Physical Attribute Entry: Hair

Physical description of a character can be difficult to convey—too much will slow the pace or feel 'list-like', while too little will not allow readers to form a clear mental image. If a reader cannot imagine what your character looks like, they may have trouble connecting with them on a personal level, or caring about their plight. 

One way to balance the showing and telling of physical description is to showcase a few details that really help 'tell the story' about who your character is and what they've been through up to this point. Think about what makes them different and interesting. Can a unique feature, clothing choice or way they carry themselves help to hint at their personality? Also, consider how they move their body. Using movement will naturally show a character's physical characteristics, keep the pace flowing and help to convey their emotions.


Descriptors: curly, ringleted, straight, kinky, wavy, wild, lank, blunt, tame, bushy, frizzy, silky, long, short, flowing, buzzed, cropped, chopped, coifed, styled, gelled, loose, flat, shiny, dull, bouncy, thin, thick, wiry, dyed, streaked, layered, flyaway, balding, patchy, pulled back, tied up, smooth, dry, split, rough, spiky, stiff, straightened, sweaty, greasy, stringy, dirty, uncombed, neat, messy, mussed, tousled, bleached, colored, braided, dreadlocks, bedhead, staticky, cornrows, mohawk, mullet, crewcut

Things Hair Does (and other words/phrases to describe those actions)
  • Flip: toss, jerk, flick, shake, 
  • Blow (in the wind): float, flutter, sail, waft, fly, skim, whip, tear, thrash, twirl, buffet, lash, shimmy, sway, slap, flap

Key Emotions and Related Hair Gestures: 
  • Though hair doesn't do much on its own, people often touch their hair to indicate certain emotions. When nervous or feeling insecure, people do pretty much anything with their hair, such as touching, patting, twisting, pulling, compulsively braiding/unbraiding, pulling, jerking, and finger-combing their locks. 
  • At times of high anxiety or stress, people might actually pull their hair out, to the point of thinning their hair or going bald in spots. 
  • A flirtatious person expressing desire for someone else might draw attention to their hair by flipping, shaking, or running their hands through it
  • When frustrated, people may grab their hair, run their hands through it, or pull it.
  • A very angry or enraged person may do something drastic like chopping or shaving off their hair.

Simile and Metaphor Help:                         
  • The shaved hair of her scalp felt prickly and stubborn, like a curled-tight hedgehog saying Screw You to the world.
  • My mother's stylist was a miracle worker. I turned my head this way and that, viewing my coif from every angle. The curls were the perfect mix of styled and carefree, the color spot-on. Somehow, she'd turned me into a Paul Mitchell model.

Clichés to Avoid: Bleached blondes that are dumb or gullible; sexy, sassy redheads; lice as a sign of dirty hair; the prevalence of redheads in literature despite their rarity in the world's population (less than 2%)

HINT: When describing any part of the body, try to use cues that show the reader more than just a physical description. Make your descriptions do double duty. Example: I tried not to stare at the matriarch's hair but didn't quite succeed. It was the color of rich loam without a hint of white—a glossy shade that inspired both envy and debate among the village women. My mother liked to say that no one Bentri's age kept such hair naturally.

BONUS TIP: The Colors, Textures & Shapes Thesaurus in our sidebar might help you find a fresh take on some of the descriptors listed above! 

photo credit: Pink Sherbet Photography via photopin cc


tylerjones said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Traci Kenworth said...

Great one!!

JeffO said...

Excellent, as always.

Natalie Aguirre said...

Thanks for sharing your tips.

middle grade ninja said...

Good stuff. Keep 'em coming:)

Cynthia Leitich Smith said...

My cheerful counter to the 2% statistic is that it doesn't seem to consider that not all redheads have been that way since birth.

There was an MFA class at Vermont College that had a half dozen redheads.

Many of my friends are redheads. How many of them are natural? I'd never ask. But if you're scanning the general U.S. populace...

Karoline Kingley said...

Are red heads really that rare? That makes me feel special :) Stereotypes aside I think certain hair colors DO give impressions. I gave each of my characters their hair and eye color for a reason. My heroine has big brown eyes, because I wanted them to capture, and be all-encompassing. Her honey-blonde hair too, was meant to give an impression of softness.

Renee Schuls-Jacobson said...

My character does tons of stuff with her hair. How much is too much!Trying to figure it out. It is definitely her tic. Great post.

jennifermzeiger said...

Always find these posts very useful. Thank you=)

Donna K. Weaver said...

Nice. This is the kind of thing I try to work on with on edit pass.

Becca Puglisi said...

Cynthia, you're right. That's a point I hadn't considered, which would bring the percentage of redheads higher. Even considering that, though, I stand by my opinion that there are far more redheads in literature than are represented in the general population :).

tomas adison said...
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Angela Ackerman said...

Great one Becca--there is so much we do with our hair--it really is a way of expressing who we are!


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