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Thread: Describing skin tone, etc. in fantasy

  1. #1
    Clever User Title Mara's Avatar
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    Describing skin tone, etc. in fantasy

    So, this is something I've been having an issue with for a while.

    My writing usually involves humans on other worlds. Sometimes it involves near-humans who are mostly human but have some alien heritage.

    I'm usually pretty sparse in my description of characters' physical appearances. I like to leave most of it up to the reader. On the other hand, if someone has blue hair and glowing eyes, I'd probably describe that.

    Here's my issue:

    Subconscious whitewashing is something that some elements of American media sorta promote. Basically, Caucasian is presented as the default skin tone, and quite often in movie versions of books, people of color are replaced by white actors. That's getting better, but you still have problems like _The Last Airbender_ and such. And when reading books when I was younger, I used to just automatically assume all characters were white unless stated otherwise, until I got old enough to realize how bias worked.

    Some of my novels are set on other worlds, but some involve modern Earth. Most of the ones that involve modern Earth also involve human aliens from other worlds too, though.

    So, basically, I'm having an issue. I don't want all of my Earth characters to be assumed to be white. But I don't normally describe much about characters at all, and if I point out skin color, it stands out more and I'm worried that it sounds like I'm doing that, "Look at me, I have people of color in my book, aren't I such a progressive white person!" thing.

    As for alien humans, I don't want them to all be assumed to be Caucasian-looking--they're just as varied as Earth people--but I don't want to seem obsessed with skin color or ethnicity or anything, either.

    So, yeah. It's a kinda stupid issue and awkward to ask about, because I feel like I should already know how to handle this and it's embarrassing that I don't, but I just need some advice. If it helps, I'm transgender myself but wondering whether or not I should mention that a particular character is transgender, or how much I should talk about that. Realistically, for people on modern Earth, it can have a big effect on identity, but pointing it out too much fits into media sensationalizing of trans people and could serve to further "other" us. So, this isn't just a color issue or anything.
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    You can't sit with us! missesdash's Avatar
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    It's pretty straight forward. Not being explicit is the same as not including the character at all. So if it's important to you that your characters are multiracial and your cast is diverse, you need to come right out and say it.

    And there are plenty of ways to do it that aren't overbearing and "look at me!" But if you're afraid to mention it, you'll have an all white cast, whether you want it or not.

  3. #3
    Typing from an iPhone, so excuse any typos.

    Unfortunately, you're going to have to deal with this as it varies from reader to reader what they're going to assume about your characters race even if you wack then over the head with it. Have you read the Hunger Games? There are people who vehemently protested Rue's casting in the movie because they didn't believe she was black, even if her skin color was mentioned a million times. And they got upset about Cinna being cast black (his race was unmentioned) even though the majority of castes actors are white.

    As for my own WIP's, I've had people assume that my characters are white until I said otherwise. Hell, online people think I'm a white guy until I say otherwise. People default to straight white male because that's the defiant out country presents us with. Sad, but true.

    I don't mention race unless a character isn't the race of the MC. Really, I only notice the race of a person if they're a minority within a majority, regardless of what that race might be. And I'd this doesn't even addresses your question, I'm sorry.

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    Clever User Title Mara's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by thebloodfiend View Post
    Typing from an iPhone, so excuse any typos.

    Unfortunately, you're going to have to deal with this as it varies from reader to reader what they're going to assume about your characters race even if you wack then over the head with it. Have you read the Hunger Games? There are people who vehemently protested Rue's casting in the movie because they didn't believe she was black, even if her skin color was mentioned a million times. And they got upset about Cinna being cast black (his race was unmentioned) even though the majority of castes actors are white.

    As for my own WIP's, I've had people assume that my characters are white until I said otherwise. Hell, online people think I'm a white guy until I say otherwise. People default to straight white male because that's the defiant out country presents us with. Sad, but true.

    I don't mention race unless a character isn't the race of the MC. Really, I only notice the race of a person if they're a minority within a majority, regardless of what that race might be. And I'd this doesn't even addresses your question, I'm sorry.
    Quote Originally Posted by missesdash View Post
    It's pretty straight forward. Not being explicit is the same as not including the character at all. So if it's important to you that your characters are multiracial and your cast is diverse, you need to come right out and say it.

    And there are plenty of ways to do it that aren't overbearing and "look at me!" But if you're afraid to mention it, you'll have an all white cast, whether you want it or not.

    *nods*

    I think you're both right. Explicitly stating ethnicity is what I've been doing. I was just wondering if maybe that was the wrong solution. Like, I guess I was wondering if I was the only one who used to assume everyone was a straight cisgender white male by default, and if I was overcompensating for it or something.


    The same goes for the LGBT characters, too. If I don't outright mention the character is transgender, almost everyone would likely assume she isn't. Now that I think about it, there's a real life trans woman in the news who came out as a trans woman lately (through her lawyer), but she'd pretty much said as much almost a year ago in transcripts and most people overlooked it.
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    Fantasy Smut? Yes please! Anjasa's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by missesdash View Post
    It's pretty straight forward. Not being explicit is the same as not including the character at all. So if it's important to you that your characters are multiracial and your cast is diverse, you need to come right out and say it.

    And there are plenty of ways to do it that aren't overbearing and "look at me!" But if you're afraid to mention it, you'll have an all white cast, whether you want it or not.
    I always really love your posts about this stuff because you're so direct and honest... and right.

    I think you nailed it with this comment.



  6. #6
    practical experience, FTW MysticPunk's Avatar
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    You can use other things to describe race, too. They can be cultural (what type of food the people eat, how they talk, their names and even their religion) but a more direct way is to talk about how they look in ways that aren't skin tone specific, such as the shape of their eyes, the texture, color and style of their hair, and so on. Keep working at it.

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    practical experience, FTW hlynn117's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Mara View Post
    As for alien humans, I don't want them to all be assumed to be Caucasian-looking--they're just as varied as Earth people--but I don't want to seem obsessed with skin color or ethnicity or anything, either.
    Assumed white-washing is a problem for me when I'm writing, too. I side stepped this by making my other culture naga (snake people). They are lizards, therefore, they are not white. For those of you who don't want to worry about the biological implications of writing reptiles, there are ways to make ethnicity shine through without using stereotypes as crutches. How does race affect your characters? Use that. Pick a characteristic or a choice moment to note 'hey, not-white.' If it's a main character, this is easier to do. For some side-characters, just let it slide if it's not important. Remember, you cannot control if your reader is a racist, so don't focus on making the descriptions anvilicious on every page.

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    thread stalker SuperModerator cray's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Anjasa View Post
    I always really love your posts about this stuff because you're so direct and honest... and right.

    I think you nailed it with this comment.

    agree. nice post, missesdash.

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    So Goth That I Was Born Black AW Moderator Kitty27's Avatar
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    Missesdash said it best.

    Get to the point.

    My pet peeve is when writers describe African American skin color as types of food. I always think,this person is a potential cannibal and needs to be watched.

    Just kidding.

    I slip and do it,too. I even call myself caramel!
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    I like the coffee analogies with skin color, just as a personal like How much cream in your coffee, or coffee in your cream: works for me!

    But I trust folks get aggravated about that, and I bow to their knowledge of what gets obnoxious, lol.
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    Moonshade lauralam's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by missesdash View Post
    It's pretty straight forward. Not being explicit is the same as not including the character at all. So if it's important to you that your characters are multiracial and your cast is diverse, you need to come right out and say it.

    And there are plenty of ways to do it that aren't overbearing and "look at me!" But if you're afraid to mention it, you'll have an all white cast, whether you want it or not.
    This. Evidently in Ash, author Malinda Lo envisioned all her characters as Asian, but as it was never mentioned, most people ended up envisioning her characters as white by default. I did when I read it, which is a shame, because I'd have quite liked to have read a non-white re-envisioning of Cinderella.


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    Fantasy Smut? Yes please! Anjasa's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Kitty27 View Post
    Missesdash said it best.

    Get to the point.

    My pet peeve is when writers describe African American skin color as types of food. I always think,this person is a potential cannibal and needs to be watched.

    Just kidding.

    I slip and do it,too. I even call myself caramel!
    I do this for white skin tones as well - peachy, milky, creamy...

    I think it's a good thing, honestly, just because food has such positive connotations, especially foods like caramel, chocolate, coffee, mocha, etc. They're nice words. I think that's what most people are trying to do is portray colours in affectionate tones. They're also fairly universal, and it's easier to represent shades with colours we're all familiar with.

    Plus, you know, they're sexy. Edible skin colours are so erotic. nomnomnom.



  13. #13
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    You know what I like to do sometimes? I'll go to a make-up website like Sephora and see what kind of names they use for their foundations and face powders and stuff like that. Sometimes you can find new non-food related words. I mostly end up using dark brown, brown, light brown, dark tan, tan, light tan and pale though (in that order.) I should follow my own advice and find some fancier words, lol!

    I honestly don't mind the food-words though, my favorite is caramel and honey.

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    Quote Originally Posted by lolchemist View Post
    You know what I like to do sometimes? I'll go to a make-up website like Sephora and see what kind of names they use for their foundations and face powders and stuff like that.
    Oooh, I like that idea.
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    Quote Originally Posted by Kitty27 View Post
    Missesdash said it best.

    Get to the point.

    My pet peeve is when writers describe African American skin color as types of food. I always think,this person is a potential cannibal and needs to be watched.

    Just kidding.

    I slip and do it,too. I even call myself caramel!
    I introduce my antag as caramel-complected. Sometimes things that work just work...

    It comes down to voice, really. You can be poetic and verbose about it, or you can be upfront and blunt about it. You can even allude to it and let the reader imagine the person as they'd like to.

    I think in some future novel I might describe a PoC's tone as "like a wet paper bag".

    Dibs on that. For serious.
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    The Weed Saronai's Avatar
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    You can use other things to describe race, too. They can be cultural (what type of food the people eat, how they talk, their names and even their religion) but a more direct way is to talk about how they look in ways that aren't skin tone specific, such as the shape of their eyes, the texture, color and style of their hair, and so on. Keep working at it.
    I've also heard (and believe, to an extent) that something as simple as a name choice, or the sounds in a name can lead people to picture a stereotypically matching skin colour. That's severely limiting though and may prove futile with minds that only wanna see white. I went to school with several black and white Steves but no Rashands. Stereotypically speaking, more people are going to default picture a white Steve (or maybe not thanks to Erkel?) and black Rashand (the same as they might unfairly do with resumes; provided they don't also know personal examples that lead them to other conclusions).

    I'm very picky about names though, so I tend not to rely on this tactic for the most part (though I do have a fantasy people inspired by India, but mostly a culture of my own fabrication whom I gave Indian-sounding names too, created some of their language, and then changed their names to reflect meanings in that new language, so while the main character is no longer Sharasvati, I feel that Nisnivani,
    Vishna of the Arashanti people still heavily suggests India.

    Edit to add: Steve and Rashand might be terrible examples, especially since I'm now thinking that Rashand might be from India. Perhaps a better example would be Catherine and Latisha?
    Last edited by Saronai; 05-21-2012 at 05:09 PM.

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    I have headaches about this exact problem, because race really isn't an issue at all in my WIP and it doesn't make sense for any of the characters - let alone the viewpoint character - to point it out. I do have the narrator point out people's skin tones in a fairly casual manner during descriptions, for both light and dark-skinned characters, and I'm trying to make it unambiguously clear that she's of Asian descent, mostly through her name (and her parents' names, since they're also important characters). But I'm still kind of paranoid that I haven't done enough to make it clear, especially since this isn't a story in which the MC's Asianness is really that important or ~necessary~ (ugh I'm feeling gross just putting that way), as it would be in, like a wuxia-based fantasy story or a contemporary coming-to-age story. She just happens to be Asian and chubby because why should YA heroines always be skinny white girls?
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    Quote Originally Posted by backslashbaby View Post
    I like the coffee analogies with skin color, just as a personal like How much cream in your coffee, or coffee in your cream: works for me!

    But I trust folks get aggravated about that, and I bow to their knowledge of what gets obnoxious, lol.
    I prefer to go without the food analogies and KISS it. "light brown, dark brown, etc."

    If I'm using food, I'll turn it so *everyone* gets a food label, but I think naming skin color should be appropriate to the character describing it. A chef thinks in food! A person that is a seducer, will also probably think in food.

    Also keep in mind that within families that skin color is not exactly the same--even of the same ethnicity. So be careful of blanket generalizations.)

    I also use cultural items for contrast. So for example, their skin is the color of polished rice... or a polished sea shell tells a lot about the speaker viewing the other person. I sometimes do it as a jab at racism too.

  19. #19
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    Quote Originally Posted by lolchemist View Post
    You know what I like to do sometimes? I'll go to a make-up website like Sephora and see what kind of names they use for their foundations and face powders and stuff like that. Sometimes you can find new non-food related words. I mostly end up using dark brown, brown, light brown, dark tan, tan, light tan and pale though (in that order.) I should follow my own advice and find some fancier words, lol!
    This is a really good idea. I write a lot about Ancient Egyptians, so finding interesting but not heavy-handed ways to describe skin-tone is a constant struggle. Generally I default to precious metals (it fits in with the Egyptians obsession with gold/copper etc), but that can get old.

    Anyway, in other works, I tend to mention major characteristics like skin-tone, hair color, eye-shades once when the character is first encountered by the narrator, and then ignore it unless it's important in some way to the story.
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    practical experience, FTW eatoncrow's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Bookewyrme View Post
    Anyway, in other works, I tend to mention major characteristics like skin-tone, hair color, eye-shades once when the character is first encountered by the narrator, and then ignore it unless it's important in some way to the story.
    But what about the narrator themselves, if it's not a limited-third-person or third-person omniscient? That's what's stumping me right now.

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    Quote Originally Posted by eatoncrow View Post
    But what about the narrator themselves, if it's not a limited-third-person or third-person omniscient? That's what's stumping me right now.
    Then do it by the character's PoV.

    "I thought that he was handsome--especially with the mahogany highlighting the reddish-browns of his skin."

    If they are a chef, they just might think of everyone's skin as food. Filter it through the character's POV. If they be racist or not know, then let that be known too.

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    figuring it all out Siren of Triton's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by thebloodfiend View Post
    Unfortunately, you're going to have to deal with this as it varies from reader to reader what they're going to assume about your characters race even if you wack then over the head with it. Have you read the Hunger Games? There are people who vehemently protested Rue's casting in the movie because they didn't believe she was black, even if her skin color was mentioned a million times. And they got upset about Cinna being cast black (his race was unmentioned) even though the majority of castes actors are white.
    Yeah, this is part of the problem with speculative fiction; even if you're writing about a world that is post-racial or never had the concept of "race" in the first place, so people would describe it as they would eye or hair color, the readers are coming from this world and especially with white readers, oftentimes they're used to seeing themselves in all the characters that they won't view a character as non-white unless they're whacked over the heads with it. So even if you explicitly say a character has "brown skin" they're going to think you're talking about a tan white person. Or they'll just ignore that part.

    Another example of how white people automatically whitewash characters even when there are no race indicators could be some of the flamewars that have started in the My Little Pony fandom when people do "humanized" fanart of the characters and draw them as POC. I've seen so many other white people in the fandom just automatically assume that a person drawing a particular character as non-white is "trying to be politically-correct" because, for them, they just automatically read each character as "white" if they aren't given any race indicators. They never consider that maybe some people just didn't read these characters as white.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Siren of Triton View Post
    Yeah, this is part of the problem with speculative fiction; even if you're writing about a world that is post-racial or never had the concept of "race" in the first place, so people would describe it as they would eye or hair color, the readers are coming from this world and especially with white readers, oftentimes they're used to seeing themselves in all the characters that they won't view a character as non-white unless they're whacked over the heads with it. So even if you explicitly say a character has "brown skin" they're going to think you're talking about a tan white person. Or they'll just ignore that part.

    Another example of how white people automatically whitewash characters even when there are no race indicators could be some of the flamewars that have started in the My Little Pony fandom when people do "humanized" fanart of the characters and draw them as POC. I've seen so many other white people in the fandom just automatically assume that a person drawing a particular character as non-white is "trying to be politically-correct" because, for them, they just automatically read each character as "white" if they aren't given any race indicators. They never consider that maybe some people just didn't read these characters as white.
    Not to mention the whole trouble with covers in spec fiction.

  24. #24
    Trust: that most precious coin. little_e's Avatar
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    Seems like if you're going to be a human pony, you'd be blue or purple or whatever...

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    figuring it all out Siren of Triton's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by little_e View Post
    Seems like if you're going to be a human pony, you'd be blue or purple or whatever...
    Lol yes. I think with the humanized pony fanart they are trying to make them like realistic-looking humans, so while their hair might stay wild colors since we can dye our hair crazy colors, skin is usually within the natural human spectrum.

    What's interesting is that with some of the darker-hued ponies - like Twilight Sparkle, who is purple - a lot of people read them as non-white. But people tend to get particularly fussy when characters whose colors are white (like Rarity) or pink (like Pinkie Pie) are drawn as a non-white color even though, when you think about it, it's not like "white" people are actually white. Or even perfectly pink. (Or maybe that's just me, with my extremely pale skin.)

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