Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Hair in fantasy

“Give me a head with hair,
Long beautiful hair,
Shining, streaming, gleaming, flaxen, waxen hair…”

Hair is ubiquitous. It crops up in mythology and fairy tales, it appears in a hundred different colors, styles and permutations, and I don’t think I’ve read a romance which didn’t provide at least some mention of it. It’s a source of power, a mark of heredity and one of the ways to spot a Mary Sue—her hair is likely to be overpretty or overdescribed. Usually both.


Minus Clairol, hair occurs in a small range of hues—blond, red, brown, black, grey and white. There’s a lot of room for variation within these colors, but in a fantasy characters can have Ramona Flowers hair with streaks in it—if there’s a good reason for them to have such hair.

Unusual colors might also affect how seriously the characters are taken. If everyone has hair like Rainbow Brite’s horse, the story might come off as a parody. I’d pick just one out-of-the-ordinary color, or at the most two (say, different colors for men and women).

As for natural streaks in hair, there’s a genetic condition which produces this – Waardenburg syndrome, which also causes mismatched eyes. A group of characters distinguished by a white streak in their hair is the Mallen family of Catherine Cookson’s novels, beginning with The Mallen Streak.


Hairstyles are a good way to show people’s occupations (monks, soldiers and prostitutes will all wear their hair differently) or age. For instance, girls wear their hair in braids but ladies put their hair up. Complicated styles might also be a sign of social status, because only rich people would have the time or the luxury to have their hair teased into various shapes a la Queen Amidala.

And in A Game of Thrones, Dothraki men braid their hair and cut it off when they lose a fight—so the longer a man’s hair is, the better.


People can wear pretty much anything in their hair, and often do. Ribbons, flowers, jewelry, chopsticks, berries, seashells, cakes of scent (in a hot climate, these will melt slowly) and even stuffed birds.

This is a good way to hint at social status too. At the start of Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea, Antoinette’s braid is bound with string, but later on it’s tied with red ribbon, to show that her family’s fortunes have improved.


Samosn’s hair supposedly gave him great strength as long as it wasn’t cut. Though now I’m wondering if “hair” was a euphemism for something else.

And the gift Galadriel gave Legolas was a bow strung with a strand of hair. The color of hair could also be an indication of a person’s ability, though it might be best not to go for the cliché of fire-mages having red hair.

Finally, what’s your favorite hair color? I like black or brown for most of my characters, but the one which most fascinates me is red, especially if the person has green eyes. To me, that’s about as exotic as you can get.


Anonymous said...

Haven't been here in ages. Kinda feel bad about that. Great post as always.

Ruth Cooke said...

Red hair and green eyes is so very cliche, especially in fantasy and romance stories. Probably because IRL it is so rare and exotic, in literature I find it tends not to be.

That being said, my first (and most loved) heroine was an elf with curly red hair and green eyes, which almost automatically puts her into the "Mary Sue" category, according to one test.

Right now, I'm writing a novel where the heroine is pseudo-Roman, with a more Southern Italian look (black hair, brown eyes). Her paramour has curly blond hair and hazel or blue eyes -- haven't decided yet. I'm deliberatly trying to vary hair, skin and eye colours in my novels, because most people in the world aren't of Northern European stock.

Kami said...

Curly black or wavy hair that forms those gorgeous corkscrews when it's extremely long. My sister has brown hair that does that. I'm so envious of her curls! Mine is straight except underneath at the neck where no one can see it. Lots of people ask her where she got her hair permed, and when she tells them it's natural, they're astonished.

Marian Perera said...

Kami - I wanted that kind of curly hair so badly when I was a teenager. I even thought of getting it permed. Now straight seems back in fashion, but I still plan on writing a heroine with lots of curls.

Ruth - Red hair/green eyes is a cliche, but it's my guilty pleasure. :) I never actually saw a redheaded person in the flesh until I went to the States when I was 18, so it was the pinnacle of exoticism for me.

Ralfast - *wave* Thanks, and good to see you back!

Anonymous said...

I'm partial to black hair (my own). And have a fascination with red hair. (all those Pre-Raphaelite paintings).

For the first time, one of my female protags in my latest manu is blonde.
That was a surprise, but my characters tend to be very stubborn on such matters. ;)

Loren said...

Mammalian hair color has a very limited palette, it must be pointed out, and our species has pretty much the full range of it. Domesticated mammal species may also have the full range of it, species like dogs and cats and horses.

Bird feathers, however, cover the full spectrum, something that one can easily discover online. So if you envy birds, you'll have to use hair dye.

Randall said...

Well, since we're talking fantasy, people with feathers for hair are certainly possible. Ditto for scales of varying colours and types. What about someone with a lizard-like fringe down the centre of their head like a mohawk?

Marian Perera said...

Tasha - I'm partial to black hair on heroes too. More leeway on heroines. :)

Loren - Cats have natural streaks, though. And horses... I love Appaloosa-type spots and Pinto-esque markings.

Randall - I really like the feathers. So many types and colors possible. Lizard-like crests work too, but in both cases I'd expect to see other bird- and lizard-like features after that.

Loren said...

Including color patterns does indeed get more variety, but it's still the same palette of colors in them. Domestic cats' wild-type color pattern is black and light gray vertical stripes. Etc.

Mammalian eye color does have more variety. Not only black, brown, and yellow, but also green and blue. Domestic cats' wild-type eye color is green, but some domestic cats have yellow eyes or blue eyes.

There are three main sources of color: emission, absorption, and scattering.

Emission: bioluminescence, like fireflies. Also with absorption: fluorescence. Some birds have fluorescent pigments in their feathers. They make bright red to yellow colors.

Absorption: pigments. The main mammalian one is melanin: brownish eumelanin and reddish pheomelanin. Skin can get color from blood, like when one blushes.

Reflection, including scattering (diffuse). That's what keeps absorption from always making blackness. Small irregularities can scatter some colors more than others, colors with wavelengths smaller than the irreguarities. That's what makes blue eye color and blue feather color and the blue skin patches of some monkeys.

Smooth surfaces make specular reflection, and shiny hair has that kind of reflection. Reflection off of the two sides of a thin layer can produce interference, and this makes iridescence.