This article is for describing the medium 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, 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.
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 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.
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 medium male body type, and some of these terms overlap into the lists for Small Male Body Type and Large Male Body Type (see Links below). 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. Angular could be used for a short male, but is 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.
Beefy . Resembling beef. Muscular in build; brawny. Beefy 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, bodyguards, and thugs are always getting described as "beefy" in fiction.
Brawny. Strong and muscular. This is a tall or medium-height man with well-developed muscles, no fat, and a lot of strength.
Buff. Slang, no official definition. Buff is attractively muscular and strong-looking. This applies to a strong, tall or medium-sized man who is a bodybuilder type – a man who has large, well-defined muscles evenly distributed on his frame for a handsome, but perhaps ostentatiously vain, look. This man has enough spare time to lavish on improving his physique through bodybuilding (lifting weights) rather than a man who is strong and muscular through hard labor or combat.
Built. Slang, no official definition. This is similar to Buff in that it applies to a bodybuilder type of man who is tall or medium height and handsomely muscled, but it's not quite as ostentatious. A man might be referred to as "built like a brickhouse" or even "built like a brick shithouse". This implies a rugged, massive, natural level of muscle. The terms sound weird, but are considered a compliment. Most places in the English-speaking world apply those terms only to men. In the U.S., sometimes (but never seriously) they're applied to a big, voluptuous woman. Remember the Commodores' hit song "Brick House" in 1977?
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.
Cut. Slang, no official definition. See Chiseled.
Defined muscles. See Chiseled.
Hale. Sound in health; not infirm. See Hardy.
Hardy. Stalwart and rugged; strong. This is a tall to medium-size male who is strong and robust. It seems to apply more to his strength and energy level than to his appearance. Similar to robust.
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.
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.
Lean. Not fleshy or fat, thin. Synonym Usage Note at "Lean" p. 720. Lean and spare often suggest desirable absence of flesh in one who is athletic and vigorous; sometimes, however, they have no particular connotation. This word applies to a male of any height and implies strength, athleticism, and a musculature that is more defined than the streamlined muscles of a male dancer but nowhere near as bulky as those of a weight-lifter. Lean is the most popular word applied to an attractive male character.
Lithe. 1. Readily bent; supple. 2. Marked by effortless grace. Lithe is flexible and supple and strong. A lithe male possesses the streamlined muscles of a dancer. The more bulky the muscle, the less flexibility a male possesses. Most lithe males are young.
Muscular. 1. Having well-developed muscles. 2. Of great strength, mighty. A muscular man has well-built, well-defined muscles. Depending upon the rest of your description, he could have the bulky muscles of a weight-lifter or the lean muscles of a boxer. See Chiseled.
Rangy. Having slender long limbs. Rangy doesn't carry the connotation of clumsiness that gangling and lanky do. However, it does have sort of a fresh, unsophisticated, young feeling similar to coltish. In addition, dogs are sometimes described as rangy, meaning inclined to roam. This might be why "rangy" has an unsophisticated feeling when applied to humans.
Rawboned. Having a lean, gaunt frame with prominent bones. Synonym Usage Note at "Lean" p. 720. Rawboned suggests the lankiness or sparseness of an outdoorsman. The most common term applied to cowboys is rawboned. It has a lean, but possibly homely or plain, connotation for me.
Ripped. Slang, no official definition. See Chiseled.
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.
Rugged. 1. Having strong features marked with furrows or wrinkles. 2. Vigorously healthy, hardy. This word applies to a medium-size to tall male and conveys great strength and endurance. The man is probably muscular and lean, and he may be slightly plain, homely, or rough-hewn in the face and body. He's not graceful, subtle looking, or handsome.
Sinewy. Sinew itself has the definition: 1. A tendon. 2. Vigorous strength; muscular power. Sinewy is 1. Like or consisting of sinew. 2. Lean and muscular. 3. Strong, vigorous. Sinewy means lean and strong with ropy muscles that could be somewhat chiseled in appearance. It can be an attractive look.
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. A slim man is unlikely to have much muscle mass or bulk; his muscles will be supple like a dancer's muscles.
Spare. Thin or lean. Synonym Usage Note at "Lean" p. 720. Lean and spare often suggest desirable absence of flesh in one who is athletic and vigorous; sometimes, however, they have no particular connotation. 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.
Stalwart. 1. Having physical strength, robust. 2. Resolute, uncompromising. This word is complimentary but rarely used seriously nowadays because of its connotation of knights or superheroes. It has become too overblown for normal use.
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. Here at Obsidianbookshelf.com, 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.
Strapping. Tall and sturdy. This is similar to Stalwart in that it has almost become a joke term, but not quite. You often hear of a strapping young man. This is a tall, big, brawny man.
Sturdy.1. Substantially built, strong. 2. Stalwart, robust. 3. Vigorous, lusty. Sturdy is a term that I here at Obsidianbookshelf.com 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").
Svelte. Slender and graceful in figure or outline, slim. This word has a totally different connotation for me than its dictionary definition. I associate "svelte" with the fitness industry – specifically, a fussy branch of fitness practiced by a middle-aged woman attempting to regain her girlish figure. Svelte makes me think of an effeminate man or an older woman who has managed to achieve a somewhat artificial slimness without strength that is considered "not bad for an older lady."
Toned. From physiology: 1. Tone is the tension in resting muscles. 2. Tone is normal firmness of tissue. Here at Obsidianbookshelf.com, I get many of the same associations with Toned that I get with Svelte, but Toned does not seem quite as effeminate. For me, a toned person is a woman or maybe a man who lavishes a lot of spare time on sculpting his or her figure through passive disciplines such as yoga and Pilates into a pleasingly slender shape. A toned man will be athletic, but in a supple and non-muscular way. Unlike a svelte man, he will be strong, but his muscles will be streamlined like a dancer's muscles.
Tough. 1. Strong and resilient; able to withstand great strain without tearing or breaking. 2. Physically hardy; rugged. Tough applies to medium- to strongly-built men of any height and implies great strength and endurance.
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.
Vigorous. 1. Robust and hardy. 2. Vigorous and lively. This word is less of an appearance term and more applicable to energy and strength, but it applies to a man of any height who is of medium- to strong-build.
Virile. 1. Of, or having the characteristics of, a man; masculine. 2. Having energy, vigor, or force. 3. Capable of performing sexually as a male; potent. Virile is not an appearance term so much as a sexual- or potency-term, but it implies a man of traditionally masculine appearance. Here at Obsidianbookshelf.com, I think of a virile man as being of medium to tall height and medium to strong build, and having a huge amount of robust energy.
Well-built. See Built.
Wiry. 1. Sinewy and lean. 2. Slender but tough. Wiry applies to underweight to normal weight males of any height. It means slim or lean but tough. Here at Obsidianbookshelf.com, I mostly associate it with shorter males, but it can be used for tall males. This is probably the single best word that can describe the ideal physique for the Special Forces soldier (see below).
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 medium sized man:
Try describing your viewpoint character through his actions. If he verges towards tall, have him curl up to crawl into the backseat of a small car. If he's heavy, have him sit on a chair and feel it creak under his weight. If he's somewhat short, have him unable to see over people's shoulders as he walks down the sidewalk within a crowd. If he's lightweight, have him knocked off balance by a big dog jumping on him. Have your character notice how others glance up or down to speak to him.
The Ideal Physique for the Perfect Soldier:
Is your male character a mercenary or a member of an elite special-ops branch of the service? This would include U.S. Army Rangers, U.S. Army Special Forces (Green Berets), U.S. Navy SEALs, U.S. Marine Corps Force Recon, Canadian Special Operations Forces Command, British Army SAS (Special Air Service), Russian Spetsnaz, Israeli Sayeret Matkal, and so forth.
Guess what the ideal physique is for a guy who will do well in special-ops? If you're thinking a big, brawny type, think again. The ideal special-ops soldier is wiry, sinewy, lean, and tough. He's not going to want a lot of muscle-bulk on his own frame to carry in addition to all the equipment he has to haul into the field.
He's probably going to be of medium height, between five-foot-nine inches (176 cm) tall and six-feet (183 cm) tall and have a very lean fat-to-muscle ratio. He will have a lot of upper-body strength and leg-strength. When he's dressed in civilian clothes, he won't stand out as a noticeably brawny-looking man. Rather, he'll look trim and athletic, but not especially imposing.
Here is some of the physical training that the U.S. Army Rangers are expected to do:
(courtesy of Military.com – see Links below)
80+ push-ups in 2:00 minutes
80+ sit-ups in 2:00 minutes
12+ pull-ups (Here at Obsidianbookshelf.com, I'm not sure which grip you get to use; palms facing out is the most difficult.)
A massively tall and muscular man is going to suffer, trying to force his own body-weight through this sort of training. It can be done, but not as easily as the wiry guys can accomplish it.
Take this excerpt from the terrific military memoir (no gay content) In Pharoah's Army: Memories of the Lost War by Tobias Wolff who did U.S. Army basic training, Airborne Ranger training at Ft. Benning, Special Forces training at Ft. Bragg, and then ended up in the Vietnam War, poor devil. From page 48:
"Military training agreed with me. My body was right for it – trim and stringy. Guys who would have pulverized me on the football field were still on their third push-up when I'd finished my tenth. The same bruisers had trouble on our runs and suffered operatically on the horizontal bar, where we had to do pull-ups before every meal. Their beefy bodies, all bulked up for bumping and bashing, swayed like carcasses under their white-knuckled hands. Their necks turned red, their arms quivered, they grunted piteously as they tried to raise their chins to the bar. They managed to pull themselves up once or twice and then just hung there, sweating and swearing. Now and then they kicked feebly. Their pants slipped down, exposing pimply white butts."
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.
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How to Write Descriptions of Eyes and Faces
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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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