One thing I learned through the “snow-pocalypse” week 😜 here in Texas, was what happens when a man goes a full week without a shower (since we had no water or electricity).
Hugon ran a hand through his tousled blond hair. He hadn’t bathed in days, and in a few more his near shoulder length hair would be a filthy disaster. He loosened the cuffs on his white tunic slightly, and tightened the sturdy brown belt around his tucked in shirt. The fine belt had previously belonged to a fair guard, but the inebriated fellow hadn’t needed it.
My hair is between fine and coarse. That is one thing. Naturally, dark hair is more coarse. Blonde hair is thinner. (I mean on a single hair basis.) The volume of hair just depends on the cut and style and the choice to grow it and its health and the person’s diet. A person who goes hungry a lot will not have healthy hair. This perception of blonde hair and blue eyes being the most desirable because of how Hollywood glamorizes it is just weird. Blondes have the thinnest hair, blue eyes are the weakest visually, and tend to have more eyesight problems later on. Fair-skinned people are more vulnerable to the sun because they have low levels of melanin and are not as naturally protected as those with darker skin. The old “Aryan model” is actually not the ideal physical specimen when it comes to being fit for survival and endurance in harsh conditions, so there’s that.
But, back to our muttons…
If you character “hadn’t bathed in days”, I highly doubt his hair would just look “tousled”. More than likely, it would be unkempt and a little wild, if not dull, flat, and oily-feeling. Hair flourishes on fat and natural oils. If he has been traveling it would be gritty and perhaps have a sandy feel from being out on the open road, and it would have the sticky feel of sweat in it, from no bath and it might even have an unpleasant odor if he sweats a lot. (I know, not the romantic ideal anymore, is it.) Fine hair tends to curl when it gets wet or oily, so the coarseness does matter. During the 2020 year, I let my hair grow long and it got to shoulder-length after a year of no haircuts because the salons were closed. My hair curled and went wild. I was the human equivalent of Chewbacca. Not a pretty sight. I had to wet and comb it out but it curled as it naturally dried, and blow-drying would’ve made it brittle. Why is blow-drying relevant? Because of hot sun and road conditions for a traveler. It would achieve a similar effect. Just a couple of days will make it a filthy disaster if your character has not bathed or treated his hair with something. Humans sweat during the night, their hair gets mussed, and if this traveler has to sleep out in the open with his traveling animal, well…you get the idea.
Now under all those additional considerations, what do you think that “formerly” white tunic might look like? It will probably have sweat stains, and dust marks where his hands brushed it, or the wind just lifted the soils off the road. It will have taken on an animal smell too. Nothing will be crisp and clean in those conditions. His clothing will have a miasma of odors. His boots will be caked from the mud you mentioned, and his tunic will perhaps have clots of mud stuck to it from his recent travel. If this is a period piece, any bathing done will most likely happen in a dirty river, or merely be the equivalent of a sponge bath, while kneeling on the wet dirty banks of a river. It is doubtful he could allow his clothes to properly dry because he wouldn’t want to be caught out and exposed for a long enough time. He will have had to wear his clothes in a kind of drip-dry fashion. In period pieces, freshwater was harder to come by. Cleaner water would come from a spring or a well, or rain buckets stored away from dust and grime. All other water sources will have some degree of dirt in them. Consider what they might do to hair or clothing. White clothing will be the hardest to keep clean.
Leather, unless it has been cured and dried, will soften over time, so any belts he wears will need to reflect that.
He loosened the cuffs on his white tunic slightly, and tightened the sturdy brown belt around his tucked in shirt. The fine belt had previously belonged to a fair guard, but the inebriated fellow hadn’t needed it.
Slovenly “inebriated” people tend to be slobs. Any article of clothing one takes from them, may not be meticulously kept in the best condition. A drunk may wake up in an alley or passed out in a horse trough, so you can imagine the condition of their clothing under such circumstances. If you want your character to procure a fine article of clothing, have him take it from a fop or some arrogant buffoon who spends most of his time preening and prancing about for the ladies. His snobbery will ensure that his finest qualities are external, and his internal character is more than apt to be lacking.
The best thing that has worked for me for descriptions and writing prose is gathering world-building details and logical conditions that arise out of those factors and what is known about human physiology under certain conditions. Then think through the five senses of a character: what they smell, what they can taste, what they hear and feel. Think of environmental conditions, lighting, time of day, weather conditions, period conditions, customs of the people and behavioral patterns, etc. Get a 4-dimensional picture and experience of that world in your head and then become the character you are writing and sense what they want, and what their sense tells them about the world around them. Who might be a friend or foe? What conditions offer them an opportunity to get what they are seeking and why. Some characters, you may not want to show what is in their head, because it may reveal a plot point that you still need to be concealed until later. Choose a POV that does not impede your scene needs. Keep enough mystery in the scene to intrigue a reader, but give them something to taste so they follow your character staying hungry for more. Promises and rewards should be small early on unless you are setting up the BIG promise or hope that drives and motivates your principal characters. That pay-off will come at the climax and in the denouement.
Think about what environmental conditions are necessary details for what will happen with the action. What knowledge does one need to understand the ensuing action of the scene’s moments? What do you want to reveal, and what do you want to hide. Have your reasons for when and where to reveal or conceal.
As an author, we readers can only see what you show us, or logically think through something with the facts you give us.
Wishing you blessings in your writing journey. You are making a very good start and most of what you have shown is done very well. Keep a logical flow, so that readers do not stop following your character into the world you are building without pausing. Be willing to show the unpleasant and grimy side of your world, because it keeps it feeling authentic. Beautiful women do pass gas. Clerics have bad days and sometimes want very much to cuss their parishioners. Those truths are unpleasant but authentic. Be careful not to glorify the ideal, without grounding it in the real. When writing your first drafts, just write how it comes. Most of what Rose and I are telling you are things sorted out in the revisions. Don’t worry about writing flat characters in the initial drafts, unless writing them distracts you. Then flesh them out. You need to keep the process fun and delightful to you, so you can follow through just getting the story roughed out and complete. Then go back and refine and feel and sense in a more dynamic and multi-sensory way.
Brian Stansell (aka O'Brian of the Surface World)
I was born in war.
Fighting from my first breath.