Thursday, January 28, 2010

HT Describe the Small Male Body Type

Are you looking for a list of descriptive terms for fiction writers to help prod your imagination into action? Maybe you're just fascinated by words and the informal connotations they pick up. When you're writing physical descriptions of your characters, there are numerous terms you can use depending on their sex and size.

This article is for describing the small 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.

Be aware of your genre's expectations. In literary fiction, science fiction, and mystery fiction, too much physical description of characters can be viewed as the mark of an amateur writer. Keep your descriptions limited to one or two distinctive features and show through action.

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.

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.

Weight:
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 underweight male might be self-conscious about his thin chest, arms, and neck. If he's really unlucky, he'll worry about his narrow shoulders as well.

Height:
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?

Descriptive Terms:
These terms are for the small male body type, which is short or underweight 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.

Angular. 1. Bony and lean, gaunt. 2. Lacking grace or smoothness, awkward: an angular gait. Applies to an underweight / normal weight male. Could be used for a short male, but mostly used for medium-height and tall. Angular means little or no fat to obscure the angles of his skeletal structure. It has connotations of awkwardness, clumsiness, and strength.

Bony. Having protruding or prominent bones, lean, gaunt. Applies to underweight males of any height. Bony means little fat or muscle on the bones. It has connotations of weakness due to age or infirmity.

Dapper. 1. Neatly dressed, trim. 2. Small and active. Applies to underweight or normal weight males who are short. Dapper means small, active, and trim. This word also has connotations of being neat and stylish. Here at Obsidianbookshelf.com, I picture a cute little man like a leprechaun.

Delicate. 1. Pleasing to the senses, esp. in a subtle way. 2. Exquisitely fine or dainty. 3. Frail in constitution or health. Applies to underweight and normal weight males who are short. Usually women or children are described as delicate. A man with a delicate build is probably small, slender, and childlike. Delicate conveys prettiness but also weakness. A delicate male may look effeminate unless he's very young. He won't be bony because delicate implies prettiness, but he will have undefined or smooth muscles.

Diminutive. Of very small size, tiny. Applies to underweight or normal weight males who are short. This word has connotations of cuteness.

Elfin. 1. Small and sprightly, mischievous. 2. Fairylike, magical. Applies to underweight or normal weight males who are short. This word is means "resembling an elf" and also conveys cuteness, smallness, magic, and mischief.

Gangling or gangly. Tall, thin, and ungraceful; rangy. Applies to underweight or normal weight males who are tall. The word has connotations of being clumsy, awkward, and unrefined and having long arms and legs. Teenage boys are often gangling because they are growing fast and not very coordinated. See Lanky.

Gaunt. 1. Thin and bony; angular. 2. Emaciated and haggard; drawn. Synonym Usage Note at "Lean" p. 720: Gaunt implies thinness that gives undue prominence to the bones and may suggest illness or hardship. Applies to underweight males of any height. This word implies an unattractive thinness due to hardship or disease or advanced age. It can imply toughness due to hardship; the overall context will depend on your further description. A gaunt male has a thin build that is either skin-and-bones or very tough, leathery muscle over bone. It isn't usually an attractive look but can be a striking or formidable look in an older man.

Lanky. Tall, thin, and ungainly. Synonym Usage Note at "Lean" p. 720. Lank describes one who is thin in proportion to height, and lanky one who is thin, tall, and loose-jointed. Applies to underweight or normal weight males who are tall or medium height. Similar to gangling but implies less clumsiness.

Puny. Of inferior size, strength, and significance; weak. Applies to underweight males who are short. A puny male is small, weak, and even insignificant, poor devil. He might even be sickly.
Sawed-off. Slang: Short and runty. This is a height term that applies to short males who are usually normal weight. It is a slightly insulting term but can imply toughness maybe because we tend to think of sawed-off shotguns.

Scrawny. Gaunt and bony. Synonym Usage Note at "Lean" p. 720. Skinny and scrawny imply unattractive thinness associated with underdevelopment and undernourishment. Applies to underweight males of any height. The word implies weakness and insignificance and is similar to puny. Often old men are described as scrawny.

Short. Having little height; not tall. This term means a male of any weight that stands less than 5-foot 7-inches (170 cm).

Shrimpy. Shrimp = small, unimportant person. Applies to underweight males who are short and is a slang term. It is not quite as negative a word as puny. Often young boys are called shrimpy.

Skinny. Very thin. Synonym Usage Note at "Lean" p. 720. Skinny and scrawny imply unattractive thinness associated with underdevelopment and undernourishment. Applies to underweight males of any height. It can perhaps apply to normal weight males and carry a connotation of healthy youthfulness – a skinny boy who is young and undeveloped. Here at Obsidianbookshelf.com, I have to disagree with the synonym usage note and say that to me skinny is a neutral word in that it doesn't carry the connotation of hardship or illness found in words like gaunt or bony. A skinny male can be strong but he usually isn't because he lacks the musculature.

Slender. Gracefully slim. Applies to underweight or normal weight males of any height. Slender implies no fat and maybe not much muscle mass unless the male has the streamlined muscles of a dancer. It is a youthful or even feminine look. Boys can be slender before they develop adult bodies. Slender is a neutral word, but a slender man is unlikely to have a lot of physical strength.

Slight. Slender or frail; delicate. Applies to underweight males who are short. Implies weakness though a slight man may not be quite as thin as a bony or gaunt man.

Slim. Small in girth or thickness in proportion to height or length; slender. Applies to normal weight males of any height. Slim is a neutral word that has no connotations of weakness. It means not fat, and can be due to either fitness or being naturally slim.

Spare. Thin or lean. Applies to underweight or normal weight males of any height. This is a neutral word but has connotations of toughness and leanness. A spare male has little or no fat and his muscle is streamlined, not bulky.

Spindly. 1. Slender and elongated. 2. Of weak growth. Applies to underweight males of any height, but usually tall males. It means slender and elongated as in long, thin limbs. It has an additional connotation of weakness.

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.

Thin. Lean or slender of figure. Applies to underweight males of any height. This is a very worn-out, generic word that simply means not fat. Since it also means no muscle mass, it seems to carry an additional connotation of weakness. Thin can encompass a range of underweight body types from bony or gaunt at its most pared-down to lean or slim at its most normal.

Trim. 1. Being in good or neat order. 2. Having lines, edges, or forms of neat and pleasing simplicity. Applies to normal weight males of any height. Could apply to underweight males but not drastically underweight because it means having a neat and pleasing symmetry to one's silhouette. It implies being slim and physically fit. Here at Obsidianbookshelf.com, I associate the term trim with military men.

Wee. Very small, tiny. Applies to underweight to normal weight males who are small and short. Wee is primarily a Scottish term that means tiny and cute.

Willowy. 1. Flexible, pliant. 2. Slender and graceful. Applies to underweight to normal weight males of any height. This word is mostly used to describe women, girls, and young boys and in adult males can carry an effeminate connotation. It means slender, flexible, and graceful.

Wiry. 1. Sinewy and lean. 2. Slender but tough. Applies to underweight to normal weight males of any height. It means slim or lean but tough. I mostly associate it with shorter males, but it can be used for tall males.

Terms that are similar:
Bony, Gaunt – Unattractively thin due to illness or hardship
Dapper, Diminutive, Elfin, Wee – Small, trim, neat, and cute
Delicate, Willowy – Gracefully thin and flexible and perhaps effeminate
Angular, Gangling, Lanky – Awkwardly thin and clumsy with long limbs
Puny, Scrawny, Shrimpy, Spindly – Small, thin, and weak
Sawed-off, Short, Squat – Not tall. Squat carries additional connotations of being thickset.
Skinny, Slender, Slim, Thin, Trim – Not fat. Skinny is the least flattering term.
Spare, Wiry – Thin but strong.

Negative Terms:
Angular – neutral to unflattering
Bony, Gaunt - Unattractively thin due to illness or hardship
Diminutive, Elfin, Wee – attractively slim but can carry a dismissive or cute connotation
Delicate, Willowy – Gracefully thin and flexible and perhaps effeminate
Angular, Gangling, Lanky – Awkwardly thin and clumsy with long limbs
Puny, Scrawny, Shrimpy, Spindly – Small, thin, and weak
Sawed-off, Short, Squat – Not tall. Squat carries additional connotations of being thickset
Skinny, Thin – Can imply weakness

Neutral to Positive Terms:
Dapper – small but neat and stylish
Slender, Slim, Thin, Trim – not fat. Thin is neutral to negative. Slim and Trim imply physical fitness.
Spare, Wiry – Thin but strong.

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 scrawniest 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.

Descriptive action for a small man:
Try describing your viewpoint character through his actions. If he's short, have him unable to see over people's shoulders as he walks down the sidewalk within a crowd. Have him notice how taller people glance down at him – or, more realistically, ignore him. Have him get elbowed aside by bigger males. If he's lightweight, have him get knocked off balance by a big dog jumping on him.

In conclusion:
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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14 comments:

  1. Wow. All those words. No punny runty guys for me. However I do like slim elfin types. Just for lookin' of course. :-D Great piece.

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  2. Hi, Tam! Thanks for the comment. You're the best!

    "No punny runty guys for me. However I do like slim elfin types. Just for lookin' of course."

    Ha, ha! No squat ones (aka Toad Man) either!

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  3. This is fabulous Val! What a wealth of information and delight here. I have to say some of the terms make me laugh and bring funny connotations. For example "sawed-off" always makes me think of a sawed off shotgun for some reason and "shrimpy" makes me think of the seafood. And "squat" well..

    Funny how such innocent words work in a description. I hope authors take note of your really informative posts.

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  4. Oh, thank you, Kassa! The connotations are probably the funniest and most interesting thing about some of these words. I had a lot of fun putting this together!

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  5. I realize I wrote a story with a thin (he gets offended by skinny) guy. But I said how much he weighs. Hmmm. Maybe I should change that.

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  6. Hi, Tam! Whatever feels right to you. Sometimes if a guy is a boxer or something like that, he worries about weight categories.

    I think as a reader I find the descriptions of build more helpful than the actual numeric value of his weight because I'm so bad visualizing from numbers.

    Plus writers and readers have to negotiate that metric system / United States customary system difference. For sure, I can never visualize someone in kilograms!

    And then that thing the British used to with "stone" ... a guy is 10 stone. He's kind of lightweight, right? I'm really not sure! Just tell me what he looks like already, ha, ha!

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  7. "A strutting banty rooster of a man" also works for smaller men of the right personality. Bantam (banty) roosters are about 1/4 the size of a regular rooster but they act like they own the barnyard. They are the rooster of choice for cockfights and bred for display and visciousness.

    I write a lot of short men. Nick Boyd goes from scrawny to dapper in the course of his book. I like the delicate slim sorts like Etarin as well.

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  8. Hi, Angelia! I remember that transformation from Nikolai.

    And this, "A strutting banty rooster of a man" definitely conveys a vivid sense of personality. Most of us would probably be intimidated by such a man. Or by the actual rooster, for that matter!

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  9. *gasp* You mean that there's a description other than 'twink'. I'm shocked, Val. ;)

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  10. Twink! Ha, ha! That's too funny!

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  11. I've read "pocket hottie" at one gay blog, which amused me greatly!

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  12. "pocket hottie"! I like it! It makes me think of a leprachaun, but I like it!

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  13. this was really helpful thank you!!

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  14. Hi, Ashlee, and thanks so much for the comment! I'm glad I could help. :)

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