When writing characters with curly hair, a lot of authors tend to make incorrect assumptions or forget its versatility. I recently read a blog which claimed to have over 100 words to describe hair, and it did, but only two were for non-straight hair: afro and curly. So as someone with curly hair, I say it’s time to talk about underrepresented hair styles.
First things first: curls have volume. How much volume curls have often depend on what type of curls your characters have. Let’s break down the major types of curls. There’s subcategories for each of these but this’ll give a decent visual for folks who aren’t that familiar with curls.
Now you don’t have to know whether your character specifically has 4a or 4b hair, but it’s good to be familiar with different curly hair terms. Types 2a through 2c are often referred to as wavy hair. Types 3a to 3c are curly. And finally, types 4a to 4c are commonly referred to as coily, kinky, or super curly. So if you tell me your character has wavy hair, as someone who is familiar with curls, I will not picture anything in the Type 3 or 4 range. I will likely picture between types 2a and 2b.
It is incorrect to call Type 3 curly hair “wavy hair.” Curly and wavy are different things, and while it’s easy to see where confusion may arise, you should always strive to refer to people how they refer to themselves.
Wavy hair is also often used to describe characters with straight hair who have loosely curled their hair, such as with a curling iron. This is okay to write about – after all, plenty of people in real life put beach waves or soft waves into their hair. However what you want to remember is that if a character is adding curls to their straight hair without chemicals, those curls often won’t last forever. Make sure that if your character curls their hair during the story, their hair won’t be perfect after a roll in the hay or a month in the dystopian apocalypse (depending on your genre).
The Wavy Hair Facts
Wavy hair, like straight hair, often gets oily. So your character may wash their hair often, even every day, unlike many people with curlier hair. Wavy hair owners often use fairly lightweight styling products, including hairspray occasionally.
Curly hair (Type 3 hair) is drier than wavy hair. The oil from curly folks’ scalps has a difficult time getting down the strands. This means we can have frizzier hair but also don’t have to wash our hair as often. It’s less greasy after all. So we may wash our hair once every three to five days, sometimes longer.
Curly hair can hold onto things. This makes for classic scenes where the cute love interest plucks a small leaf out of a lock of hair. It also makes for realistic scenes where the love interest tries to run their fingers through the protagonist’s curly hair only to get stuck in a tangle. The point is that curly hair will take up space and affect its owner differently than straight hair (or other levels of curls!). Use this to your advantage while writing scenes.
Finally, curly hair owners often use lightweight to medium creams to style their hair. They generally avoid hairspray and dry shampoo (because their hair doesn’t get greasy).
Coily hair can be very thick or very fine, it all comes down to genetics. The main important thing to know is how tightly the hair spirals. For instance, someone with coily hair may look as if they have a dark halo of curls that’s about a foot in diameter. But if you straighten a single lock, you may be able to straighten that curl clear down their back.
Coily hair can go a long time without a wash, depending on the style, length, and owner’s preference. It is very versatile and often coarse. The tightest coils can grow upward, outward, and downward. Because I do not have coily hair myself, I will stick to the basic details and point people toward blogs by people with coily hair.
Like curly hair, coily hair can catch and hold onto things. However, it’s often even more fragile than curly hair. This is primarily due to a lack of moisture. Coily hair owners may use lots of heavy cream products to style and protect their hair.
How long it takes to dry
If your curly or coily-haired character jumps out of the shower, chances are their hair won’t be dry for a while. Especially if they don’t use heat (hello historical settings). Additionally, if they cover their hair in their day-to-day routine, they will often want to wait until their hair is dry before covering their hair all day. Wet hair will soak through whatever shirt or scarf they wrap around their hair.
How long it takes to get ready
This depends on how well your character knows their curls. If they grew up in a family that also has curly hair, or are involved in a community where other people have curly hair, they likely know their hair very well.
If they are the only person with curly hair in their friend group, family, and outside community (such as church, clubs, work, etc.), they may not know much about their hair. Or they may know some tricks but not all of them.
Curly hair, when treated right, needs very little care in the morning. It generally just needs a quick application of product to not be frizzy. It could also be wrapped with a scarf or molded into a bun very quickly. Similarly, it can take very little time to make the hair look fancy for an event. However, if desired, one can also spend hours shaping curls into various braids, twists, dreads, and other styles. Curly hair can require as much or as little time as your character wants to spend on it, so long as they have an idea of what they’re doing.
The weather will affect wet hair. I went to college where the winters were so cold, it was literally colder than the winter I spent in the Arctic Circle. And one cold college day, when I jumped out of the shower and didn’t have time to dry my hair, I ran to class in the snow. My hair turned into frozen wine bottle openers. Likewise, when I went walking in the summer heat with wet hair, it was miserable. I had a hot, wet bun of hair slowly dripping down my neck, feeling not too distinguishable from sweat. Both times, I learned my lesson and avoided going out with wet hair if it could be helped. So if you do make a character with curly hair, ask yourself how the characters’ hair interacts with the temperature. It might make for an interesting scene.
A quick note on how long curly hair lasts
No curly hair is beautiful forever. Not fake curls, not real ones. The first day after I wash my hair, my hair looks good. Second day? It looks great. Third day? Good again. Fourth day? We’re getting a little sketchy here.
Everyone’s hair is different. Depending on the style and level of activity, curls may last longer or shorter. Braids can last weeks in certain hair types, for instance. So keep this in mind if your characters are going on an epic journey or even just a lover’s getaway on a hike. At some point, the curls will get dry, frizzy, and either put back in a messy ponytail/bun or hidden under a scarf.
What not to write about curly hair
There are a few stereotypical things that you should be very cautious about writing, especially if you don’t have curly hair. The first is that there are historical and modern stereotypes that people put on curly hair. The second is that what you write may affect how someone sees or thinks about curly hair, be it their own or others’. Let’s start with simple inaccuracies.
Curly hair does not get dry-brushed. Most of us don’t even own brushes. It makes the hair frizzy. If you write that a curly-haired character dry-brushed out their hair before bed, I will know you don’t have curly hair.
“Wild” hair. Some people don’t mind their hair being described as wild. Some people are tired of it because we’ve heard it everywhere. We’ve heard it described as wild, unruly, and untamable. These words are rarely compliments. Consider if there’s more empowering or complimentary adjectives you could use.
Relaxing the character’s hair. From every angle, curly-haired folks have been told they need to straighten their hair. Worse, we’ve been told for years to straighten our hair and then re-curl it to get the beach-wave look. I chemically straightened my hair as a teen, as did many other curly-haired folks, because we’ve been told only straight hair is beautiful or work-appropriate. Let your characters have curly hair and show readers that it’s something to be proud of.
Curls have been stereotyped in many cultures as being dirty. This is simply not true. Curly hair does not smell. It is not dirty. Most people know how to wash their hair.
The racist connotations:
Curly hair colors, like POC skin tones, are often described with food tones. Chocolate, almond, etc. This can be particularly problematic for people of color because of fetishes and slavery connotations. For more information about how color adjectives can play into harmful stereotypes, check out one of the best introductory diversity blogs, Writing with Color. In general, my advice is to try to avoid food terms with respect to a hair’s color. Certain food terms are okay to describe how hair smells if it’s complimentary, realistic, and again, not fetishizing.
Hairstyles: Waves are not the same thing as Wavy
As I mentioned earlier in the blog, there are many, many different curly hairstyles than just afro, beach waves, and “big.” There’s bangs and bobs and pixie cuts, twists and waves and buns. There’s low ponytails, high ponytails, fauxhawks, and undercuts to make us have less volume. There are large topknots and round lion’s-mane hair that goes past the shoulders. There’s dozens of different ways to braid hair, twist hair (which isn’t the same thing!), plenty of sizes of cornrows, ringlets, dreads, etc!
Here are plenty of curly hairstyling videos if you’re curious about seeing various styles, including some that are good for when your characters haven’t been able to wash their hair in a while:
- 10 Quick Easy Hairstyles For Natural Curly Hair
- 8 SUPER CUTE NATURAL HAIR STYLES FOR OLD HAIR
- 11 SIMPLE & EASY NATURAL HAIRSTYLES ON NATURAL HAIR 2019
- 7 Spring/Summer Hairstyles For Naturally Curly Hair!
- 8 HEATLESS Hairstyles for Wavy/Curly Hair
What have we learned?
Hair is very different person to person. It’s easy (and common) to make mistakes when writing a type of hair you don’t have, similar to how easy it is to mess up when writing people unlike you in other fashions. So ask questions. That’s a great place to start. Because I’d much rather you ask than mess up.
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