Authors often use characters' physical descriptions to mirror their personality traits, and Golding's descriptions of his characters in Lord of the Flies is no exception. Golding is consistent in his descriptions of Ralph throughout the novel (he is often referred to as the boy with the "fair hair," a term that underscores Ralph's desire to be "fair" and reasonable), and through this characterization, Golding establishes Ralph as a boy who desperately craves order and structure.
As the elected leader of the boys on the island, it is important for Ralph to maintain order and make sure rules are established and followed. In Chapter 3, Ralph's physical description gives readers insight into his need for order:
Sitting, Ralph was aware of the heat for the first time that day. He pulled distastefully at his grey shirt and wondered whether he might undertake the adventure of washing it. Sitting under what seemed an unusual heat, even for this island, Ralph planned his toilet. He would like to have a pair of scissors and cut his hair--he flung the mass back--cut his filthy hair right back to half an inch. He would like to have a bath, a proper wallow with soap. He passed his tongue experimentally over his teeth and decided that a toothbrush would come in handy too. Then there were his nails--
Similarly, in Chapter 5, Ralph walks along the shore contemplating the upcoming meeting and deciding how to make certain that order isn't lost. Ralph firmly decides that the meeting mustn't be fun--that it must be "business":
At that he walked faster, aware all at once of urgency and the declining sun and a little wind created by his speed that breathed about his face. This wind pressed his grey shirt against his chest so that he noticed--in his new mood of comprehension--how the folds were stiff like cardboard, and unpleasant; noticed too how the frayed edges of his shorts were making an uncomfortable, pink are on the front of his thighs. With a convulsion of the mind, Ralph discovered dirt and decay, understood how much he disliked perpetually flicking the tangled hair out of his eyes, and at last, when the sun was gone, rolling noisily to rest among dry leaves. At that he began to trot.
Again, these descriptions are significant because they help to establish Ralph as a fair, reasonable leader who values order and structure. He insists that the boys follow rules and never loses sight of the fact that the boys must all work together in order to have any hope of being rescued. It's also important to realize that Ralph is in constant conflict with Jack (who purposely paints his face to appear more savage and to transform himself into a hunter), and that this power struggle, too, has a large role in shaping Ralph as a character.
In chapter one of Lord of the Flies, there is a physical description of Ralph. The author begins by calling Ralph fair with fair hair. Another description states that Ralph is about twelve years old. He has lost his childhood tummy. He has an athletic build with wide shoulders. He has a "mildness about his mouth and eyes that proclaimed no devil." This indicates a positive attitude which is needed to lead well.
Later in chapter one, additional details are added to Ralph's appearance and characteristics. He is described as having a "stillness" about him and "there was his size, and attractive appearance...." This calmness will help Ralph lead.
Clearly, Ralph has the physical appearance of being strong and athletic:
You could see now that he might make a boxer, as far as width and heaviness of shoulders went..."
Golding seems to think that Ralph would make a good leader. In fact, he writes that "only Ralph seems remotely suited for his position." Immediately after being elected, Ralph assigns Jack to the leadership of the choir. In this way, Jack will not take the election loss so seriously:
[Ralph] understates Jack’s election defeat with an appointment to leader of the hunters.... In this manner, Golding highlights Ralph’s inherent leadership ability.
Ralph seems to be born to lead. He exhibits caring qualities about the boys by providing shelters. He proves his determination for all of them being rescued by his insistence on keeping the fire going. Ralph is balanced in his leadership although he may not fully understand why:
Ralph understands leadership naturally, but is unable to perceive why. He does not, for instance, know why they should take names, but he knows they should. He does not know why he should not apologize to Piggy for the name incident, but he knows he should placate him. Like a true leader, Ralph naturally and instinctively maintains both a closeness to and distance from his subordinates.
These traits make him a good leader.
By the end of the novel, Ralph shows a side that has been burdened with responsibility of leadership. He has carried the weight on his shoulders. When he runs into the naval officer, he breaks down and sobs:
Ralph wept for the end of innocence, the darkness of man's heart, and the fall through the air of the true, wise friend called Piggy.