Here at Obsidianbookshelf.com, I tend to recommend "less is more" with physical description in fiction. However, I'll admit that descriptions of hair can be beautiful, especially in romance or fantasy fiction. Look here for tips on describing your character's hair.
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.
History of Male and Female Hairstyles.
I remember a column by humor writer Erma Bombeck in which she described the completely different looks that her daughters versus her sons wanted to achieve through the appearance of their hair: the girls want that wild untamed look, and the boys want to seem cool and in control. Things may have changed since then, but hair is always going to be viewed differently by males and females.
Here is my quick history of hair centered on the western world from roughly 1900 to now. (This is all my opinion here at Obsidianbookshelf.com so I don't have any references to list.)
For males, short hair (above the collar) was considered mandatory until about 1967, and a long-haired male risked serious harassment. Between 1967 and maybe 1980, the counterculture hippie movement made long hair for males trendy, though still not mainstream. After 1980, short hair became the prevailing fashion once more, though long hair on males is no longer seen as shocking.
Short hair on a male is usually a conformist, respectable look – unless it is extremely short. Hair trimmed shorter than 1/8-inch has a paramilitary look and can have some unusual connotations such as skinhead extremist, special ops soldier, or punk rocker.
Females have always had more freedom than males to wear their hair as they like. Consequently, they haven't been able to make as much of a social statement with their hair. An exception is in the 1920s when women who rejected their parents' Victorian values cut their hair. Some women nowadays use extremely short haircuts to convey either their identity as a lesbian or their rejection of traditional standards of beauty for women.
Historically, getting one's hair cut short symbolizes cutting the ties with one's former existence and beginning anew. Initiates to various spiritual disciplines often cut their hair upon acceptance into the cloister.
Hair comes in four basic types: straight hair, wavy hair, curly hair, and kinked hair. All of these types occur across all racial and ethnic groups. Hair can be classified by volume (thin or thick) and texture of the hair strand (fine, medium, or coarse) .
Straight Hair – Truly straight hair has not much of a curve at all, even when cut short. Many with long hair who think they have straight hair get a surprise when they cut their hair. The weight of long hair can pull the hair straight, but it reverts to its natural wavy shape when cut.
Advantages to straight hair include its natural shine. This is because light reflects off a flat surface better than a curved surface. It can be easier to style straight hair towards curliness than to go the other way and iron curly hair flat. Disadvantages? Sometimes straight hair can look limp and flat, especially if you have fine-textured hair or thin hair.
Wavy Hair – Wavy hair has a natural S-shaped curve to the hair strands. It can have the glossy look of straight hair but more "body" and shape to it.
Curly Hair – Curly hair produces ringlets in a coil- or corkscrew-curve. Its advantages include its buoyant shape and volume, which can also be a disadvantage if it isn't tamed down in a suitable cut or style. Because of its curving texture, curly hair doesn't reflect light as well as straight hair and can look less shiny.
Kinked Hair - This is hair with a very tight, frizzy bend to it. Kinked hair, even more than curly hair, will tend to absorb light rather than reflect it, so it will not look as glossy as straight hair. It is also the most delicate type of hair that needs the most coddling to preserve the structural integrity of the hair-shafts.
There are countless names for countless variations. Here at Obsidianbookshelf.com, I'll list some of the best known for males and females in the range from very short to long. The shorter you go with a haircut, the more the light hits and emphasizes your face so you want to have attractive features and good skin.
Shaved Head – In a word, bald. Almost exclusively a male style. This is a difficult style to wear, especially for pale individuals because it can suggest the look of serious illness (for example, baldness due to chemotherapy). However, a dark-skinned person with striking features might look beautiful.
High-and-Tight – Male style. See the buzz cut. This style takes a buzz cut and then shaves the hair on the sides and back almost to the skin, while leaving the stubble on the top slightly longer. Associated with special-ops soldiers and punk rockers, it is considered an extreme style.
Fade – Male style. A slightly longer version of the high-and-tight.
Buzz cut – Almost exclusively a male style. Hair is reduced to an even 1/8- to 1/4-inch stubble all over the head. This is the military-induction cut. A slightly longer variation is the crew-cut. Some women like singer Sinead O'Connor wear buzz-cuts or crew cuts.
Pixie cut – Female style. Hair is cut into short layers on the sides and back and slightly longer on top. This looks great with straight, shiny hair. It can be a very feminine cut that plays up a woman's eyes.
Bob – Female style. Hair is shaped into a one-length, sleek, straight helmet that curves inward at the ends. This style can have bangs (fringe) or not. It can be chin-length or shoulder-length or in between. This is a versatile and elegant look that looks trendy and edgy towards chin- or even ear-length and classic when at shoulder-length.
Afro – Males and females. Hair is naturally kinked or styled that way via a perm (chemicals and heat). The kinked hair stands out in a puffball halo around the head. It is usually short to medium length.
Layered cut – Males and females. Hair can be anywhere from above-the-collar to shoulder-length or below. The hair is cut into layers which blend together to accomplish anything from taming extremely thick hair or maximizing thin hair.
One length non-cut – Males and females. This is long, one-length hair that can look good if the person gets the split-ends trimmed on a regular basis. It can also flatten the hair as its weight drags down its natural wave or curl or shape. This style can look most flattering on females or males with naturally straight, coarse, thick hair.
Describing Your Character's Hair.
Have another look at the traits and qualities I here at Obsidianbookshelf.com have described above and decide how your character's hair can be classified. Straight, wavy, curly, or kinked? Thin or thick? Fine, medium, or coarse in texture? What color?
Is your character male or female? If he's male, does he fuss with his hair a lot or does he ignore it? Does he dye his hair? If so, why? Does he do a perfect dye job so that he'll look natural, or does he do a "punk" job with dark roots showing? Has he cut it short in order to look tough or to keep it from being grabbed in street-fights? Does he worry that it's too pretty and it makes him look effeminate? Does he wear his hair long to make a statement, and what is he communicating? What harassment is he risking by having long hair?
If she's female, does she want the exact opposite type of hair than she's got? Does she worry about humidity and styling issues? Does she spend a lot of money on hair products and getting it styled? Does she dye her hair? If so, why? Does she do a perfect dye job so that she'll look natural, or does she do a "punk" job with dark roots showing? Does she dislike all the pressure put on women to have their hair movie-star perfect? Does she cut her hair extremely short to make a statement, and what is she communicating? What harassment is she risking by having extremely short hair?
Is your character multi-racial or multi-ethnic? Is he or she hassled for having a certain type of hair that is (erroneously) associated only with certain racial / ethnic groups? In Angela's Ashes by Frank McCourt, he describes growing up in Catholic Ireland and having "Presbyterian hair." Here at Obsidianbookshelf.com, I'm not sure what he meant by that, but it did make me laugh.
Sensory Details. What does your character's hair look like, feel like, and smell like?
Appearance – The straighter one's hair is, the more it will fall vertically like a curtain or water. The curlier the hair, the more it puffs around one's head like a halo. Long hair that is straight or wavy is often compared to water or cloth: cascades of hair, a waterfall of hair, a thick rope of hair, a skein of hair. Straight or wavy hair gleams, shines, and shimmers when clean. Straight hair can look sleek or polished like a metal surface, especially if it is all one length (no layers). Here at Obsidianbookshelf.com, I've noticed that straight hair is the type you usually see in television commercials for shampoo because it looks so shiny and clean.
Curly or kinked hair is often compared to a halo or a cloud. It bounces, puffs, and drifts around one's face. It coils and winds around one's fingers and earlobes. It curves sinuously. Especially in romance fiction, curly or kinked hair can symbolize sex appeal and sexual energy as it escapes hairpins and hats (for women) or water-combing or gel (for men) to spring up and take its natural buoyant shape. Here at Obsidianbookshelf.com, I've noticed that curly or kinked hair is often featured in television commercials about conditioner or hair styling product because this hair type looks bouncy and full of volume.
Short straight hair on men and women draws attention to its lines, especially if it is short enough to be shaped by a razor such as the high-and-tight haircut for men. Hair like this is described by its angle or bristle or the way it frames the face. Short curly hair often is described as a mop or a cap of hair.
How does the weather affect your character's hair? Humidity can exaggerate the frizz of curly or kinked hair, and it can draw the curl out of straight hair and leave it limp. Hot, humid weather can curl little tendrils of hair in an enticing way around one's ears and face. Snowdrops or raindrops can glitter in dark hair like diamonds.
What about when hair is dirty or damaged? Its appearance can say a lot about a character. Hair can be greasy, limp, ragged with split-ends, and covered with white, flakey dandruff. It can be over-processed with dyes, chemicals to relax it (if kinked) or curl it (if straight). A character's dye-job can clash with his or her natural skin tone. He or she might let the dark roots grow in without a touch-up. This could be deliberate on the part of an edgy young urbanite, or it could be slovenly.
Hair can be thin and breaking off due to harsh treatment or illness. Men have to worry about the dreaded receding hairline, which means that the hair towards the forehead thins out. Eventually they may experience male-pattern baldness, which usually leaves the head bare on the top with an unattractive fringe of hair around the sides.
What a male chooses to do about hair-thinning or balding says a lot about his personality. Is he silly enough to try the much-ridiculed comb-over? This is when he'll arrange hair strands from either side of his head to lie across his gleaming bald pate. If so, he's not fooling anyone.
Will he just shave his head completely for a bad-ass image? That can work, depending upon the man. Will he just leave his hair as is? That can indicate many things such as a spiritual tendency to devalue appearance, unshakable self-confidence, or low self-esteem.
Touch – Here at Obsidianbookshelf.com, I have to point out that it's become a cliché to say that hair is soft or silky. If you must compare hair to silk, go further in your imagination. In a love scene, does one character bury his hand to the wrist in his lover's silken mass of hair? This brings more sensory detail to the comparison. However, hair can also feel coarse like a horse's mane or fluffy (if cut into layers) like feathers.
Curly or kinked hair can feel springy under the hand. Very short hair-stubble can feel velvety soft like suede.
Thick hair is the most pleasurable to touch. Even when straight, it will have a springiness and plush feel. As with curly hair in romance fiction, thick hair can symbolize hidden sex appeal that contrasts intriguingly with a repressed, buttoned-down surface. A woman might have thick hair pinned into a severe style. A man might have thick hair buzzed into a military induction cut. When their lovers finally get to touch their hair, it is an unexpected pleasure.
Damaged or dirty hair is unpleasant to the touch. It may feel brittle like dry straw. On the other hand, it could feel greasy and heavy as if coated with soap scum.
Smell – At best-case scenario, hair has a pleasing fragrance from one's shampoo. Figure out what that smell would be. Something fresh and simple like apples or lavender? Something complex and mysterious like sandalwood or patchouli? Something masculine and almost unscented or something richly floral that a woman would wear? What about the poor guy who runs out of shampoo and must use his girlfriend's perfumed brand? Does he feel self-conscious?
Hair is like cloth and will pick up odors in the air. Depending upon recent surroundings, your character's hair could smell like cigarettes, fresh-cut grass, wood-smoke, cheap perfume, the stench of deep-fryer oil, or even gunpowder. (References: 1. Andre Talks Hair by Andre Walker. ISBN 068483880X, Fireside Press, copyright © 1998. P.27-35. and 2. Hair Shapes. My image.)
Note: There is more! Because the website traffic is so high on these "how to write" articles, I have expanded two of them from the roughly 2000 words per article that you see on the website/blog to 15,000 words each. I am offering them as Kindle documents on Amazon, if you are interested. Here are the links if you would like to have a look and download a free sample.
How to Write Descriptions of Eyes and Faces
(Just so you know, this 15,000-word book contains the 3651-word Eye Color list from my website plus the 1731-word article How to Describe Eyes, also from my website. The other 9618 words in the book are all-new material.)
How to Write Descriptions of Hair and Skin
(Just so you know, this 14,900 word book contains this 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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