How To Describe Your Ancestor’s Physical Appearance

Fiction novels are compelling not because of the world building, but instead, they have engaging, fully-fleshed out characters. In short, good stories are about people. So why is it that family histories are usually about facts rather than the people behind the facts? What’s more, how can we change that?

One quick trick is to describe the physical appearance of your ancestors.

But wait, I don’t know what my ancestor looked like. How can I describe their appearance? That’s a great question, and we’ll circle back to that in a second post, but for now, let’s talk about how to add descriptions about your ancestors.

The trick is to realize that you don’t have to be gifted at writing to describe your ancestor well.

The face of Elrond was ageless, neither old nor young, though in it was written the memory of many things both glad and sorrowful. His hair was dark as the shadows of twilight, and upon it was set a circlet of silver; his eyes were grey as a clear evening, and in them was a light like the light of stars.

Raise your hand if you can write like  J.R.R. Tolkien in Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. For those with your hands down, I’m with you. Although I enjoy a talented writer’s gift of description, I need something simplified to be successful.

She’s the twelve-year-old… Up close she looks about ten. She has bright, dark eyes and satiny brown skin and stands tilted up on her toes with arms slightly extended to her sides, as if ready to take wing at the slightest sound. It’s impossible not to think of a bird.

If you’ve read The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, do you remember who this character is?

Even if you haven’t read The Hunger Games, can you picture the character? You know:

  • gender
  • age, but looks younger
  • Eye color
  • Skin color
  • Action performed

Take a look at this description:

She was a bold-looking girl of about twenty-seven, with thick dark hair, a freckled face, and swift, athletic movements. A narrow scarlet sash, emblem of the Junior Anti-Sex League, was wound several times around her waist of her overalls.

This description from Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell can be broken down into this easy to follow model.

  • gender
  • adjectives of character
  • age
  • hair
  • face
  • build
  • clothing description

When you break down the mechanics of the physical description, you can see that you can do the same thing.

A YouTuber named Jenna Moreci, who also is an author, share ten tips for writing character descriptions in her video Top Ten Writing Hacks. (Adult language warning for those who would like to know beforehand).

Jenna has shared her acronym for writing physical descriptions in fiction novels, but these can easily adapt to writing about our ancestors, and it will add more depth to the models shared by famous authors.

The acronym is FESHO – figure, eyes, skin, hair, and other. Very quickly,

  • Figure – describe the height, muscle build, lack of muscle
  • Eyes – describe the color, shape, size, or lack thereof
  • Skin – describe the color, texture, wrinkles, freckles, scars
  • Hair – describe the color, length, texture, receding, cut or styled
  • Other – describe the defining features such as tattoos, broken nose, angular chin, cleft chin, missing appendage OR define wardrobe OR define their actions

Let’s try to apply FESHO to the following photo. Sometimes you can describe all of the details, sometimes you can’t. The point is to try.

Learn how to describe this woman who could be in your family history. #genealogy #writingtips #familyhistory
Photo of Evaline T. Peak,
in possession of Devon Noel Lee

The elegantly dressed, petite, twenty-four-year-old maiden with smooth, youthful light skin, dark hair parted down the middle and pinned back prepared for a trip on a boat during her honeymoon trip to Niagra Falls.

For her figure, I’m struggling to find an adjective to fits, so I’m currently using petite.

I can not determine her eye color from this photo, but I could examine the shape and describe that. I’ll put it on my To Do List, but if you have suggestions, I’d love to hear them.

For her skin, it looks smooth and young. Standing in such a pose on a ship can generate numerous emotions, but I can imagine her smiling brightly as this is her honeymoon vacation to Niagra Falls.

Her hair is dark and pinned back in the style typical of this time period.

The other feature I described focused on the action she was taking rather than additional

Now, this is a working description based on one photo. If I had more photos of my ancestor, I can add more details. In upcoming posts, I’ll share adjectives that can be useful when you’re lacking the words to describe your ancestor’s physical appearance. I’ll also share tips of where to find details about their appearance. Stay tuned.

What great physical descriptions have written about your ancestors? Share your writing samples or links to the samples in the comments below. Part of the fun of genealogy and writing is sharing and receiving feedback.

Further Reading – Describing Our Ancestors Series:

Follow these tips for describing your ancestor's physical appearance to enhance your family history projects. #writing #ancestors #genealogy
Devon Noel Lee

Devon Noel Lee

Devon Noel Lee is passionate about capturing and preserving family stories so no one alive today has to be researched, or forgotten, tomorrow. She has authored 6 how-to books, a memoir, two published family history biographies, and over 60 family scrapbooks. She's an enthusiastic speaker who energizes, encourages, and educates at the same time.

4 thoughts on “How To Describe Your Ancestor’s Physical Appearance

  1. I was thinking "friendly eyes" for the young woman. I, too, love the draft registration cards for descriptions of the men. I got to ask my mother-in-law about the description of a scar on the forehead of her father and she told me the story she heard about how he got it. You can also find wonderful descriptions of brides in newspaper articles.

  2. Enjoyed this post. I'm grateful for the draft registration cards that describe male ancestors in some detail, such as color of eyes and hair…discovered, thanks to one draft registration, that a great uncle had a tattoo. You can be sure his mom never knew! Adds a lot to my description of him as a "character," don't you think?

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