Kim Alexander Tackles Hair Details in Her Series on World Building

In my continuing series on world building, I’ve mostly been talking about big-picture components: time, religion, the written word. In this edition, let’s narrow the focus.

Picture a woman. Now get closer. Let’s look at her head.

What’s she got going on? Is her hair flawless; waist length and perfectly highlighted? So we can assume she can afford to get a regular blow-out, or her work demands that she always looks just-so, or someone pays her salon bills. Maybe she’s young and carefree, or she’s trying to cling to her free-flowing youth. Maybe she’s got it yanked into a post-gym ponytail, or cut short because she just had a baby and wants to keep little hands from yanking it. Is she bald? Maybe she’s making a statement about artificial beauty standards. Maybe she’s dealing with chemo–or is going bare in solidarity for one who is. Is her hair covered? Perhaps she’s devout, or having a bad hair day. (Or maybe she just likes scarves!)

What’s more difficult to picture is a lawyer in a sleek suit presenting her case in front of a jury sporting two inches of grown out roots pulled into a scrunchie, or a mother with a newborn and a toddler in tow with that perfect, waist length blow out. It’s certainly possible, but it–as the fashion bloggers say–pulls focus. It takes you out of the scene. And since as the author you’re the set decorator as well as the director and producer, why waste a chance to add some visual depth?

That’s the thing–you can tell a story with a glance. And if you’re writing about a created world, you have to. Your characters should be able to read each other like books by how they style their hair, or cover it, or adorn it. And my example only mentioned women–what are your male characters doing with their hair? I often wonder why so many male leads in fantasy novels have long, flowing hair, when it’s clearly a hazard and a handhold on the battlefield. (It’s also a handhold in bed, so question answered, I guess.)

When you’re designing your fantasy world, hair and how its styled are your friend. You can easily signify age and social standing; wearing your hair a certain way can be a great big blinking sign that says ‘married’ or ‘working class’ or ‘I have something to hide.’ If you transplant a character from a place where she can wear her hair however she likes to a place where everyone elaborately pins it up, she’ll have to learn exactly how it’s done, and fast, or risk looking like a lunatic. If you send someone who never sees adult women with their hair down to a place where it’s the standard, he will have to learn not to stare, and for the same reason. (Yes, I did both of these things in my books.) Hair gives your characters something to play with, muss, decorate, color, hate, admire, envy and occasionally run a brush through. Fictional characters; they’re just like us!