A Streak of White Hair: Fantasy or Reality?

I recently wrote an article on Fantasy Faction about characters who have “skunk stripes” in their hair. I wanted to find out why these occur both in fiction and real life, and how plausible “natural” white highlights really are. My investigation led me to some interesting answers, so I thought I’d share the article link in case the topic is intriguing to anyone following along here: 

I was recently reading a fantasy romance novel where the main character pushed himself to the limits of his magical abilities and nearly died. Afterward, he was left with a streak of white in his long black hair (if you don’t mind spoilers, this is the book).

I’ve seen this before many times in fantasy, sci-fi and other stories – the X-Men character Rogue is the first that comes to mind, but other film characters like Cruella de Vil, Sweeney Todd, and The Bride of Frankenstein also had white patches of hair, and so do quite a few characters from manga, comics and books. This got me thinking, do real people ever get these? And if they do, why? Do they ever suddenly appear (without the deliberate application of bleach), like they do in stories?

Read the full article on Fantasy Faction >

43 thoughts on “A Streak of White Hair: Fantasy or Reality?

  1. This is interesting because my sister has a skunk stripe. She got it when she was in her early twenties. It just seemed to come in over night. She’s the only one in our family to have this. She’s in her forties now, and it’s still the same. It has never changed in color or the amount of hair affected.

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    • Oh interesting – actually in researching this article I encountered several stories like this where people said they just appeared at some point, seemingly overnight, and for no obvious reason. So mysterious!! I guess that’s part of the reason why they are popular for fantasy stories 🙂

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  2. True story: meeting up with an old school friend many years later, I asked what had happened to her hair, for a wonderfully lustrous black hair now sported a magical white streak, and it was real. She allowed me to examine the roots. It was the result of rheumatic fever that laid her low at the age of 19.

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  3. Whenever I hear of a character with a white streak in their hair, I always assume it’s because they endured a difficult experience and are wiser for it.
    In real life, my uncle has a white patch, but it didn’t suddenly turn white. It’s because he got old and his grey hair decided to be cool and come in as a patch toward the head. It looks intentional and stylish. I’m hoping for the same when my greys come in.

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  4. Really interesting article and I love that it is based on Facts! My BFF has had a grey patch (not cool white sadly) on one side of her head, just a big blob which she hates, since she was sixteen. Age-related we assume but it is just that one bit. Sinister SF theory – it’s all a poisonous ploy by hair dye companies to keep themselves in business. More likely – hereditary oddness, as you describe in the article.

    Surprising to see how many people know a real-life example of a so-called skunk streak!

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    • Thanks! Haha I like the sinister hair dye company idea – maybe they are doing it by poisoning our shampoo, since companies who make dye also often sell shampoo. You’ve got the makings of a conspiracy theory there 🙂

      Yes it’s really interesting to see how many people know a relative or friend with a streak. It’s certainly more common in real life than I thought!

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  5. Pingback: Streak of White Hair in Fantasy | Kaylee Kirpes

  6. This is so incredibly interesting and well-researched. I always wondered about this myself but never really remembered to go look for a plausible explanation – I just assumed it was a fictional thing. It’s so cool to find out that it’s not entirely so! I do know of people whose hair has become white over the course of a few months/a year due to stress and trauma, but never overnight or instantaneously. I always assumed there was no way that could happen since the hair had to grow out white – the pigment just wouldn’t turn white on its own.
    The other day while watching Supergirl, it came to me again because of the character Livewire. She gets her white hair from being struck by lightening (and consequently, her powers). A cool effect, if anything, but really nice to see some parallels with the real world. Of course, exaggerated but what would the fun be otherwise, right? 😉
    Epic piece!

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    • Thank you!! I also assumed this was mostly a fictional thing too until I looked into it – it was surprising to discover how common it is in real life (even if not an always the instantaneous magical appearance it is portrayed as! 🙂 ). I haven’t seen Supergirl, but that’s a cool and dramatic way to gain white hair and magical powers! It reminds me a little bit of Storm from X-Men, with her white hair and lightning-summoning powers, though I don’t think that’s how her hair turned white originally (I think she inherited it). Anyway, it’s certainly a cool effect, and I can see why storytellers would make a connection between lightning strikes and white hair!

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    • I didn’t think of Reed Richards but true, he also had those grey streaks at the temples – certainly makes him look wise! I looked it up and according to the notes section of this marvel wikia page they appeared after he got his powers, so like many characters with white streaks, their appearance seems to be linked to a traumatic and/or magical event too.

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  7. Thank you for linking to the article! I really enjoyed reading it. Actually, I never made the connection about poliosis to “skunk hair” in real life. I have a few friends who have poliosis. While it was a bit jarring at first, now I don’t ever notice.

    Similarly, I never really take notice when it comes to strange physical characteristics in my fantasy reading. I don’t think in pictures, so often times I don’t have a clear idea of what a character looks like from text-based fantasy. More visual fantasy I just suspend my disbelief for. I blame video games for this. Terra’s green hair in Final Fantasy VI (which no one EVER commented on!) encouraged me to let go of what my brain might consider “normal” physical appearance.

    That said, I love exploring what could have really caused the trend. Black and white TV? Of course! It seems so logical in retrospect…

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    • Thanks! That’s interesting you don’t think in pictures when reading, I must say I tend to not exactly picture characters myself (I get a general sense of them, e.g. male/female, old/young), though I do strongly picture lots ofother things like locations, actions, animals etc. So now you mention it I’d probably not take a whole lot of notice of a white streak either unless attention was drawn to it in a scene.

      Funnily enough with coloured hair I never questioned it in comics, cartoons or video games growing up (I guess because they were full of bright colours), it’s only when I saw those characters portrayed by real people that I noticed the strangeness of the hair colour 🙂

      And yeah I thought it was cool that black and white TV seems to be what caused/popularised the trend!

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      • I just don’t think in images at all, actually. Apparently, that’s uncommon? It’s cool to hear that you don’t create images in your head of people but of other details. That is probably one reason why you’re so observant when it comes to themes in fantasy!

        I am completely with you. There’s something about a digital or animated world which allows my brain to suspend disbelief. I am coming to find crayon colored hair to be less startling, now! I really love some of the cool omber stuff people are doing. Very unique!

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  8. This is such an interesting topic!! I’d never thought of it before, but it does turn up quite a bit in fiction (your examples were really good) And I like how you tied this with real world causes- especially the head wounds linking to Fitz. I also think that there’s an element of mystery (that perhaps fiction explores?) And yes, I love when there’s some truth behind the magic 😉
    Such an interesting and well researched piece!! And amazingly well written! 😀

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  9. I think it’s less important that a character have “realistic” hair if the fictional premise of the story caused the highlights. Rogue got her skunk stripe from mutant weirdness, not from her mother.

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        • Hm, good question – I think for science fiction works I would be more inclined to say “realism is needed” whereas for fantasy and superhero fiction I’m more of the “realism is an interesting angle to consider” opinion. But as a reader I tend to generally not be bothered by implausibility/unrealistic elements as long as the story is good, whereas I know other people whose experience of a book or movie can be totally spoiled by them.

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        • Low fantasy is a thing, I suppose. I dunno, to me it always seemed more apropos that a work of fiction live out its best traits. If it’s science fiction, you gotta have science, even if it’s not real science. If it’s fantasy, you gotta have magic. If you’re doing a superhero work, having no characters with powers just lacks sense. Do you have an example of something that was ruined for you by its lack of plausibility?

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        • Yes that makes sense – I like at least the semblance of science in sci-fi even if it’s not real science. I’m not sure if a scientific implausibility has ever totally ruined something for me… but it has made me enjoy something less. e.g. I loved the film Gravity but one crucial scene seemed so overtly implausible that it annoyed me (if you’ve seen it or aren’t worried about spoilers, it’s this one).

          All in all though I think it’s motivational implausibility that more often ruins things for me – as in, when characters do things for no reason or for an illogical reason that’s clearly just for the sake of the plot. E.g. I’ve abandoned book and series where the villains have too obviously farfetched or illogical motivations (or motivations that contradict other things in the story), or where heroes/heroines make bizarre or wilfully stupid decisions just for the sake of putting them in a dramatic situation.

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        • Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction. We try to write narratives full of “believable” characters and reasonable motives, but it seems like every time my sister-in-law goes out to a bar, she meets five characters I could never make up if I tried.

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        • It really speaks to the microcosm that our fiction has created. The way we expect things to look, sound, and act. People think silencers actually turn a gunshot into a quiet “whuff” instead of a muffled bang. Even I thought you could “cook off” a grenade to control when it goes off, until my Air Force uncle told me otherwise.

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