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!