure, especially in women. This term means slightly overweight and carries a soft, comfortable connotation. It can apply to a male who is either tall or short. Plump is a neutral word that means well-rounded and can carry an attractive, pleasing connotation when applied to women. In western culture, it's probably going be a slightly negative term applied to males – but even that general rule is open to individual interpretation. I've read m/m fiction where a male has a plump ass, which is considered an attractive quality. I think of a plump male as having a slight, spongy layer of fat evenly distributed over his frame. He probably looks trim in clothes but overweight when he's naked.
Portly. Comfortably stout. (Archaic meaning): Majestic and imposing. Synonym Usage Note at "Fat", p.492: Stout and portly are sometimes used as polite terms to describe fatness. Stout, in stricter application, suggests a thickset, bulky person. Portly, is one whose bulk is combined with an imposing bearing. Here at Obsidianbookshelf.com, I have to admit that I really like this word. The word has connotations for me of dignified wealth and luxury. This is probably because I'm seeing the root-word "port" and thinking of fine wine. A portly man is a slightly to medium-range overweight male who could be small, medium, or tall in height – but who carries his extra weight with dignity and strength. He probably has perfect posture. This is probably the only term for "overweight" other than "stout" that carries a dignified connotation.
Pudgy. Short and fat; chubby. Synonym Usage Note at "Fat", p.492: Pudgy describes someone who is thickset and dumpy. Pudgy applies to a small, chubby male and has further connotations of weakness and insignificance. A pudgy male probably whines a lot.
Robust. 1. Full of health and strength, vigorous. 2. Powerfully built, sturdy. Robust can apply to a male of any height, though usually medium-height and tall. It doesn't mean he's overweight, but rather that he's rugged, strong, and powerful. A robust man is not thin, slim, slender, or delicate but he's not overweight either. He's muscular and healthy.
Roly-poly. Short and plump; pudgy. This term is a lot like pudgy in its reductive cuteness, but carries a connotation of cheerfulness that pudgy lacks. It also suggests a more overweight male.
Rotund. Rounded, plump. Synonym Usage Note at "Fat", p.492: Rotund suggests roundness of figure in a squat person. I disagree with the dictionary slightly here in that it defines a rotund man as a short man because shortness plus fatness gives a rounded silhouette. I can understand this, but I've always seen rotund as a term that means a fat man who could be small, medium, or tall. Rotund means not just slightly overweight, but significantly heavy.
Stocky. 1. Solidly built, sturdy. 2. Chubby, plump. Stocky is a term for a short or medium-height male who has some muscular bulk with possibly a layer of fat over that. A tall man with that kind of build will be more massive or beefy than stocky. I tend to associate stocky more with its first definition than with the second: that is, I see a stocky male as more muscular than chubby.
Stout. 1. Strong in body; sturdy. 2. Bulky in figure; corpulent. Synonym Usage Note at "Fat", p.492: Stout and portly are sometimes used as polite terms to describe fatness. Stout, in stricter application, suggests a thickset, bulky person, and portly, one whose bulk is combined with an imposing bearing. Again, I disagree with dictionary definition #2 in that corpulent is too extreme a term to equate with stout. A stout male is like a stocky male. He is a short to medium height male that is solidly built. He is muscular and he could have a slight layer of fat over the muscles.
Sturdy. 1. Substantially built, strong. 2. Stalwart, robust. 3. Vigorous, lusty. Sturdy is a term that I associate with short to medium-height males who are strongly built. It is a positive term, but oddly enough it's not a sexy term. I usually see it applied to people and things that are cute like children ("a sturdy child"), the hero's sidekick (his sturdy friend or assistant), and Shetland ponies ("the sturdy pony pulling its cart").
Squat. Short and thick. Applies to normal weight and overweight males who are short and somewhat thickset. A squat male can be a short man who is fat or he can be powerfully built with bulky muscles. It is an unflattering term, which has toadlike connotations.
Thickset. Having a solid, stocky body; stout. This term applies to a medium overweight male of any height and has an awkward, negative connotation that I don't associate with stout.
Tubby. Short and fat. This term applies to a short male who is overweight. It seems to me to take the cuteness inherent in "chubby" and make it even more insulting. Here at Obsidianbookshelf.com, I tend to see a tubby male as heavier than a chubby male.
Terms That Are Similar:
Muscular: Beefy, Brawny, Bullish, Burly, Husky, Robust, Stocky, Sturdy
Overweight, Slightly: Fleshy, Plump, Stocky, Stout
Overweight, Medium Amount: Chubby, Dumpy, Portly, Pudgy, Thickset
Overweight, A lot (looks fat in clothes): Bulky, Fat, Roly-Poly, Rotund, Tubby
Overweight, Extremely: Corpulent, Massive, Obese
Tall: Big, Hulking, Looming, Massive,
Short: Dumpy, Pudgy, Roly-Poly, Stocky, Stout, Sturdy, Tubby
Bulky, Chubby, Corpulent, Dumpy, Fat, Hulking, Looming, Massive, Obese, Pudgy, Roly-Poly, Rotund, Thickset, Tubby
Neutral to Formerly-Positive Terms:
Note: Nowadays, most all terms implying anything less than muscular leanness are seen as negative so I'd advise never using any of these terms conversationally. When writing a description of your characters, you could consider the following terms, which have had neutral to positive connotations: Beefy, Big, Bullish, Husky, Portly, Plump, Stocky, Stout, Sturdy
Brawny, Burly, Robust,
Describe your viewpoint character through his actions:
Here at Obsidianbookshelf.com I should point out that most fiction nowadays is written in either first-person viewpoint ("I did this,") or close third-person viewpoint ("He did this"), which means you are deep inside the character's viewpoint and will only receive information that he would know or reasonably be expected to think about. Most first-person and close-third-person narrators are not going to be thinking about a detailed list of their physical attributes unless they're very conceited or very insecure.
If that's the case, then you have to adjust the tone of your narrator's description of himself to sound conceited (He smirked when he thought of his tall, brawny physique) or insecure (He knew he was the heaviest guy in the room). These days you can rarely get away with writing down a grocery list of your viewpoint character's description: He was tall and lanky with floppy brown hair and twinkling brown eyes. This is because it has a distancing effect on the readers. They know that your character wouldn't think of himself that way. It's okay if he's describing someone else.
Try to avoid the clichéd situation where your character notices his reflection in the mirror or a shiny surface and launches into a detailed description of himself. You can get away with it if you keep whatever it is he notices succinct and focused on one thing like his disheveled hair.
Note: See the comment below where Jordan Castillo Price says "description without context sounds amateur, but description in context, description that's doing double-duty or that shows how characters relate to their setting from within their bodies, is going to work a lot better and capture readers' imaginations a lot more than, 'I'm five-foot-ten and trim.'" Great informative examples there!
Descriptive action for a large man:
Try describing your viewpoint character through his actions. If he's tall, have him curl up to crawl into the backseat of a small car. Have him notice how others glance up to speak to him. Does he have to crouch to avoid knocking his head in small spaces? Does he have problems fitting into a seat at a movie theater, on an airplane, or at the waiting room in a doctor's office?
If he's heavy, have him sit on a chair and feel it creak under his weight. Extremely overweight males sometimes have problems breathing because of all the fat weighing down their chest and lungs. They may feel their fat jiggling when they walk, or have problems with excessive sweating and chafing where the folds of skin overlap.
As with all suggestions, what you've just read is food for thought and not an absolute rule. Rest easy! Use what appeals to you and ignore the rest. With something as subjective as writing, anything goes. The landscape is littered with published works that contradict good advice. In the end, weigh your options and do what feels best.
Note: There is more! Because the website traffic is so high on these "how to write" articles, I have expanded two of them from the roughly 2000 words per article that you see on the website/blog to 15,000 words each. I am offering them as Kindle documents on Amazon, if you are interested. Here are the links if you would like to have a look and download a free sample.
How to Write Descriptions of Eyes and Faces
(Just so you know, this 15,000-word book contains the 3651-word Eye Color list from my website plus the 1731-word article How to Describe Eyes, also from my website. The other 9618 words in the book are all-new material.)
How to Write Descriptions of Hair and Skin
(Just so you know, this 14,900 word book contains the 2000-word article HT Describe Hair from my blog plus the 600-word Hair Color list from my website. The other 12,300 words in the book are all-new material.)
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