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yttar
02-21-2012, 07:21 PM
I have a couple questions about my WIPs, so I hope this is a good place to ask them.

First, I have a character in the modern day whose father is Japanese and mother is American. Her parents met in Japan, which is where her father grew up. But sometime after meeting, they moved to America, to her mother's hometown. Now, in Japan, this character would be considered a foreigner because she has a non-Japanese parent (even if she were born there, but she wasn't).

But, having grown up in America, I'm not sure how she would describe herself. She wants to call herself American, because she is, but she still wants to acknowledge her Japanese heritage. So I don't know if it'd be best to use Japanese-American, which I've always associated with people whose family has lived in America for at least one generation, or half-Japanese, which I'm not sure if that term is an insult or not.

I guess I feel really naive and don't want to offend anyone.

---

The other question I have is about my science fiction WIP. It takes place in the far future where places like Africa, America, Asia, etc. don't exist, but my characters aren't all white. Aside from what I'm pretty sure are negative terms, like Caucasoid, Negroid, and Mongoloid, I'm not sure how to describe their skin tones and facial features, etc.

I originally used Caucasoid, Negroid, and Mongoloid as a sort of short-hand, but I don't want to offend readers. So I've tried to describe skin tones but I'm not sure how clear I'm being.

Here's an example from my WIP.


No, the twenty-year-old in the mirror staring back at me wasn't me. Her brown eyes weren't my black ones. Her shoulder-length brown hair that curled around my ears wasn't my long red hair with its natural black highlights. Her bronze skin was a shade darker than my almond skin. Everything about Sombra Alara was an illusion, except for the clothes. But then, I was used to looking like anyone but myself that it didn't bother me anymore.

I guess the real question is, should I bother with short-hand or just go for the character's actual description? And, if so, how do I avoid making food-related comparisons? (Ex. a lot of books I've read that have a black/African American character give them coffee related skin tones. Or my own almond example above.)

Thanks for your help.

Yttar

FoamyRules
02-22-2012, 06:44 AM
With your first WIP it depends. Is your character's mother, white, black, native, etc. or is she of Asian descent? It all depends on your character in how she describes her heritages she could use the term biracial (if that's the case) or Japanese American could do (if the American mother is of Japanese descent herself).

In the second WIP I think you should describe their features. That way the reader can get a better idea of how your characters look and form their own opinions in regards to the races of the characters, but it wouldn't hurt to use short hand words either just stay away from Caucasoid, Negroid, Mongoloid, and things like that.

yttar
02-28-2012, 05:52 PM
Thanks for your help.

Yttar

Tyrannosaurus Rex
03-05-2012, 08:27 AM
I would have no hangups about describing characters' racial characteristics if there wasn't a general trend in recent writing to cut down on description and adjectives. I really want to describe what my characters look like, but I worry that people will ask me to cut those descriptions out for the sake of concision.

Here's my question: if everyone in a given setting has a certain complexion (let's say mahogany brown), then how would you describe that in third person limited PoV? My concern is that if I describe one character as having that complexion, people will think that one character is somehow unusual for the setting.

Snitchcat
03-05-2012, 04:54 PM
For both WIPs, the question I'd be asking is: as the POV character, what would they notice first? If it's complexion, then imo user the vocabulary they would. E.g., if they say 'reminds me of a healing bruise' or ' cream-gold silk', then that's how they see their world.

Hope this helps a little. Have fun and good luck. :)

veinglory
03-05-2012, 07:42 PM
It is glaring to me when every PoC is described by exact shade (esp with reference to milk and coffee), facial feature dimensions, fractions of inheritance and cultural identification, but not white characters. Or is the assumption that all white people look the same and are devoid of culture and heritage? Even great writers do this and it suggests either that the white homogenous default needs not description or that ethnicity is being subtly fetishized.

If the level of detail is roughly equivalent between characters then it is just the writers style and method for descriptions and doesn't bother me.

areteus
03-05-2012, 08:16 PM
I agree with Veinglory here... if describing one you should be describing all...

Also, in addition to the PoV issue (what do they first notice?) I doubt that there are many other than an academic or police profiler who would use terms like those (and they would likely never use the terms like mongloid which are offensive and more often these days refer to Downs Syndrome than a racial characteristis) to describe someone. Think about it, when was the last time you looked at someone and thought the word 'caucasian'? You'd say white. Keep those terms in the police vocabulary and use more prosaic terms for your characters.

You could always make a reference point for your sci fi characters. A cultural origin for people with that skin colour. Then you can say 'the dark skin of a Oligavarian' the first time they appear and then refer to the culture name once the colour is associated with it.

As for cuttting down description, not sure if this is an overall trend. Some styles of writing support it, others don't and I would never cut out description I feel necessary because an editor may ask me to remove it. Better to put it in, get it beta read and review it critically yourself and maybe remove it if you think it superfluous. It is easier to overwrite then remove stuff than it is to add new material in.

A lot of the reasons for cutting down descriptions are there to allow the reader to fill in the gaps and get a more vivid image of the character. However, if you take this too far (no description) then they have nothing to work from so they don't get an image at all and the character becomes lifeless. The trick is to give little hints from which the reader can build a picture rather than spend blocks of text minutely detailing every feature.

Cyia
03-06-2012, 02:23 AM
If you want to avoid food comparisons, then simply do it. Find something else the MC is familiar with and use that.

(And for hair, "black" isn't a highlight; it's a lowlight.)

Polenth
03-06-2012, 04:01 AM
Here's my question: if everyone in a given setting has a certain complexion (let's say mahogany brown), then how would you describe that in third person limited PoV? My concern is that if I describe one character as having that complexion, people will think that one character is somehow unusual for the setting.

They won't all look identical. Some people will be unusually pale or dark. And that's a hook for describing it, because you describe the unusual person in comparison to the average people.

Emermouse
08-03-2012, 08:52 AM
Sorry to bring back an old thread but a recent thread on how much detail you need to put into character descriptions got me wondering how to describe ethnic characters, so I thought I'd see what advice you could give me.

Y'see, I've always favored broad descriptions. Most of the time, I write in third-person limited and I've always had trouble describing what people look like, period. I always found scenes where the protagonist reflects on their blue eyes or brown hair clumsy and awkward because who thinks about something that's there every day. I've got brown hair and hazel eyes, but unless I take a glance in a mirror, I rarely give any passing thought to my eyes or hair because I've had hair and eyes that color forever. Now, if I woke up and suddenly everything was purple, then I might notice something. But barring that, no. Besides, I don't really care what color the protagonist's hair is: I want to know about them as a person. What makes them laugh? What makes them cry? Telling me stuff like that gives me so much more of a picture of a character than any mirror scene could ever hope to accomplish.

The trouble is, whether you like it or not, unless you explicitly say otherwise, most people's default race is white and I find myself wondering how to convey my character's race without being overbearing (just look at how the Babysitters' Club books talked about Jessi being black constantly) or exoticizing the character. I know not to compare someone's skin color to any kind of food (though I hope I didn't break that rule in describing a character as having "honey-brown skin"), but is there a way to convey race without falling into the pitfalls that so many others have fallen into?

Jericho McKraven
08-03-2012, 09:01 AM
To me, when I am reading, and the book points out that a person has raven hair and green eyes contrasted against pallid skin, it brings up a very clear mental image... It's just good imagery, it doesn't make or break a book though.

Rachel Udin
08-03-2012, 07:37 PM
There is also cultural heritage that makes a character tick.

I'll bring in examples I can think of.

NK Jemisin. She mentions the character's own skin color about 3-4 times throughout the entire book? I think... but what she builds is her character's cultures.

Read that book.

And then Michelle West never mentions her character's skin colors, except for one... I think. It does help to have a blatant PoC on the cover, but the mention of the clothing, environment, and other cues also helps a lot too.

Taking that, for mine, I think I mentioned skin color of any character only twice because if you can't get the fact that the character is Indian after I mention Chapati, daal, sari, utariya, antariya, Rama, Sita, Naan, mangoes, bangles, mahogany, Prakrit, Sanskrit, and a host of Indo-European names--I can't help you. You clearly have no clue in the world and I'm not going to hand hold for you either.

On the other country, I don't mention skin color, but I think after mentioning pickled cabbage in onggi jars, you know it's not Poland. Mudang, paksu, mugunghwa, doenjang, laver, short grain rice, garlic, ginger, and clearly names that aren't Japanese or Chinese... with some visual geography cues... like Green mountains, and you know which country in East Asia it has to be. (Plus I make it easier by mentioning that The wa and Zhongguo are *other* countries)

So, you are in the US--so what. You have other tipping points, such as surname, given name, holidays celebrated, what kind of church they go to, mentioning languages for the second generation to learn, or languages they wish they had learned. There are customary foods. And if you're really low on the list there are racial slurs.

You can integrate it without looking like it's a sore thumb. Physical features alone go only so far, just like with your white characters not proud to be say, Jewish, Russian, Italian, British or what-have-you. If you character doesn't want to participate in their traditional culture, like you Japanese character likes French food for some random reason, you can mention that in passing.

Also, I would have a tip to look at the variety in the PoC population, or even use a face to model it after. Not all the characters, but one. Look for the range. So for example, the stereotype is that all Japanese are short. But Abe Hiroshi (Japanese actor) is 189 cm. It's fair game to base physical features on him. Nishikido Ryo, in contrast, has a darker skin tone and thinner eyes as well as 169cm... which is about average height.

Use culture. It's a shortcut. For those who are writing outside of that... say like a book like Dune, environment, and cultural *elements* (done well) can help. Study Michelle West and NK Jemisin for that.

'cause really, there is a limit to how much you can help the reader. If you character is running around a Tanabata Festival in Tokyo, wearing a yukata, obi and geta, you really can't help that reader if they think your character looks white. I'd give up on them at that point. And notice I didn't mention skin color at all to conjure that image. But you got the fact the character is most likely Japanese.

zahra
08-04-2012, 01:38 AM
Sorry to bring back an old thread but a recent thread on how much detail you need to put into character descriptions got me wondering how to describe ethnic characters, so I thought I'd see what advice you could give me.

Y'see, I've always favored broad descriptions. Most of the time, I write in third-person limited and I've always had trouble describing what people look like, period. I always found scenes where the protagonist reflects on their blue eyes or brown hair clumsy and awkward because who thinks about something that's there every day. I've got brown hair and hazel eyes, but unless I take a glance in a mirror, I rarely give any passing thought to my eyes or hair because I've had hair and eyes that color forever. Now, if I woke up and suddenly everything was purple, then I might notice something. But barring that, no. Besides, I don't really care what color the protagonist's hair is: I want to know about them as a person. What makes them laugh? What makes them cry? Telling me stuff like that gives me so much more of a picture of a character than any mirror scene could ever hope to accomplish.

The trouble is, whether you like it or not, unless you explicitly say otherwise, most people's default race is white and I find myself wondering how to convey my character's race without being overbearing (just look at how the Babysitters' Club books talked about Jessi being black constantly) or exoticizing the character. I know not to compare someone's skin color to any kind of food (though I hope I didn't break that rule in describing a character as having "honey-brown skin"), but is there a way to convey race without falling into the pitfalls that so many others have fallen into?

Let it come naturally. I describe my character, Nadine, in 'Freets', in my MC's thoughts, as 'black, beautiful, groomed to a shine', when MC is thinking of how they (her travelling group) look to some people they've just met. That's a very introductory ploy because there are four of them and I need to get them set pretty quickly as I don't want the readers to be going, "Eh? Who? Which one was he, again?" too much. I don't mention the exact tone of Nadine's skin but I do mention later that both her parents were kids of immigrants, so - if you're thinking about it particularly - you might presume both parents to be black. I caution white writers against feeling the need to describe skin tone as a way of making sure their readers are not imagining someone TOO black, ie of monoracial heritage (as far as one can ever be, of course) rather than good old un-scary, seen-as-more-beautiful mixed-with-white. As I mentioned in another thread, I am noticing that the sexy/sympathetic/emotionally-engaging/whatever POC is always 'caramel' rather than 'liquorice' and that rather stinks, IMHO.

In 'Watch All Night', I have my MC looking at the photo of the Hindu wedding of his friend Dil (could have called him Dilip right off, but can't see someone like my MC not abbreviating it) and Mina. My MC also muses on his ex, Clea, thinking about her coldness to him and how her eyes and skin, which made him think of African sun, had always been warm. (Naturally, anyone with sense knows it can't have been only her skin making him think of African sun; you don't think of a.s. every time you see a black person, but then he's in love, bless him). Later she talks about her Dad leaving her Mum to go back to St Kitt's. Again, really not feeling the need to give readers an exact shade of black to apply to her.

Can I be a wee bit harsh here and say that 'honey-brown skin' doesn't sit well with me? It IS using food as a metaphor and it is also kind of overdone. Sorry. Hope this helps.

aruna
08-04-2012, 09:58 AM
I know not to compare someone's skin color to any kind of food (though I hope I didn't break that rule in describing a character as having "honey-brown skin"), but is there a way to convey race without falling into the pitfalls that so many others have fallen into?


I'm going to go out on a limb here and declare that I will and do use the term "sapodilla-brown" for some of my characters. Sapodilla is a much-loved fruit in Guyana. Sapodilla-brown is the way WE describe each other and it is a compliment - it's a beautiful rich brown colour. I know that many Western readers won't know what it is or what it looks like; that they'll have to look it up. But I do need to at least pretend I'm writing for Guyanese, and we do know what it is. Others can guess form the context. I don't believe in hard and fast rules. I can't just insert into my head "I can't use sapodilla because it's a fruit and African-Americans would be offended". I do think there's room for flexibility here -- we are black too; why can't we use our own terms!

I can't use mahogany. We don't have mahogany in Guyana. The tropical woods we use are greenheart and purpleheart, and their colours would be, as you can guess, rather inappropriate for decribing dark skin!

Cyia
08-04-2012, 03:17 PM
I know that many Western readers won't know what it is or what it looks like; that they'll have to look it up.

I think most might read the word the way I did the first time, which is "sopapilla." (Another food, but a pastry rather than a piece of fruit.) It was only when you said "sapodilla" was a fruit that I went back to see what I'd actually read.

(Also, purpleheart wood is gorgeous. I once saw a trunk made from it, and was surprised that the color was natural. I had no idea it came from Guyana.)

aruna
08-04-2012, 04:06 PM
Greenheart is beautiful too! Unfortunately, both are unsuited to describing skin colour -- though purpleheart does turn a beautiful brown with age, it usually is purple.

zahra
08-04-2012, 06:24 PM
Greenheart is beautiful too! Unfortunately, both are unsuited to describing skin colour -- though purpleheart does turn a beautiful brown with age, it usually is purple.
Sapodilla might be more original but, as you rightly surmise, I have no idea what colour it is. :) I don't really like having to stop and look things up when I'm reading, but I guess that attitude might have a lot to do with writers using cliche descriptions, so mea culpa.

aruna
08-04-2012, 08:35 PM
Here you go! :)
http://www.tropicalfruitnursery.com/sapodilla/images/Alano-Sapodilla.jpg
I think it's important to use local terms even if it makes a bit more work for the standard
readership.