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How To Describe Your Ancestor’s Appearance in a Family History

Vintage soldier with title how to describe your ancestor's appearance in family histories

Fiction novels are compelling not because of the world-building; 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 come 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?

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

  1. gender

  2. age, but looks younger

  3. Eye color

  4. Skin color

  5. 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.

  1. gender

  2. adjectives of character

  3. age

  4. hair

  5. face

  6. build

  7. 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, shares ten tips for writing character descriptions in her video Top Ten Writing Hacks. (Adult language warning for those who would like to know beforehand).

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Jenna has shared her acronym for writing physical descriptions in fiction novels. Still, 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,

  1. Figure – describe the height, muscle build, lack of muscle.

  2. Eyes – describe the color, shape, size, or lack thereof.

  3. Skin – describe the color, texture, wrinkles, freckles, scars.

  4. Hair – describe the color, length, texture, receding, cut, or styled

  5. 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 Niagara 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 could add more details. In upcoming posts, I’ll share adjectives that can be useful when you lack the words to describe your ancestor’s physical appearance. I’ll also share tips on 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:

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