Don’t judge a book by its cover. Sage advice. But advice we rarely follow. We all judge people by their appearance, whether we want to admit it or not. And the same goes for characters in novels.
Writers agonize over eye color, shape (no almond-shaped eyes please), height, build and more. Physical descriptions are some of the most important details in a novel. If your reader has no idea what your characters look like, they are less likely to connect with them. But the implications of physical characteristics is far greater than simply giving your reader a hint about what was going on in your head when you were writing. It also tells them who this person is.
Sure, talking about skin tone or those baby blues can give some valuable insight into the inner psyche of your hero. But today, I want to talk about hair.
Hair is a huge part of human identity. The abundance of it. The lack of it. The texture. The mullet. (BTW, who DOESN’T want business in the front, party in the back?) We spend lots of money on style, cut, color, updos, shampoos, gels and wax. We whip those flyaways into shape and weigh them down with hairspray. Since art imitates life (or vice versa), hair can be a huge part of the identity of a character too!
Curly hair itself is an interesting literary device. Frequently spurned by Hollywood and the fashion world, those untamed spirals carry significant weight when left au natural. In the Victorian and Romantic literary eras, a woman with curly hair was typically seen as beautiful. She was rich and her hair was always perfectly coiffed (I wish this was reality so much. You have no idea!). The Victorians were known to save a lock of hair belonging to a deceased loved one and turning it into a piece of “mourning jewelry.” Weird? Yes. But a memento nonetheless.
Today, curly hair is more of a negative trait and curls are typically described as frizzy. Think Hermione Granger. Particularly in the YA category, curly is a device used to humanize the heroine. Hermione is super smart, but she has frizzy hair. Her friends don’t think of her as beautiful (Ron picks another girl over her). She’s only known for her wits. Clary Fray of the Shadowhunters series has curly hair too and she lacks confidence. It’s true that the reluctant hero is a trope of the genre, but curly hair is used as a means of expressing a character’s beta status, or at least their disbelief in their own abilities.
As a curly girl myself (3B and proud!), I use a character’s hair to make a statement about them. As a child I was brutally teased about my curls – think references to light sockets and getting too close to the stove (middle school is tough, friends), therefore, I notice how curly hair is featured in stories. I think writers inject a little of themselves in a lots of ways into their work and because curls play a big part in my own personal identity, I tend to wind up with at least one or two curl-rocking characters in my fiction.
In Withered World, my current work in progress, I have three characters who also happen to have curly hair. Each character has a different curl pattern and they wear those curls in a different way. Do I sound crazy yet? I certainly wasn’t thinking about curl patterns when I imagined these characters. Nevertheless, each of one sports curls in his or her own way.
Despite the prevalence of the curly-haired beta female trope, I do think that things are changing. Society is embracing the natural curl much more. You see a lot more about curls in mainstream culture. There are special salons and specially trained stylists who are armed with unique tactics to tame that mane in a way that allows your curls to run free. So, now I’m simply waiting to see mainstream literature take on the curly girl or guy in a more positive way.
With so many traits to decide upon when you’re character building, hair isn’t usually the first that comes to mind. Next time, you’re diving into a character, take a moment and think about his or her hair and what it says about who they are.