Writing Characters of Color Guide
« on: February 17, 2017, 07:51:45 PM »
Writing Characters of Color
how to avoid sounding cannibalistic (and racist)

We've all been there.

Staring at a new character and wondering 'How do I describe their skin tone?'. Now most people default to using food comparisons. It's what's been widely considered 'industry standard' in writing for years. The pros in the film and book industry do it just fine. So it must be good. Right? Wrong. Using food based descriptors has also what's been considered deeply fetishistic for years but those concerns have been hand waved away as 'politically correct nonsense'. Which they most certainly are not. Using food based descriptions for non-white characters has some pretty disturbing implications rooted in colonialism and exoticism and yes in racist ideology that Others those not perceived to be 'white'.

It also has roots in the days when brown and black bodies were put on display to be consumed by a largely white audience and in this day and age it's pretty unnecessary and really really gross. And yes. Fiction and reality are supposed to be separate and in an ideal world they are but to pretend that, in this world, fiction does not influence reality and vise versa is not only disingenuous, it is downright harmful. We as writers all carry our biases into our writing whether those biases are intentional or not. There will always be biases in writing, no matter how hard we try to stamp them out, it's just being human. Being aware of those biases is the first step to overcoming them or at the very least minimizing their impact.

So you might now be wondering one of two things at this point:

  • 'Geez, how else do I describe non-white characters? I don't want to bring up colonial baggage and veer into fetishistic territory!'
or
  • 'I don't see what all the fuss is about! There's nothing wrong with saying someone has delicious mocha/chocolate/cinnamon colored skin!'

If you're of the mindset of the first person, then you're well on your way to respectfully describing non-white characters in terms that aren't creepy and vaguely reminiscent of Hannibal Lecter. If you're of the mindset of the second person, well, I'd recommend going back up and reading about the historical and real world implications of such descriptions. Also why would you want to sound like Hannibal Lecter or one of his friends? That's just not a good course in life.



Standard Descriptions

Black, Brown, Beige, White and Pink. All perfectly acceptable descriptors for a character's skin. They get the point across in the least amount of words and nearly everyone will have a frame of reference for them. Applying further modifiers such as deep, warm, rich and cool can also narrow down a character's skin tone even further. Using standard and simpler descriptions for character appearance are usually the way most writers choose to go and it is perfectly acceptable to go this route.

Examples
  • 'His skin was rich brown...'
  • 'Her skin was pale pink, painful red spots darkening her cheeks and shoulders...

In the event that you feel like writing something a bit more creative then, that is also acceptable but requires a bit more thought and attention to the character or characters in question. Simple descriptions are most effective for background characters if you feel the need to describe them.



Creative Descriptions

Creative descriptions are a great way of pinning down the exact shade and tone of a character's skin. Giving readers modifiers alongside those rarer colors is also extremely helpful in bringing a character to life with words.

Examples:
  • 'Farrah's russet-brown skin bore freckles spread like stars across her glowing cheeks...'

  • 'Her loose white dress contrasted with her creamy brown skin, and a three plated gold torque covered much of her chest and neck.' - S. J. Maas; Throne of Glass.

Describing characters of color with reference to objects is also possible with comparisons to obsidian, onyx and bronze being especially common. Comparisons and references to objects, especially metals and stones can become dehumanizing in certain contexts and as always it is best to use your discretion when writing.

Examples:
  • 'Muscles rippled as he stretched, the afternoon sun appearing to set his deep bronze skin aflame...'

  • 'Pran's face was wide, the bones pronounced beneath smooth, gold skin. His eyes were barely visible between tight lids, but what Kruppe saw of them was a startling amber in color.' - Steven Erikson; Gardens of the Moon

  • 'The commander was a short, stocky elven woman wearing the smoky blue and silver armor of the warden order. She stood no more than five feet tall but carried herself with the presence of someone much, much taller. Smooth, deep mahogany skin stretched over high cheekbones that was marred only by a sweeping scar across her cheek and another that split her lips at the corner. The warden's face was covered in tattoos, twisting arches of crimson ink that marked her as one of the dalish and her hair had been twisted up into a messy ponytail though a length of it had slipped free to fall across her face. Beneath the fall of long ink black hair, her eyes were a pale, frosty gold like winter sunlight filtered through glass.' - Description of Nyssa Mahariel, an original warden commander from Dragon Age: Origins (Owned by: Salem).

In short? Get creative! Describing characters, especially characters of color in lavish detail is a treat not often seen in most writing. But remember there is a time and place for such descriptions and it is best to figure out where they fit in your writing and also if they fit with the personality of your character. Descriptions of characters will also likely vary depending on who is doing the description. Is the character in question someone they admire or love deeply? Then the description is more likely to be more flowery and pleasant, whereas if it is a character they despise the description may well follow that trend.



Further Reading & References

The Writing with Color blog on tumblr contains a wealth of free information concerning not only character description but also information on harmful tropes. Their description guide is here for ease of reference.
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