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WritingIsHard
09-06-2012, 10:39 AM
I've been puzzling it out for a while now, but didn't come to an answer. My book is set in a diverse city (currently torn between Chicago and Baltimore, just to give you an idea), so in my mind a lot of the characters are not-white.

I'm pretty confident with my ability to work in the descriptions of the main cast, that won't be a big problem. But I realize that a lot of my bit players (some of the characters' colleagues, people on the street/in the bar the cast frequents/among the supernatural folk they meet) will be non-white too, and this is where I'm hitting a wall. I'm not really a "write a paragraph for every minor character that comes on stage" sort of writer, so it means a sentence at best for description, sometimes just one or two words. I don't want to reference race directly every time (if I choose Baltimore 63% of people in the city will be black, and that's enough times describing someone as "black" to feel repetitive), yet if I don't it will be assumed the characters are white.

How do you solve this dilemma?

meowzbark
09-06-2012, 10:49 AM
I've been puzzling it out for a while now, but didn't come to an answer. My book is set in a diverse city (currently torn between Chicago and Baltimore, just to give you an idea), so in my mind a lot of the characters are not-white.

I'm pretty confident with my ability to work in the descriptions of the main cast, that won't be a big problem. But I realize that a lot of my bit players (some of the characters' colleagues, people on the street/in the bar the cast frequents/among the supernatural folk they meet) will be non-white too, and this is where I'm hitting a wall. I'm not really a "write a paragraph for every minor character that comes on stage" sort of writer, so it means a sentence at best for description, sometimes just one or two words. I don't want to reference race directly every time (if I choose Baltimore 63% of people in the city will be black, and that's enough times describing someone as "black" to feel repetitive), yet if I don't it will be assumed the characters are white.

How do you solve this dilemma?

IMO, does it really matter what race the minor characters are (particularly if they only show up once)? If it doesn't, keep the descriptions vague. If it does, then mention it.

fireluxlou
09-06-2012, 10:53 AM
IMO, does it really matter what race the minor characters are (particularly if they only show up once)? If it doesn't, keep the descriptions vague. If it does, then mention it.

Yes it does, because readers will assume white because it's the default.

kuwisdelu
09-06-2012, 11:09 AM
Yes it does, because readers will assume white because it's the default.

On the other hand, does that really matter if the character's race really doesn't matter?

If the character is minor enough to only merit a word or two of description and his race of no major consequence, I'm not convinced many readers assuming the guy is white when in the author's head he's black or grey or reptilian really matters.

Seems to me if the character is important enough that you'd be upset people imagined his or her race wrong, then the character is important enough to describe enough to establish his or her race.

But then, I'm the kind of writer who tends not to have minor characters. (At all.) So I'll admit handling minor characters is not an area of strength for me.

WritingIsHard
09-06-2012, 11:15 AM
Let us assume that it is important for me to make sure that the city I'm portraying is not white-washed, for whatever reason you choose to attribute to me. Let us also assume that spare descriptions are my style, not the indication of the importance of the characters.

All that in mind, any advice on indicating non-whiteness in just a few words without going "well, they're blasting rap music and wear their pants funny"?

kuwisdelu
09-06-2012, 11:24 AM
Let us assume that it is important for me to make sure that the city I'm portraying is not white-washed, for whatever reason you choose to attribute to me.

Well, I'd say the white-washing would be on the reader in that case, which isn't really your fault. Or responsibility, IMO.


Let us also assume that spare descriptions are my style, not the indication of the importance of the characters.

I'd assumed you called them "bit players" for a reason.

By the way, if describing someone as "black" is getting repetitive, isn't also getting repetitive when you describe someone as "white"?

If the race is actually important in some way, identify what that reason is, and incorporate that reason into your brief description.


All that in mind, any advice on indicating non-whiteness in just a few words without going "well, they're blasting rap music and wear their pants funny"?

That describes a great deal of unfortunate white boys.

WritingIsHard
09-06-2012, 11:51 AM
Well, I'd say the white-washing would be on the reader in that case, which isn't really your fault. Or responsibility, IMO.We disagree on that, then.


I'd assumed you called them "bit players" for a reasonIt doesn't mean it's not important to get them right. You don't "do" minor characters - I do. And it's important for me that the reader knows that my character's boss is black even though we see him only in passing. It might not have been important for you, but for me it is. You might not agree with me, but then the beauty of the forums is that we can all have differing opinions without trying to impose them on each other, right?


By the way, if describing someone as "black" is getting repetitive, isn't also getting repetitive when you describe someone as "white"?
Well, first, white folks are in the minority in both of my chosen cities, so it won't be that often. Second, no matter how you describe 'white' it's going to be awkward because it's not the current literary convention. Third, describing people of color in relation to their race and describing white people in relation to their race are different enough in their implications that I'm more worried about the PoC portrayal and not about that other thing.

Anninyn
09-06-2012, 12:40 PM
I get the problem. I, too, have a few minor characters who are just above background (I don't tend to describe background characters) and not quite important enough to get full characterisation treatment.

I've always tended to describe someone by their most prominent, noticeable feature, because it makes for quick, effective description (the sharp-faced redhead, the greasy-haired man).

If your culture is minority white, you could do what a couple of writers have done (Neil Gaiman in Anansi Boys, Ben Aaranovitch in Rivers of London) and ony describe the white characters in terms of skin colour, as they're the unusual ones? A couple of references to the make up of the city - that it's primarily full of Grenarians, and a few detailed descriptions of Grenarian main characters - should lodge the idea in most readers heads. It may not be current literary convention, but hang literary convention. Write it in the most effective way.

As for the really dedicated default-white people, you can't do anything about them. These are the people who complained about characters in the Hunger Games film being played by black actors when the characters in the book were specifically described as black, so you can mentally remove those people to the'racist' box and lock them in.

fadeaccompli
09-06-2012, 08:36 PM
How do you solve this dilemma?

I can see a lot of ways to go about this.

1) Mention explicitly when bit characters are white, as a casual one-word aspect of their brief description. Don't mention otherwise. Some people won't pick up on this, but some people will.

2) Always mention race, or at least hint at it, within the description of any character given any real physical description. Say, anyone who comes up for long enough to have their gender specified. Tricky to do, and it might feel overdone, but it gets the flavor of the environment across.

3) Mention race for at least half of the bit characters, for both white and non-white ones. You get to imply that the percentages continue about that way for people not so described, without wedging it into every single description. Downside: some people will still assume that only the people called out as non-white are non-white, and read everyone else as white unless they fit certain stereotypes.

Your writing style and how many characters you have floating around--and how fast they need to be introduced--is going to affect which of these works best, or some other route entirely. But any of these three will probably get closer to what you want in this story than just not worrying about it at all.

(I sympathize, in that my current novel contains exactly one white character, and one person of mixed race who could arguably be read as white. Both of which are specified as unusual. Nonetheless, a lot of my readers managed to assume that every single person in the story was white, including a character whose first appearance includes a paragraph on the social importance of her dark skin.)

tamara
09-06-2012, 08:58 PM
Interesting problem. I like Anninyn's suggestion above to turn the convention on its head: to call out only whiteness. That would paint a subtle picture for the reader of the world in which your story takes place. Otherwise, you could keep it to the specific characters' physical descriptions (which while not using stereotypes, would clue readers in).

I like this so much, I may steal it for my work. :)

My novel has an MC and a supporting character who are African American. I've described them only by physical appearance because the fluid nature of race is one of the themes of the book. In dialogue, however, I'm using historically accurate language for the two time periods I'm working in (negro, Negro, colored, mulatto, black, African American, biracial, etc.).

EDIT: Just saw this post on this topic. http://absolutewrite.com/forums/showthread.php?t=253942

kuwisdelu
09-06-2012, 09:58 PM
Well, first, white folks are in the minority in both of my chosen cities, so it won't be that often. Second, no matter how you describe 'white' it's going to be awkward because it's not the current literary convention. Third, describing people of color in relation to their race and describing white people in relation to their race are different enough in their implications that I'm more worried about the PoC portrayal and not about that other thing.

If whites are the minority, then I agree with the others. Don't worry about current literary convention. Call out the whiteness to imply everyone else's PoC-ness.

WritingIsHard
09-06-2012, 10:43 PM
If your culture is minority white, you could do what a couple of writers have done (Neil Gaiman in Anansi Boys, Ben Aaranovitch in Rivers of London) and ony describe the white characters in terms of skin colour, as they're the unusual ones?I think Ben Aaronovitch was one of my favorite authors this year (only discovered him this year), and all in all a reference guide to how to write race with cultural signifiers... I think I need to reread Anansi Boys because I don't remember how Gaiman did it; I just remember knowing nothing about race in US at all and happily imagining everyone in it as Latino for some reason...


Call out the whiteness to imply everyone else's PoC-ness.
Calling out only whiteness would make things easier, but the thing is my PoV character is white. (and Polish for some reason... imperialist Russian guilt?) So I think she'd be aware of race, one way or the other. Or am I wrong? Ah, the agony of trying to portray a realistic city...


3) Mention race for at least half of the bit characters, for both white and non-white ones. You get to imply that the percentages continue about that way for people not so described, without wedging it into every single description. Downside: some people will still assume that only the people called out as non-white are non-white, and read everyone else as white unless they fit certain stereotypes.I think I'll settle down on something like this if the cast becomes really unbearably big and I can't mention it for all of them gracefully.

I guess there are no hard and fast answers when it comes to art, huh? Go figure...:rolleyes

Rachel Udin
09-07-2012, 06:20 AM
If America's culture is a stew, where the broth of the stew is mostly dominated by white culture, you can turn this around. (And no, not reverse racism or cultural appropriation) However, to get this to work you need some basic cultural knowledge of dos and don't. This can be subtle in such that you know the dominant class is not white. You can look at Hawaii for this, where the majority are actually of color, and the culture reflects this in many ways (or so the report I got goes). However, if you aren't PoC, or have enough academic background, it might be difficult to pull off. (It would be easier than reverse racism, though)

You also might want to consider how actual cities are laid out. Actual cities *are* distrcted, sometimes even by racial barriers. I know Boston, NYC, Los Angeles, San Fran, Seattle and I believe Toronto, Vancouver, Seoul (Has a white town), etc also are districted by race/ ethnicity. You can lean on this without making a big deal of it. (Big Deal would be say, Gang violence. Little deal is that he would go into Little Italy, Chinatown, (or whatever your divisions are called) by say, public transportation. If you're doing Urban fantasy, you can furthere emphasize this by naming the burrows and associating a general population with it. Such as Brooklyn has a high African American population. (Compton in LA, though there are less run down parts of the city also semi-designated this way too). I wouldn't put it as strict segregation, but I would view it as a way to quickly build the culture and background of minor characters. Neighborhoods do change allegiances to different ethnicities over time.

It would at least be realistic.

Kitty Pryde
09-07-2012, 06:40 AM
If America's culture is a stew, where the broth of the stew is mostly dominated by white culture, you can turn this around. (And no, not reverse racism or cultural appropriation) However, to get this to work you need some basic cultural knowledge of dos and don't. This can be subtle in such that you know the dominant class is not white. You can look at Hawaii for this, where the majority are actually of color, and the culture reflects this in many ways (or so the report I got goes). However, if you aren't PoC, or have enough academic background, it might be difficult to pull off. (It would be easier than reverse racism, though)

You also might want to consider how actual cities are laid out. Actual cities *are* distrcted, sometimes even by racial barriers. I know Boston, NYC, Los Angeles, San Fran, Seattle and I believe Toronto, Vancouver, Seoul (Has a white town), etc also are districted by race/ ethnicity. You can lean on this without making a big deal of it. (Big Deal would be say, Gang violence. Little deal is that he would go into Little Italy, Chinatown, (or whatever your divisions are called) by say, public transportation. If you're doing Urban fantasy, you can furthere emphasize this by naming the burrows and associating a general population with it. Such as Brooklyn has a high African American population. (Compton in LA, though there are less run down parts of the city also semi-designated this way too). I wouldn't put it as strict segregation, but I would view it as a way to quickly build the culture and background of minor characters. Neighborhoods do change allegiances to different ethnicities over time.

It would at least be realistic.

Just have to point out, the largest demographic group in Brooklyn is White, and Compton has a majority Latino population (over 50%). Even neighborhoods designated by name (Thai Town, Little Armenia, Koreatown, Little Tokyo, Chinatown, little Ethiopia in LA for instance) might have other groups as a majority.

One place where AA are actually the vast majority in LA is Baldwin Hills, and it's fairly posh there. Leimert Park is another, which is a much lower income neighborhood.

Polenth
09-07-2012, 07:52 AM
You can often imply race through descriptions of things like hair, makeup and other appearance choices. For example, if I say someone has their hair in a puff, they're probably black. Gold makeup complements someone's dark skin, so they're probably black (in this setting). The sort of blond that doesn't come from a bottle, they're probably white. Red with sunburn, probably white. I don't have to directly state it in any of these cases - just provide the descriptive bit.

Sometimes you won't have anything easy like that to say, but those are the times when you can fall back on, "He was a black man with neon pink hair." It won't sound too repetitive, as you'll have mixed it up a bit by then.

WritingIsHard
09-07-2012, 11:31 AM
Rachel Udin, I don't remember ever mentioning reverse racism, and I don't intend to start anytime soon ;) I do have an academic background, and I'm trying to read a lot about race now that I'm working in a USian setting, so hopefully I won't mess it up too badly.

It's not like I want to go and write the next Great Black American Novel >_> I just want to write a racially diverse city as a racially diverse city, not some weird version of Chicago where everyone is white except one Latina woman.

Thanks for pointing out the neighborhood thing. I'm trying not to go there too hard because I don't want it to be "and then they went to the BLACK neighborhood and there were BLACK people", but maybe moderation and all that :)

Kitty Pryde, wikipedia and local betas are my go-to things in these cases. But once when the demographic data didn't line up with perception I got a "sure feels black enough" sentiment, and well, that was... illuminating.

Polenth, hmmm, gold make-up? Would never have thought. Thank you for that one :)

kuwisdelu
09-07-2012, 07:21 PM
Calling out only whiteness would make things easier, but the thing is my PoV character is white. (and Polish for some reason... imperialist Russian guilt?)

IME, if you're us to being a majority group and suddenly minority, you're pretty super aware of it. If she's lived there her whole life, she might be less so, but it could still easily be realistic for her to notice, I think.

WritingIsHard
09-07-2012, 07:45 PM
IME, if you're us to being a majority group and suddenly minority, you're pretty super aware of it. If she's lived there her whole life, she might be less so, but it could still easily be realistic for her to notice, I think.

I mean it would be strange for her to notice whiteness but not notice blackness/asianness/hispanicness. So I'll have to call out all the races, not just white people. Or am I wrong? I really have no idea about this because I'm pretty squarely in the racial majority where I live, not to mention Russian race relations are very different.

kuwisdelu
09-07-2012, 09:26 PM
I mean it would be strange for her to notice whiteness but not notice blackness/asianness/hispanicness. So I'll have to call out all the races, not just white people. Or am I wrong? I really have no idea about this because I'm pretty squarely in the racial majority where I live, not to mention Russian race relations are very different.

I'm probably not the greatest person to ask this, since I'm Native American, and it isn't uncommon for our conversations to start "oh, what tribe are you?" So I often notice race and culture, and I'm always interested in how people identify.

patskywriter
09-07-2012, 11:25 PM
I know nothing about Baltimore but I did grow up in Chicago. Although it's a diverse city, please don't overlook the "neighborhood" concept and have the characters skipping through all the different communities all willy-nilly, LOL. There are a few integrated neighborhoods, but for the most part, each community has its own cultural distinction. Even if you're writing a fantasy, acknowledging these points would be appreciated by those who know the city.

The various ethnic groups are very aware of each other, even if they don't interact. No matter who your characters are, they're going to take notice of anyone who's different.

Polenth
09-08-2012, 04:15 AM
I mean it would be strange for her to notice whiteness but not notice blackness/asianness/hispanicness. So I'll have to call out all the races, not just white people. Or am I wrong? I really have no idea about this because I'm pretty squarely in the racial majority where I live, not to mention Russian race relations are very different.

In your case, I think it's likely she'd notice everyone's race. Noticing only white people works in a case where almost everyone isn't, but the area you're talking about isn't that skewed.

You probably won't literally describe everyone, as some minor characters are so minor it'd cut into the flow. But I do think it'd be sensible to describe enough of them to make it clear how the area breaks down.