There was a time when blue hair was the signature of many women in my hometown. Their hairdressers (the term “hair stylist” was not yet au courant) used a special rinse on graying hair – the rinse neutralized the yellow tones of gray hair, but left a definite blue or violet tinge behind. If you put a blue head in your story back then, your readers would see a woman in her sixties or older.

A Character’s Appearance

Appearance is one of the four direct methods of characterization — it can give readers a physical picture of a character, and can be used to show the character’s innards.

Take blue hair for example. According to Wikipedia, a few decades ago blue hair on the older set was indicative of middle class, conservative women. I wonder if those ladies in my hometown would agree. Conservative perhaps, but their hair told me they were wealthy. They had the means to visit a hairdresser. It could be that my view of blue hair tells you more about my childhood than it tells you about those ladies, but that is a topic for another post.

There’s more to a character’s physical appearance than hair, of course. Think about using tattoos and piercings (or lack thereof), muscle tone, posture, grooming, clothing and accessories to define your characters.

Is your character a woman who wears cowboy boots? Or Prada sneakers? And if cowboy boots, are they prized vintage boots or horse-stall-mucking dung-kickers? I promise you that because of her footwear I will know many things about your character without you telling me.

Characterization by Belongings

For the purposes of characterization, you might also use the appearance of things connected to your character to show what he or she is made of. Such as:

  • The character’s vehicle – Martin Cruz Smith’s Russian investigator, Arkady Renko, and his cohorts drive Ladas or Zhigulis; the villains drive upscale vehicles;
  • The character’s other possessions – Lee Child’s protagonist, Jack Reacher, takes travelling light to the extreme and possesses nothing more than a folding toothbrush and one set of clothes;
  • The character’s home – Carmen Sternwood, in Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep, lives in a house with entrance doors that Philip Marlowe says, “would have let in a troop of Indian elephants;” and
  • The state of repair or condition of the character’s belongings – are the clothes in his closet organized by colour, is her Ferrari pristine or a garbage can on wheels?

Contradictions

Add complexity or conflict to your character by including contradictory elements to make the reader ask what is really going on with the character. For example, a woman whose fingernails are bitten and ragged but whose toes sport a French manicure; another woman who is a member of Greenpeace yet has a fur coat stashed in the back of her closet.

And Don’t Forget

Whatever aspects of a character’s appearance you select to show your readers, keep in mind the era in which you set your story, and ensure that appearances fit the character in that particular time. The blue rinse brigade has evolved. Today, blue hair sends an entirely different message – the head it graces will often be a teenager or younger adult. An older woman today may choose a single streak, or fringe, of blue (or another vibrant colour). And today I will interpret that not as an indication of age or class, but as an indication of chutzpah.