“Large” Isn’t Big Enough: Tips for Describing Size

One tried and true way to inspire awe in your reader is to include larger than life elements in your settings. This applies to space stations and alien monsters every bit as much as to castles and mythic creatures. Airship pirates need epic airships, and you can’t throw a rave in a small space, now can you? 

But “large” as a descriptor is boring and vague, not to mention overused. For example, which boat in the featured image is the “large” one? When bringing size into a description is definitely a time when a thesaurus can be a writer’s closest ally. (Though you also have to be careful about being too liberal with your thesaurus, or you could end up writing yourself into a purple prose corner.)

So let’s explore some other options to make your descriptions as big as your imagination.

Synonyms for “Large”

There are plenty of degrees of “bigness,” so I’ll try to keep my examples grouped together. For this post, we’ll be focusing on people, places, and things, but if you want more information about describing “big” sounds, I’ll have another post coming up that has to do with “loud.”

Hefty, Full, Bulky, Burly, Broad, Strapping, Ample, Portly, Rotund, Hulking, Buxom, Corpulent, Brawny, Paunchy, Meaty

This set of synonyms is for things that are large, but on a human scale. A person could reasonably be described as any of these things, but an individual body part could also be “full” or “ample.” These synonyms are relative; they apply to things that are notably large, but not outside the realm of reason. There is something heavy about these words, but not so heavy they couldn’t be lifted. 

Many of these words could be applied to an overweight/obese person. While the words overweight and obese are already stand-ins for large, they are a bit clinical for fiction. These are both medical terms, and so do not carry the same amount of voice as a more colorful choice. I was working on a book with a client and she used the term “eye contact” a few times in her fantasy novel. While technically correct in describing what occurred, it lacks poetry. So make sure you are paying attention to the subtext of the synonyms you choose.

Likewise “fat”, though not clinical, is a real snore. An advantage of using a more interesting synonym is that you automatically infuse the writing with more of a viewpoint. How does the narrator feel about the size of the other person? Is it intimidating? Titillating? Do they think the person will be faster or slower based on their size?

There are also certain types of people (real or fictional) that connote larger-than-average size, and you can use these as a descriptor or simile instead of calling a person “large.” Here are a few:

  • Football or basketball players (depending on the muscle vs. lean you want to show)
  • Models
  • Valkyrie
  • Thugs or “hired muscle”
  • Gods and goddesses
  • Hercules (Herculean) or Adonis
  • Superheroes (seriously, besides Rocket the raccoon, are any of them average height?)

Sizeable, Goodly, Considerable, Over-sized, Major, Generous, Liberal, Weighty, Solid, Lavish

These are good words when you are describing something that is relatively large but may not be considered objectively large in the grand scheme of size. For instance, if a character receives a sizeable raise or enjoys a goodly dash of hot sauce on their taco, we know that means it is in some way “big” without the need to say precisely how big.

Extensive, Brimming, Teeming, Crowded, Capacious, Chock-full, Copious, Myriad, Abundant, Bountiful

If you want to talk about the amount of something being big, these synonyms could do the trick. A pirate’s body could be crowded with tattoos. The voice of a teenager is often brimming with sarcasm. Or an old house may need extensive renovations. There is a fullness to these words that shows a “large amount” without using the l-word.

A quick note about myriad. This is a strange and wonderful word. It looks exotic and sounds pretty. It is also sometimes confusing for people because it is both an adjective and a noun. One can own “myriad DVDs” or “a myriad of DVDs.” Both are correct usages.

Huge, Vast, Gigantic, Enormous, Mammoth, Boundless, Overflowing, Opulent, Profuse

This is the next step up when you want to describe large things you may or may not be able touch. These synonyms should be reserved for the things in your story that are not only large, but impressive for their largeness. Hold on for a vast expanses of wilderness or an entire rolling cityscape before you employ this degree of word or the next group.

Titanic, Colossal, Tremendous, Immense

Despite any negative Celine Dion-induced associations, the origin of the word “titanic” goes back to the Greeks. The titans roamed the earth before Zeus and the other gods, the original children of the primordial beings. Titans were known for their great size and strength. Often, the ancients honored the titans and the gods with a monumental statue called a colossus (pl. colossi). The most famous example is the Colossus of Rhodes, which was dedicated to Helios.

Tremendous and immense can also be used to describe amounts, but amounts beyond counting.

How Many Adjectives is TOO Many Adjectives?

Now you’ve got yourself a nice list of synonyms for “large.” However, I beg that you resist the temptation to use them all. Using a sentence like this doesn’t benefit from more words:

I brushed past the corpulent, bulky hired muscle blocking the doorway.

In this case, there are four different indicators of the other person’s size: corpulent, bulky, hired muscle, blocking. You could still convey exactly the same feeling and information with half as many indicators. For instance:

I brushed past the hired muscle blocking the doorway.

I brushed past the corpulent man blocking the doorway.

I brushed past the bulky stooge and through the doorway.

Using Other Things for Context

Size is relative. One hero’s large dragon is another’s lap dog; it depends on the context. “Large” is a pretty neutral word, but many of the synonyms above also carry a value judgment. They are intended to impress. But what if you just want something to be big, but withhold judgment? It might be time to find something on par with the size of what you are describing. Here are a few ideas of things to use for comparison:

    • The characters themselves – is what their looking at taller than them? Too big to wrap their arms around? Wider than they could leap across?
    • Concert hall or opera house
    • Palace, castle, temple, or other significant building you’ve already described
    • Old growth forest or a single redwood
    • Mountains, peaks, canyons
    • The ocean, sea, or other body of water
    • Sahara desert, Atacama desert, or a whole continent
    • Planets, moons, and asteroids
    • Skyscrapers
    • Trains, buses, trolleys, or their hubs
    • Elephant, rhinoceros, grizzly bear, ostrich, moose, horse, white shark, whale, or other animal

Make Them Feel Small

You can also sometimes tap into making the reader feel like something is large by making the characters feel small by comparison. They could feel like just another bug on the dashboard of a space cruiser. Perhaps the library could make the student cower in anticipation of so many hours of work. There are as many fun and interesting ways to show “small” to evoke “large” as there are writers. I’ll cover small in a future post, but for now, I invite you to leave your comments below! Search your work in progress for every time you used “large” and show us how you changed the sentence to make it stronger.

Happy world-building!

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