Hands are intimate things. Like eyes, they can be windows into our souls. They can reveal our inner thoughts and feelings, even when we’re trying to hide them.
Our histories can be revealed by our hands – from the callouses on the fingertips of a guitarist, to the finely manicured nails of a runway model.
Since they’re such an important part of how we interact with the world and communicate with each other, hands can be an important part of storytelling.
Writers can use descriptions of hands to show who their characters are, rather than simply telling the reader through bland exposition.
It’s important to use variety in descriptions by focusing on different parts of the hand, or even accessories such as gloves or rings.
There’s also a danger in making descriptions too static, focusing only on what hands look like. Using gestures can help with this, while also bringing life to the characters in a scene.
In this article, we’ll look in detail at all these elements of what hand descriptions can do for your writing, including how to make your descriptions pop using metaphorical language (which isn’t always as hard as it seems)!
Tip #1: Think about what you want to show
When a writer takes time to describe something in detail, they’re telling the reader: pay attention to this, it’s important. So when you describe a character’s hands, think about why this detail is so important.
Hands are an important way you can show the reader details about your character, rather than just telling them through exposition.
The details of hands can reveal as many things about a character as your imagination can create. For starters, descriptions of hands can reveal a character’s:
- Background (work or otherwise)
- Emotional state.
If a writer introduces a character with ‘strong, calloused hands clenched into fists’, we can see their emotional state (probably anger or tension), and infer their work history (probably a form of manual labour from the callouses and their strength).
You might infer a character’s age by mentioning hands that are frail, wrinkled or lined deep with creases. You might infer important parts of their history by mentioning a scar, a tattoo or even a missing finger.
The bottom line is to be intentional about the details you show your reader. Think about the why: what is this detail accomplishing for my story? How does this detail reflect my character?
Tip #2: Use props to add flair and personality
There’s no need to get too caught up in figuring out how to show details about your character through just the innate qualities of their hands. Using props gives you another huge toolbox of ways to reveal information.
What is a prop? A prop can be anything not innate to the character’s body, such as:
- Gloves (gardening gloves, sailing gloves, leather biker gloves, satin dress gloves)
- Rings (wedding rings, magic rings, decorative rings, a king’s or knight’s signet ring)
- Bracelets or wristbands (a festival wristband, a medic alert bracelet, a friendship bracelet)
- A bandage, wound or prosthesis
- A fitness band
- What is coating their hands (chocolate, flour, blood, dirt, magical residue).
As you can see, there’s a huge number of possibilities for using props to reveal all kinds of different character traits.
Combining the right details with the right props can help you to nail a character introduction, or even cleverly drop hints to the reader about a character’s past.
Varying the ways you show details about characters in this way can make your writing more engaging and vivid. The right use of props can make characters feel truly alive.
Tip #3: Use variety
Variety is important. Using a wide vocabulary breathes life into the things you describe, and using variety in what you focus on in descriptions keeps them fresh.
If you introduce every character in your story by the hardness or softness of their hands, it can begin to feel all too similar. Instead, you can find different things to focus on.
One character might have dirty nails, another delicate wrists, and so on. The different parts of the hand present many opportunities for variety.
Some parts of the hand you might focus on in a description include:
- Fingers (slender, clever, thick, clumsy)
- Fingernails (dirty, manicured, chewed)
- Knuckles (bruised, prominent)
- Wrists (slender, strong, bony)
- Shape of the hand (thin, heavy)
- Size of the hand (large, delicate)
- Texture of the hand (rough, soft)
- Colour of the hand (pale, tanned, a faint line where a ring once sat)
Remember to vary your descriptions to keep them fresh.
Tip #4: Don’t just describe static hands – use hand gestures
Hands do things, and what they do can show the reader just as much as what they look like. Gestures can give life to both a character and the world they inhabit.
Using action in your descriptions can make them more engaging to read. It will also provide extra information about how your character relates with the culture they live in, since hand gestures are culturally informed actions.
In Anglophone countries, for example, putting your thumb between your index and middle fingers is considered a ‘got your nose’ gesture – a game played with children where the adult pretends to have stolen the child’s nose. This gesture therefore comes off as playful.
However, in Turkey, this same gesture is considered insulting and disrespectful. A tourist trying to play ‘got-your-nose’ with a child in Turkey says a lot about that character with just their hand gesture (they’re out of place, unfamiliar with the local culture).
Similarly, the way in which a character makes a gesture can convey how they relate to the culture they live in.
A squeezing, over-long handshake might convey a character who is domineering. If they’re wearing a business suit, this might then convey a character who values success through beating the competition.
Alternately, a character in a business suit who offers a limp, brief handshake might suggest a character who struggles to fit in with these cultural norms.
Tip #5: Make descriptive language pop with metaphor
If we’re talking about the business of describing hands, we shouldn’t overlook the importance of symbolic writing techniques like metaphor and simile to make descriptions pop.
At first glance, metaphor and simile can be hard to get a handle on. What makes the difference between a good metaphor and a bad one can be a bit obscure.
Luckily, there are some tried and true methods for making these writing techniques work. And when they work, they can bring an entirely new dimension of life to your writing.
First, let’s look at what makes a metaphor or simile good or bad. Consider a character at a plant nursery introduced in the following way:
His hands were calloused like old roots, and dirt was wedged beneath his fingernails. “Hi,” he said, looking up from the plant. “What are you looking for?”
Compare this with the same scene described differently:
His hands were calloused, his skin grown hard like the armour of a tank, and dirt was wedged beneath his fingernails like bits of corn chips. “Hi,” he said, looking up from the plant. “What are you looking for?”
Good metaphors and similes:
- Flow well with the scene
- Add to contextual information (such as a character’s personality, or the broader scene)
- Avoid overuse
- Are intuitive
- Help readers understand the image.
Bad metaphors and similes, on the other hand:
- Feel out of place
- Clash with contextual information (such as contradicting a character’s personality, or the atmosphere of a scene)
- Might be overused in a scene
- Are clunky and unintuitive
- Get in the way of readers understanding the image.
A technique for coming up with metaphors that suit a scene is to think associationally: think about the image you’re trying to describe, and then think about things that look, feel or act similarly, or are otherwise associated with the scene.
For example, the character’s skin in the example above might be likened to the hardened bark of a tree trunk or an old root. The more effective an association your metaphor has with the scene and character, the better the metaphor.
In the above example, the metaphor of ‘old roots’ is physically associated with the hardness of the character’s skin, as well as with their personality as a gardener, and the scene of the nursery.
Layering associations like this can help to build stronger, more vivid scenes.
Tip #6: Don’t overdo it
As with any writing technique, if you spend too much time describing the hands and hand gestures of various characters, it will be offputting to your reader.
Don’t feel like you need to cram in every bit of information you can. Vivid writing doesn’t come from the amount of detail you give the reader, but from the careful placement of detail.
As a result, when you find your writing lingering on a character’s hands, think about what this detail is truly doing for your story. Is it giving personality to this character in an important way? Does it further the plot (perhaps it is an important clue in a mystery)?
Keep in mind that the same technique can work very differently in different kinds of stories. For example, if a writer introduced their character like this:
Jack was an office worker. He had clean hands, of average size. They were strong enough to open a stubborn pickle jar in a pinch, but he rarely found himself able to win an arm wrestle amongst his friends.
This description might suit certain kinds of stories in the right situations. It works when the writer is trying to emphasise how normal this character is.
Perhaps Jane, Jack’s wife, is a famous adventurer and the writer wants to emphasise Jack’s contrast to her.
Or perhaps it is not an adventure story at all, and the writer simply wants to signpost to the reader to expect that this will be a story about everyday things, and everyday people.
It might even be the opening of a horror story, where emphasising how much of a normal person Jack is only heightens the terror when unexplainable things start happening to him in his otherwise perfectly ordinary life.
However, in other stories, this introduction to Jack might actually not work at all – namely if it doesn’t give readers any effective or useful insight into the character or story.
It’s also important not to overdo the description of hands as physical objects. Notice how in the example of Jack above, the description works in various ways of describing his hands.
For example, you can describe strength through how many arm wrestles a person is able to win, or whether they’re able to open stubborn pickle jars or need to turn to a housemate for help.
You don’t need to describe everything with painstaking detail – this scene might not work as well if the writer decided to instead describe the moderate but noticeable bulge of musculature and the veins clearly visible along his hands.
However, for a different kind of story, this kind of description might work better. In an action story, focusing on the physical traits of a character can paint them in an intimidating light, whereas talking about how many pickle jars they can open would simply be comical.
Tip #7: Practise putting it all together
With any good description, there’s a lot of thought going on behind the scenes. It can be difficult to pull off successfully.
The best way to learn how to handle so many elements at once is to practise putting them all together with short exercises.
You could try some of the following exercise prompts, or come up with your own:
- Describe your current protagonist’s hands. How are their history, their personality and their physical characteristics present in what their hands look like and the way they use them?
- If you were a character in a story, how would the writer describe your hands? In what ways do your hands reflect your life and personality? (And in what ways do they not?) What would be important to describe in a story, and what could you leave out?
- Think of a character from a book, TV show, movie, video game etc. that you like. Write about what it would feel like to receive a handshake from them. How does this reflect who they are?
If you feel like you have a particular weakness in your writing, home in on that specifically.
Perhaps you feel fine describing a character’s hands but you never think to use props. You may like to take some of your old descriptions and think about what a clever use of props might add to these scenes.
Or perhaps you struggle to come up with different ways of describing things. Try brainstorming a list of different hand descriptions, just letting your imagination flow. You might be surprised at what you can come up with.
Using these top tips, hand descriptions become more than just a moment of exposition, but a tool that in the hands (pardon the pun) of a skillful writer can bring vibrancy and personality to any story.
Being able to carefully integrate details like these is essential to writer’s ability to show things to the reader rather than telling through exposition.
The use of props is an often-overlooked part of this kind of description, and can be used to further add variety and relevant information to a scene – whether it’s a wedding ring (or lack thereof) on a man’s finger, or dirt-covered gardening gloves.
It’s important to also remember all the different parts of a hand that can be described. This helps prevent descriptions from becoming monotonous and focusing on the same things.
Hand gestures are a great way to add detail to a character’s personality. Since hand gestures are culturally specific, they can reflect what culture a character is from and how they relate to that culture (or others).
Hand gestures also give life to scenes by showing how characters move rather than solely focusing on what they physically look like.
Good metaphor and simile is a vital element of any kind of description. It adds clarity to the image the writer is trying to evoke, while creating interest and variety for the reader.
Speaking of variety, it’s important not to overuse this tool – an obsessive focus on hands might drive a reader mad!
Finally, it’s important to remember that practice makes perfect. Writing is challenging work at the best of times, and crafting quality descriptions for your scenes is no exception.
There are so many elements to consider and it can feel overwhelming. The best way to feel confident in your ability to juggle all these is to practise, practise, practise!