I recently rediscovered these words of wisdom from Pixar storyboard artist Emma Coats and thought they deserved some recognition.
1: You admire a character for trying more than for their successes.
2: You gotta keep in mind what’s interesting to you as an audience, not what’s fun to do as a writer. They can be v. different.
3: Trying for theme is important, but you won’t see what the story is actually about til you’re at the end of it. Now rewrite.
4: Once upon a time there was ___. Every day, ___. One day ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally ___.
5: Simplify. Focus. Combine characters. Hop over detours. You’ll feel like you’re losing valuable stuff but it sets you free.
6: What is your character good at, comfortable with? Throw the polar opposite at them. Challenge them. How do they deal?
7: Come up with your ending before you figure out your middle. Seriously. Endings are hard, get yours working up front.
It is inevitable. Describing a character’s hairstyle is something that pretty much has to happen at some point. But can describing hair become cliché? The answer I came up with is yes. If you stop paying attention, it is easy to be lazy when describing hair.
Want a boring description? Use the standard length, color, adjective formula. Long, brown, and wiry doesn’t do much when it comes to making characters stand out and it certainly doesn’t help me learn about your character.
Falling back on one key word or point doesn’t do much either. Do we have to know that your female protagonist is unaware of how beautiful she is because her hair is described as frizzy or because she can’t control it in the wind? Does every bad boy with a heart of gold have shaggy hair? Can we only hear about texture in the context of a hand running its fingers through your character’s hair?
So, how do we as writers break free of turning a carefully thought out hair choice into a predictable cliché? Below I have four tips I try to remember when writing about hair. Please add any more you may use in the comments below.
1) Synonyms are the easy way out
One of your characters already has brown hair but you have another brunette character. Resist the urge to just go to the thesaurus. A good rule of thumb to remember is, if you couldn’t pick the color out of a color wheel don’t use the word. Umber, goldenrod, and burnt sienna are fun in a Crayola box but I would be hard pressed to use those colors to describe someone’s hair.
2) Tie hair to an action in your character’s life
Your character could have a perfectly styled head of hair in the morning but after working two shifts and running to catch an always early evening bus, end his or her day with a mess of sweaty strands out of place. Instantly you have a memorable description of your character and also your reader knows something about their life. That’s a double win.
3) Defy expectations
If a character under forty is described as having white hair, I assume they are the villain. Similarly, if you give a character a green Mohawk I will think they don’t follow societal conventions. Some tropes are so well established that readers might start playing character detective when they read them. Play with readers’ already established expectations and you just might shock them.
4) Don’t forget bald
Male or female, bald is sexy and underused.