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oldseafarer
02-28-2013, 11:47 AM
So often times when I am writing a physical description for a character, I get stumped. And I suppose this is for all races, not just people of color. But I have been exposed to way more descriptions of white people to draw on (alas).

Do you have suggestions? Like, I have a Chinese character named Megan. Or, a Syrian character named Riad. Plus other scattered across other stories. I read the post about describing skin tone (which was very helpful!)

I really don't want to be offensive and I don't want to hit my reader over the stick with their race. It is more important to me that the reader has some idea of what the character looks like, as an individual.

Does this make sense?

slhuang
02-28-2013, 06:58 PM
Is your story real life or a fantasy world? If you're in, say, modern-day America, describing a character as African-American or Asian-American (or something equivalent, like mentioning a character's Chinese parents or saying she's a self-described ABC) is probably enough of a racial marker, and then you can add other descriptive markers such as height, build, hair style, facial hair, whatever's relevant. Readers probably don't want you to describe every bit of everything anyway. ;)

For what it's worth, I also use "white" or "Caucasian" as a descriptive marker. Partly because it's my way of saying, as the author, that it shouldn't be the default assumption, and partly because my POV character isn't white so she would be more prone to notice it just as much as she'd notice any other race.

If you're in a fantasy world, and you want to map certain peoples in your fantasy to races in our world, it can be harder. Try to describe factually without fetishizing (this goes for real world characters as well!).

Some words to AVOID:

* Do NOT describe Black skin tone by comparing it to food. No chocolate, coffee, caramel, *whatever.*
* Do NOT describe Asian people as having almond-shaped eyes or being "exotic" looking. In fact, do not apply the word "exotic" to a person or culture, ever.

These are tropes that are problematic for a variety of reasons, not least of which because they are so overused by white writers.

In both the real world and (depending on your worldbuilding) in fantasy worlds, race can also inform plot and character throughout the story. Your characters might occasionally mention something about their cultures, face prejudice (either overt or institutional), employ humor regarding their own races/cultures, or any number of other things -- being a POC usually informs people's daily lives in some way, which may help you to reinforce your description.

Rachel Udin
02-28-2013, 09:07 PM
Eyes for Asians, within the community: People will talk about having a single or a double lid a lot. (There is a surgery to get a double lid.) That'll guard against the epicanthic fold.

If it's happening on Earth, I would put more emphasis on CULTURE than looks. Culture will give the biggest tip offs. Don't focus solely on the physical appearance.

If on another world, I'd still use bits of culture from our world to do little tip offs.

oldseafarer
02-28-2013, 10:01 PM
Thanks! Those are really helpful. Yes, it is set in our world (although throwing in some urban fantasy).

patskywriter
02-28-2013, 10:27 PM
I agree with slhuang. If the story is set in the present day, then simply mentioning the race or ethnicity of the person is probably good enough.

If I were to write my life story, an accurate description of my grandmother might be confusing for some readers. She was a woman who was proud of her African-American heritage, even though she had white skin coloring, blue-gray eyes, and red hair (well, she was gray by the time I came along). I'd just as soon say she was a black woman, unless a description of her features was necessary for explaining certain stories.

Kim Fierce
03-01-2013, 02:17 AM
Some words to AVOID:

* Do NOT describe Black skin tone by comparing it to food. No chocolate, coffee, caramel, *whatever.*
* Do NOT describe Asian people as having almond-shaped eyes or being "exotic" looking. In fact, do not apply the word "exotic" to a person or culture, ever.

.

Oh Lord that sucks for me. Well in one book I wrote set in the future no one calls each other "white" or "black" or any of the common terms we use today . . . I have one character who is technically black mixed with Hispanic IF we were to label it that way, and not only do I say she has chocolate skin, I also say she has almond-shaped eyes, but she isn't Asian, so maybe that is ok haha.

I do have other characters who are racially mixed with Asian, but again, in this future they don't use the same labels as today, so I mostly say "light brown" skin for most people, if I mention it at all, and oh I just remembered I have one character with red hair and "caramel" skin. Poop. But really I didn't know what else to do. So for the sequel I'll just have to keep that in mind I guess!

Rachel Udin
03-01-2013, 06:20 AM
Oh Lord that sucks for me. Well in one book I wrote set in the future no one calls each other "white" or "black" or any of the common terms we use today . . . I have one character who is technically black mixed with Hispanic IF we were to label it that way, and not only do I say she has chocolate skin, I also say she has almond-shaped eyes, but she isn't Asian, so maybe that is ok haha.

I do have other characters who are racially mixed with Asian, but again, in this future they don't use the same labels as today, so I mostly say "light brown" skin for most people, if I mention it at all, and oh I just remembered I have one character with red hair and "caramel" skin. Poop. But really I didn't know what else to do. So for the sequel I'll just have to keep that in mind I guess!
It's the idea that one can "eat" a minority group. You'll see this intersect with women in particular. (thus leading to a dominant mind set) Even within minority groups the derogatory terms used towards people are often food too. (Twinkie, coconut, oreo)

with the epicanthic eye fold you pretty much can say "single lid."

Anyway, describing people as food, in general, is kinda creepy... 'cause isn't that symbolic cannibalism?

Kim Fierce
03-01-2013, 06:31 AM
I never really thought of it as a true food . . . just as another type of color description, and probably just because I have read these descriptions other places. At least not in the chocolate or caramel, which I have also seen as describing things like clothing colors. But obviously oreo is one I recognize as derogatory.

I was trying to figure out ways to describe the multiple skin colors on a scale of darker to lighter without always just saying dark brown or light brown, and avoiding the words black and white altogether in this particular story. I also use pale and tan as descriptive words, but "tan" can be used to describe a white person who tanned in the sun, and that isn't really what I was trying to depict. Definitely some stuff to consider!

Book One was told from the POV of someone who had knowledge withheld from her. Book Two will be a mixture of her POV and someone else who was born into the Gay Community, and therefore actually knows more about certain things than my other MC, so some descriptive words and phrases will likely change when it comes to the new POV. I still don't think I will use certain labels and phrases from today's world though.

slhuang
03-01-2013, 07:00 AM
Oh Lord that sucks for me. Well in one book I wrote set in the future no one calls each other "white" or "black" or any of the common terms we use today . . . I have one character who is technically black mixed with Hispanic IF we were to label it that way, and not only do I say she has chocolate skin, I also say she has almond-shaped eyes, but she isn't Asian, so maybe that is ok haha.

I do have other characters who are racially mixed with Asian, but again, in this future they don't use the same labels as today, so I mostly say "light brown" skin for most people, if I mention it at all, and oh I just remembered I have one character with red hair and "caramel" skin. Poop. But really I didn't know what else to do. So for the sequel I'll just have to keep that in mind I guess!

Aww, Kim, don't beat yourself up too much. :Hug2:

What's awesome is that you're hanging out here with us and learning this stuff! It's all a learning process. I'm sure I've got some accidentally offensive stuff in my current WIP -- just because it's hard to catch our own internalized bias about everything -- but knowing that isn't going to stop me from writing diversity, right? We try and we learn and we fail better the next time. :)

Plus, I have no trouble believing that you'd seen other writers doing those sorts of descriptions a LOT because it's very common for white writers to do it. But unfortunately it's not only cliched, but it comes off as dehumanizing. I think for most people it would feel weird to see White skin tone regularly described as being "skin the color of mashed potatoes" or "skin the color of eggnog." I mean, mashed potatoes and eggnog are tasty things, but we (societal "we") don't think of White skin that way -- we think of it as skin-colored, and comparing it to food feels flattening and a bit sickly, because we as people don't want to *be* mashed potatoes or eggnog.

And I can't say I've ever in RL looked at a Black friend and compared the skin tone in my head to a food anyway -- in fact, doing it in my head about people I know in real life feels a little icky, like Rachel said. I mean, even try thinking about it with celebrities or something; doesn't it feel a little weird?

I think it's also one of those things that wouldn't be so bad if it weren't that every white writer ever decided it was a good way to describe POC. You know, like the gay character dying -- it wouldn't bother us in *one story* if that were the only story where that happened, but because it happens every time, it gets frustrating.

Anyway, now you know. :Hug2:

Rachel Udin
03-01-2013, 07:05 AM
Aww, Kim, don't beat yourself up too much. :Hug2:

What's awesome is that you're hanging out here with us and learning this stuff! It's all a learning process. I'm sure I've got some accidentally offensive stuff in my current WIP -- just because it's hard to catch our own internalized bias about everything -- but knowing that isn't going to stop me from writing diversity, right? We try and we learn and we fail better the next time. :)

Plus, I have no trouble believing that you'd seen other writers doing those sorts of descriptions a LOT because it's very common for white writers to do it. But unfortunately it's not only cliched, but it comes off as dehumanizing. I think for most people it would feel weird to see White skin tone regularly described as being "skin the color of mashed potatoes" or "skin the color of eggnog." I mean, mashed potatoes and eggnog are tasty things, but we (societal "we") don't think of White skin that way -- we think of it as skin-colored, and comparing it to food feels flattening and a bit sickly, because we as people don't want to *be* mashed potatoes or eggnog.

And I can't say I've ever in RL looked at a Black friend and compared the skin tone in my head to a food anyway -- in fact, doing it in my head about people I know in real life feels a little icky, like Rachel said. I mean, even try thinking about it with celebrities or something; doesn't it feel a little weird?

I think it's also one of those things that wouldn't be so bad if it weren't that every white writer ever decided it was a good way to describe POC. You know, like the gay character dying -- it wouldn't bother us in *one story* if that were the only story where that happened, but because it happens every time, it gets frustrating.

Anyway, now you know. :Hug2:
Agree. It's really hard to escape that dominant voice when it's pushed on you everywhere. I think as long as people are willing to learn after they fail and find out why (asking appropriately) there is only win. ^_^

I failed a whooooolllleee bunch. But I learned a whole bunch too and am willing to do better next time--which I've seen you also want to do.

Gem stones and metals aren't too bad, as long as you don't go "ranking" system with them such as with the race fail on Foyt.

Kim Fierce
03-01-2013, 07:09 AM
Thanks! :-) Yeah I was thinking earlier, I think maybe in classics I've seen white skin described as milky but that might be the only white food description I can think of!

And technically milky white skin would be very rare . . . it would be possibly more common to have a white person with skin the color of a ham? hahahahahah ewww

:TheWave:
Learning!

rosesindec
04-19-2013, 10:29 AM
I rarely describe any of my characters' skintones specifically. However, I have several characters that are POC and with two of them I need description. What would be appropriate terms to use? As I understand it doesn't sound well or is very appropriate with the 'food' analogies, correct? What would be some great alternatives to describe color? One guy has light "caramel" coloring and his mother has warm, brown skin, a couple shades darker. Coppery, tanned, olive skinned, ebony--none of those are accurate. Not chestnut, brandy, or walnut either (and again with the foods anyway). Just saying light brown or medium brown doesn't seem descriptive enough.

slhuang
04-19-2013, 03:33 PM
Coppery, tanned, olive skinned, ebony--none of those are accurate. Not chestnut, brandy, or walnut either (and again with the foods anyway).Yeah, don't use any of those. ;) With the exception of "olive," which is an actual skin tone rather than carrying the literal denotation of "skin the color of an olive," these would all make me wince. And "tanned" sounds weird to me because it sounds like something active happened to "tan" the person's skin, rather than it being that color naturally -- if someone says "tanned," I think, "tanned by the sun."

Part of the problem is that none of these (again with the exception of "olive") are skin tones, so they don't work very well to describe an actual human being. Skin is generally skin-colored (no matter what color it is . . . if that makes sense!). See my note upthread about comparing white people to eggnog, or Kim's about comparing white people to ham -- it feels weird, doesn't it?



Just saying light brown or medium brown doesn't seem descriptive enough.Well, what kinds of words do you use to describe your white characters?

I'm not being flippant (or at least I'm not trying to be). How descriptive are you trying to get here? How finely do you separate the skin tones of your white characters? If the furthest you go in differentiating them is calling someone "very pale" or something like that, then you shouldn't need anything more descriptive than "very dark" to differentiate your characters with more melanin. ;) If you get crazy with all your characters' skin tones, on the other hand, give us some examples of the descriptors you use and maybe we can help you brainstorm equivalent ones for your POC that aren't offensive. :) To me it really does depend on your prose, and I like it to be consistent across the board -- for example, if you're going super poetic and you describe your white characters with comparisons like, "skin the delicate pink of the inside of a conch shell," it wouldn't sound so weird (to me) to describe another character as having "skin the rich deep color of the forest loam" (or something). But if you do that with all your POC and your white characters are just sort of . . . there, it DOES feel weird -- at least to me. ;)

JimmyB27
04-19-2013, 03:57 PM
Anyway, describing people as food, in general, is kinda creepy... 'cause isn't that symbolic cannibalism?
No more than calling one's daughter 'pumpkin' or 'cupcake' is, imo.


I think it's also one of those things that wouldn't be so bad if it weren't that every white writer ever decided it was a good way to describe POC. You know, like the gay character dying -- it wouldn't bother us in *one story* if that were the only story where that happened, but because it happens every time, it gets frustrating.
This is the problem I see with it.

My personal solution is to not describe anyone's skin colour, unless it is story relevant.

J.S.F.
04-19-2013, 04:16 PM
I sort of made the same mistake with my first novel although no one ever called me on it. I described one of the minor characters who's in charge of the conning tower as having a "handsome, coffee-colored complexion" because I didn't know (at that time) how to do something other than say he was black.

Looking back on it, it came across as being inoffensive (and I certainly didn't mean to offend anyone) although now I realize it might have pissed someone off somewhere along the way.

It is a mistake I won't repeat again.

(Hangs head sheepishly and apologizes to any ovine characters out there).

Thump
04-19-2013, 05:47 PM
Well, white people are also described in terms of food: "cream", "milky white"...

I get the whole food-word as troubling symbolism but it seems natural to me that we describe skin tones in terms of food. The fact is that we name colours after food because that's where we originally got our pigments from. "Chocolate" is not just a food, it's a colour, just like "orange". So yeah, I struggle with thinking of it as a bad thing. I'm olive-skinned myself, that's a food-word even if it is an "official" skin type term.

"Named for its green and gold undertones (the color of an olive), it refers to an earthy skin tone which can be warm, neutral, cool, or anything in between. " - Wikipedia

I just fear that people are focusing on that aspect of things and losing sight of more serious, issues with the depiction of PoC in literature.

slhuang
04-19-2013, 08:59 PM
I just fear that people are focusing on that aspect of things and losing sight of more serious, issues with the depiction of PoC in literature.

Um . . . trust me, we're not.

I'm not a mod, but as a member of the board I'm asking you to please not say stuff like this. Devaluing people's concerns because "there are worse problems in the world" is a silencing technique often used to shut down discussions on race. Please don't do it.

We're perfectly capable of discussing small, nuanced issues regarding microaggressions while still being perfectly aware of the bigger picture. This thread happens to be about describing POC, not about what we think is the WORST PROBLEM IN DEPICTIONS OF POC EVER -- and we don't always have to talk about the worst problems ever; our conversations don't become illegitimate just because there are bigger problems out there.

I don't mind disagreement, but please don't be dismissive.

Corinne Duyvis
04-19-2013, 10:58 PM
I tried to stay away from food or other exoticizing descriptions in the fantasy world I built, as well, and it wasn't too hard. It's a good way to make you stretch for descriptions instead of going with the most obvious one, too.

Some descriptions I used:
"the way her nose pinched between her eyes, then flared wide"; "skin was the near-black of soaked wood"
"shallow eyes"; "tan skin"
"Most were [race] workers, sun-freckled, flat-faced, broad-shouldered"
"yellow-brown skin"; "frizzed hair and crooked nose"
"sandy skin"; "the standard beige of her palms"
"in this dark, her skin—though dark for an [race] like her—practically glowed"
"pink-skinned and pale-eyed, with hair like fire"
"tall and unapologetic and dark"
"his normal even brown"

I tried to avoid harping on about skin skin skin (not that you'd notice from that list!), but at the same time, I wanted to make sure readers had a good idea of what the people in this world looked like--partially for world-building purposes, partially so that there is no way readers will default to white. I mean... except for the actual white characters in this world... there it's okay. I suppose.

The more you think about this, the more you notice it in other books, as well. I cringe at every food-related description of skin I encounter. Same with almond eyes. Which always makes me think of this, anyway: http://clairelight.typepad.com/seelight/2006/09/almond_eyes.html

I can't remember who said this or where I read this (I thought maybe Nisi Shawl?) but there's an extra dimension of iffiness to describing black people as having coffee or chocolate-colored skin, given how many black people worked on coffee plantations, etc., as slaves.

Rachel Udin
04-19-2013, 11:33 PM
A lot of skin color descriptions, I tend to tilt by either mentioning the region the person is from, or using environment/history to back it up. It gives a bit more of a subtle hand. I also tilt with other factors as well.

I like comparisons also, as long as the comparisons aren't to negative objects. So for example, you could say X's skin was darker than mine now that he'd gotten tanned, but it wasn't like that before. (indicating it's not usually that way).

I also like saying for the culture group s/he had darker or lighter skin than X person.

Skin color varies within groups.

Otherwise, simplicity is the best. I use other factors to boost it up.

NK Jemisin also pointed a lot about skin color and took excerpts on it, mostly for black folks though.


No more than calling one's daughter 'pumpkin' or 'cupcake' is, imo.


This is the problem I see with it.

My personal solution is to not describe anyone's skin colour, unless it is story relevant.

Because you call your boy a pumpkin... right? And cupcake too. Notice what it is attached to--daughter. Ummm... intersecting issue much? English tends to use food labels in order to tell a group they are less than. When are you going to call your daughter "Sport?" unless she is a "good sport"??

"Fruity", for example is a derogatory term for homosexuality. Again, food.

"Nutty" is used for the mentally impaired. Again, food.

BTW, Cream and Milky have also fell from favor since the 19th century novels. In term of food, though, cream also has other implications "Cream of the crop" for example. Since "cream" happens to coincide with such literature in frequency, notice the date of "cream of the crop" also coincides.

Kinda transparent, if you look at other groups as well.

Atalanta
04-20-2013, 12:52 AM
Which always makes me think of this, anyway: http://clairelight.typepad.com/seelight/2006/09/almond_eyes.html

Ooh, I'm so tempted now to describe a white character as having "almond-shaped eyes." :D

My WIP is a Fantasy with various cultures, and it's made me so hyper-aware of what I'm writing it's become a sort of psychoanalysis. For example, I noted an early reluctance to describe very dark skin (I'm imagining "black" but I'm writing "brown"), and had to overcome my discomfort. I ultimately described her skin as being "as black as leather" (the leather made in her region of the world), which ties together economics and geography, and since she's a no-nonsense ship captain, also becomes a metaphor for her personality.

She only gets one scene in this book, but if I'm ever able to write the sequel -- which takes place in her part of the world -- I may need to charge myself consulting fees for all the therapy. ;)

Kim Fierce
04-20-2013, 01:40 AM
Because you call your boy a pumpkin... right? And cupcake too. Notice what it is attached to--daughter. Ummm... intersecting issue much? English tends to use food labels in order to tell a group they are less than. When are you going to call your daughter "Sport?" unless she is a "good sport"??

"Fruity", for example is a derogatory term for homosexuality. Again, food.

"Nutty" is used for the mentally impaired. Again, food.
.

Very interesting!

judes
04-20-2013, 05:46 AM
I think last name is usually a good distinction for someone's race, at least for Asians. Like if someone has the last name Nguyen I will usually assume a Vietnamese person and Chen is Chinese, etc.

I don't think there is ever any reason to mention someone's skin color, especially if the person is already known to the narrator. When you see your friend would you think of them as "the black girl"? The only exception I guess is if your narrator is pointing them out to someone and having to distinguish them everybody else, but that would happen rarely.

Kim Fierce
04-20-2013, 06:17 AM
In journalism courses we were taught that you only mention a person's skin color if it is relevant to the story.

However, in fiction you want to portray your character accurately to the reader, that is who you are describing the person for. To say you should never describe skin color is like saying you should never describe eye or hair color. Many people assume that if you don't mention a color at all, then the character is white. And if you want the reader to know that there is a diverse cast of characters, I think it is perfectly fine to mention it, even if only one time. After that it would be redundant to keep describing a character as "the white girl" or "the black guy" throughout the whole story. But I do like my readers to know who they are reading about. :-)

JimmyB27
04-20-2013, 06:53 AM
To say you should never describe skin color is like saying you should never describe eye or hair color.
Yup, exactly like that. Which is why I don't.


Many people assume that if you don't mention a color at all, then the character is white.
That's their hang up, not mine.

Cyia
04-20-2013, 07:17 AM
I think last name is usually a good distinction for someone's race,

Names can help, but my first thought when I see something like this is:

Paging Mr. Smith...

There are some names that know no racial boundary.




That's their hang up, not mine.

Dismissive, much? It's not a hang-up. It's a verified cultural phenomenon.

Corinne Duyvis
04-20-2013, 05:53 PM
I don't think there is ever any reason to mention someone's skin color, especially if the person is already known to the narrator. When you see your friend would you think of them as "the black girl"? The only exception I guess is if your narrator is pointing them out to someone and having to distinguish them everybody else, but that would happen rarely.

I agree that it's often awkward when characters start detailing the appearance of people they're familiar with--but to say there's only one exception, ever, isn't true. There are a hundred ways to weave skin color into the text naturally. As long as it's true to the context, it works, whether that's by making it relevant to a scene or by making it true to the voice (like a chatty first-person PoV).


Yup, exactly like that. Which is why I don't.

A lot of writers don't do any physical description and that works for them, but it always feels odd to me. Isn't the visual component a large part of writing?


That's their hang up, not mine.


Dismissive, much? It's not a hang-up. It's a verified cultural phenomenon.

Agreed. If writers don't work it into the book, they can't complain that it's the readers' fault if they see something other than what was meant. And since it's been proven that people raised in majority-white environments will almost always default to seeing characters as white unless stated otherwise--and sometimes even then!--I feel that's something writers should take into account.

And if someone cares about portraying diversity, they should make sure that's what they're actually, textually, doing, IMO. I don't care for the Dumbledore route of "only in interviews!" whether it's with sexual orientation or race or anything else.

patskywriter
04-20-2013, 07:13 PM
I don't think that describing the outside of a person is any more important that describing the inside. Race and culture are very important to me, but skin color is not all-important. I grew up in a black neighborhood, but we were so different from each other. We literally ranged in color from white to dark, dark brown. And it wasn't unusual at all for kids to have different features than their parents. My dad identified as black, but he didn't have typical features—he was light tan with freckles and had strange, wiry/curly hair. His mom was white in color with red hair. My mom was medium brown, and her dad was deep dark brown. I'm a goofy mix of all that—but we're all just "black." And although we were raised to thoroughly enjoy black culture, we didn't place any great importance on appearance. We really couldn't, not in a neighborhood with such a wide range of black people.

Now, some black people will say that their experience was the opposite of mine. But that's part of the fun of it all. We're not all the same any more than white people are. And I can only suspect that people in other ethnic groups can claim to have communities made up of people with widely divergent attitude and ideals, too, even if their physical appearances might suggest otherwise.

I've always felt that writers who are so unimaginative that they have to categorize people in a simplistic manner in order to "understand" them do themselves and their readers a disservice. Plus it can be considered lazy writing—dependent, of course, on the situation. :)

Kitty27
04-20-2013, 10:53 PM
I am a descriptive writer by nature,so I love descriptions of characters,place and everything else.

I have a friend who is SO concerned with offending POC that she uses makeup descriptions and then runs them by me. I was like,girl,calm down,lol. But I adore her for trying her best to be inclusive and do it right.

I don't mind food references. I used to have quite the issue with them,then I realized that I am the exact color of caramel. No harm done,since that is my skin color. So, I use food descriptions for POC all the time in many of my books. But here's where it can get a tad tricky. Many POC are offended when someone else does it. Double standards and all of that. This is one of those situations where you can't please everyone. I suggest to a non POC writer not to go on and on about skin color descriptions. When this is done,it makes it seem either like a fetish or you are describing POC as so "othering" that you cannot stop talking about their skin color,the strange thing! Make it quick,clear and then it's a wrap.

We used to joke White writers had disturbing cannibal type tendencies that came out in their writing when they described POC.

Lavern08
04-21-2013, 01:10 AM
... I don't mind food references - I realized that I am the exact color of caramel.

I'm fine with it too - My complexion is the exact color of a pecan (or a pee-can as we say in the South). ;)


I suggest to a non POC writer not to go on and on about skin color descriptions. Make it quick, clear and then it's a wrap.

Ditto. :)

kuwisdelu
04-21-2013, 05:42 AM
Food analogies never quite work for me, because for some reason I assume that the person should taste like the food to which they're being compared, too, and I get distracted by thoughts of licking them and being disappointed they don't taste like I expected.

I reserve my food analogies for sex scenes, for when I actually want to describe taste. :tongue

LJD
04-21-2013, 06:41 AM
I think the reason I find food references odd is that I've never looked at someone and thought "her skin is the color of cocoa" so if the book is written in a close POV, this just seems weird to me. Now maybe other people think this way, but I never do. When I write, I generally just give the race (as it appears/or is known by the POV character) because when I see someone IRL, various characteristics quickly combine for me to make some sort of assumption about race. But I don't focus on the individual characteristics that cause me to think that, if that makes sense. I think "she looks Asian" but I don't notice individually the various things that lead me there, don't notice eyelid folds, lack of pronounced eyebrow ridge, or things like that. Not consciously. Always pay attention to hair, though. (I think I have mild faceblindness, and depend heavily on things like hair to tell people apart because I cannot remember faces unless I have seen someone many, many times. Some movies are a nightmare for me to watch as a result.) Now, for a love interest, I might pay more attention to details.

Earlier this year I read a book in which the heroine was described thus: The glossy fall of raven-black hair and the almond-shaped eyes...and I was wondering if I was supposed to gather from this that she was Asian or maybe half-Asian (she was unmarried, and her last name was Jones) because of the hair color and "almond shaped eyes" being such a cliché for Asians. But nowhere in the book was her race mentioned, so I figured it was more likely she was white. It did confuse me though.

rosesindec
04-21-2013, 01:38 PM
Yeah, don't use any of those. ;) With the exception of "olive," which is an actual skin tone rather than carrying the literal denotation of "skin the color of an olive," these would all make me wince. And "tanned" sounds weird to me because it sounds like something active happened to "tan" the person's skin, rather than it being that color naturally -- if someone says "tanned," I think, "tanned by the sun."

Part of the problem is that none of these (again with the exception of "olive") are skin tones, so they don't work very well to describe an actual human being. Skin is generally skin-colored (no matter what color it is . . . if that makes sense!). See my note upthread about comparing white people to eggnog, or Kim's about comparing white people to ham -- it feels weird, doesn't it?

Well, what kinds of words do you use to describe your white characters?

I'm not being flippant (or at least I'm not trying to be). How descriptive are you trying to get here? How finely do you separate the skin tones of your white characters? If the furthest you go in differentiating them is calling someone "very pale" or something like that, then you shouldn't need anything more descriptive than "very dark" to differentiate your characters with more melanin. ;) If you get crazy with all your characters' skin tones, on the other hand, give us some examples of the descriptors you use and maybe we can help you brainstorm equivalent ones for your POC that aren't offensive. :) To me it really does depend on your prose, and I like it to be consistent across the board -- for example, if you're going super poetic and you describe your white characters with comparisons like, "skin the delicate pink of the inside of a conch shell," it wouldn't sound so weird (to me) to describe another character as having "skin the rich deep color of the forest loam" (or something). But if you do that with all your POC and your white characters are just sort of . . . there, it DOES feel weird -- at least to me. ;)

Well my problem with description is that I have so many different characters, that I try to make each one as distinguished from one another as possible. There can only be so many brunettes, blondes, raven haired, ivory skinned, bronze tanned skin, etc with everyone. Similarly only so many brown eyes, blue eyes, etc. So I do get fairly descriptive with any of the important characters. I try to describe the exact coloring of the eyes (without simply saying brown or blue) as well as skintones (if possible without just saying brown).

Two of my POC characters are important, so as with all important characters - I give more description for them.

I guess if worse comes to worse I could just say the mother has warm, brown skin -- but that's doesn't sound well enough as there are all kinds of shades of brown. I need a reference point to some shade of brown of something or other. The same with the guy with "caramel" skin - I need something to parallel the skintone to describe it as.
With white characters I always use terms such as cream colored skin, ivory skin, or porcelain - accurately for those that are paler. Pink skinned or ruddy for those colorings. And those that are darker via fake tan - then sunkissed tanned skin. If it looks the shade of naturally tanned, I will say that or else olive or lightly bronzed skin, etc.

Minor characters regardless of coloring, don't get much attention with description from me, unless it's pertinent to the scene and it rarely is.

rosesindec
04-21-2013, 01:57 PM
I tried to stay away from food or other exoticizing descriptions in the fantasy world I built, as well, and it wasn't too hard. It's a good way to make you stretch for descriptions instead of going with the most obvious one, too.

Some descriptions I used:
"the way her nose pinched between her eyes, then flared wide"; "skin was the near-black of soaked wood"
"shallow eyes"; "tan skin"
"Most were [race] workers, sun-freckled, flat-faced, broad-shouldered"
"yellow-brown skin"; "frizzed hair and crooked nose"
"sandy skin"; "the standard beige of her palms"
"in this dark, her skin—though dark for an [race] like her—practically glowed"
"pink-skinned and pale-eyed, with hair like fire"
"tall and unapologetic and dark"
"his normal even brown"

I tried to avoid harping on about skin skin skin (not that you'd notice from that list!), but at the same time, I wanted to make sure readers had a good idea of what the people in this world looked like--partially for world-building purposes, partially so that there is no way readers will default to white. I mean... except for the actual white characters in this world... there it's okay. I suppose.

The more you think about this, the more you notice it in other books, as well. I cringe at every food-related description of skin I encounter. Same with almond eyes. Which always makes me think of this, anyway: http://clairelight.typepad.com/seelight/2006/09/almond_eyes.html

I can't remember who said this or where I read this (I thought maybe Nisi Shawl?) but there's an extra dimension of iffiness to describing black people as having coffee or chocolate-colored skin, given how many black people worked on coffee plantations, etc., as slaves.


Well those are great descriptions, while being neither bland nor offensive. Love it.

I describe the skintones and other coloring and overall looks of all of my most important characters regardless of race/ethnicity. I usually only do the description once though upon their intro and then not mention it again, unless it was a small aspect of like the sunlight highlighting someone's eyes or a shade tint in their hair or something or other - just a passing mention of appearance. I am not one to harp on about even my protag's appearance.

Rachel Udin
04-24-2013, 02:09 AM
Caramel, BTW, as does Honey comes in a variety of colors, but then I'm just being a food geek. You can ignore me.

I still favor KISS. Light brown, dark brown, medium brown, and if I have to venture: mahogany, grade A amber, etc. You can get fairly far.

Kim Fierce
04-24-2013, 05:06 AM
Hi roses, I am in Indiana, too.

For all my characters I am the same way, will give a mention of how they look (skin, hair, eyes) during introduction but then rarely mention looks again.

But I did learn about food-descriptions here, and thank God I have a sequel to make things right haha. And also thank God I think I only used that twice in the whole book.

JimmyB27
04-24-2013, 02:57 PM
A lot of writers don't do any physical description and that works for them, but it always feels odd to me. Isn't the visual component a large part of writing?
As i said before, unless it's plot-relevant, who cares what the characters look like? I'll sometimes drop in clues, when they become relevant. For example, one of my characters is a bit of an arrogant git, so i had him flexing his muscles at the FMC. We now know he's muscly, but I never directly described it.


Agreed. If writers don't work it into the book, they can't complain that it's the readers' fault if they see something other than what was meant. And since it's been proven that people raised in majority-white environments will almost always default to seeing characters as white unless stated otherwise--and sometimes even then!--I feel that's something writers should take into account.

And if someone cares about portraying diversity, they should make sure that's what they're actually, textually, doing, IMO. I don't care for the Dumbledore route of "only in interviews!" whether it's with sexual orientation or race or anything else.
I might have to concede this point. I don't agree, but I'm not sure I can entirely articulate exactly why.
I think the main reason is that describing characters in the name of portraying diversity, without plot or character relevant reasons feels like an exercise in box-ticking. Got the black character? Check. Got the gay character? Check.

kuwisdelu
04-24-2013, 07:24 PM
Well my problem with description is that I have so many different characters, that I try to make each one as distinguished from one another as possible.

Far better to distinguish characters via characterization than physical description.

As a reader, I'm not going to differentiate them by how they look anyway.

slhuang
04-24-2013, 07:50 PM
As i said before, unless it's plot-relevant, who cares what the characters look like?

::raises hand:: As a reader, I do.

I personally hate it when books provide little to no physical description. Sure, yes, I could come up with imaginary appearances myself, but it feels like a less immersive reading experience, as if the author has set me adrift and is making me work to come up with what the world looks like. I'm not saying I need every detail described; that would be painful!, but having a few small physical descriptors (skin color, hair color, height, build . . .) will make a full character pop into existence in my brain. I'm a visual person, and not being able to "see" the characters impedes my enjoyment of a story.

And when authors don't describe, I come up with my own visual appearances, and then it bugs me no end if the book contradicts those imaginary appearances halfway through. For me as a reader, it would therefore be a problem if a writer decided only to get to description when it became plot-relevant.

YMMV, of course. Some people like sparse description. But it drives me nuts. ;)

Back to race:



I think the main reason is that describing characters in the name of portraying diversity, without plot or character relevant reasons feels like an exercise in box-ticking. Got the black character? Check. Got the gay character? Check.Except what Corinne is talking about (I believe; since I feel the same way!) is better representation, not tokenism.

Having more positive characters in media whom people in marginalized demographics can look at and say, "that character looks like me" is a very good thing, especially for children. (There's a heartbreaking story about a little girl who watched Avatar: The Last Airbender and was SO excited to find a character who looked like her and realize that princesses didn't have to have blonde hair and blue eyes. And then the live action movie came along.) It's also a positive thing for shaping everyone's attitudes towards race, because when there isn't media with black people, gay people, etc. in positive roles, it contributes to real-life institutionally racist (or homophobic, or sexist) attitudes. Having more more diverse heroes -- indisputably, described-in-text diverse heroes; non-stereotyped diverse heroes -- helps push back against those attitudes.

Media affects us. It's powerful. Which is one of the wonderful things about it. :)

If you hate description as a writer and are writing for readers who also hate it, however, one easy shorthand to include diversity without describing is names. Names can indicate you have a diverse cast even if you don't choose to show their skin colors, and your characters have to have names, right? ;)

Corinne Duyvis
04-24-2013, 09:17 PM
Ditto-ing slhuang on the description. I have zero attention span so I don't like physical descriptions that run too long, since I drift off, but a few well-placed details can work wonders. Sometimes, when I realize I have no idea what a character look like, I'll leaf back to see if I missed anything, which really takes me out of the book.

Description doesn't necessarily have to be the holy trifecta of skin/eyes/hair (which can sometimes read like you're rattling off a list--though I do think skin is important, linking back to the point of representation). But a certain tic, an oddly-shaped nose, a habit of wearing colorful clothes, lip piercings, size or build, a detail of deep-set eyes or protruding teeth or a forehead lined with zits...Description can really help ground a scene.

I guess that's getting away from the main point of representation, though. But yes. Character appearances. I'm a fan. :)


Except what Corinne is talking about (I believe; since I feel the same way!) is better representation, not tokenism.

Yep.


(There's a heartbreaking story about a little girl who watched Avatar: The Last Airbender and was SO excited to find a character who looked like her and realize that princesses didn't have to have blonde hair and blue eyes. And then the live action movie came along.)

I believe that was the daughter of the movie's director.

Yeeaahhh.


Relevant to the thread: I read a Tumblr post on describing Black characters semi-recently and a friend found it for me yesterday--here it is: http://pfdiva.tumblr.com/post/46311832427/i-am-so-angry-i-could-kick-something

Obviously, everyone prefers different approaches, and a lot of descriptions will depend on the setting and the PoV it's filtered through, but I think it's an excellent post that might help people see description from a different perspective. I ended up tweaking a couple of mine after reading this.

lolchemist
04-24-2013, 10:41 PM
I'm another one who needs to briefly describe all the main characters because I have a lot of diversity in my WIP AND it's a fantasy where things like African-American/Asian/White/Whatever or being able to guess that someone looks a certain way because of their surnames does not exist. I definitely DO NOT want my readers defaulting to white, I'm not a huge fan of all-white books and am certainly not trying to contribute yet another all-white book into the vast ocean of all-white YA books out there. I would much rather annoy my readers with 'she has brown skin! her skin is brown! did I mention brown? BROWNBROWNBROWN!' rather than have the "But isn't Rue white??" stuff happen to me. It might not be important to the plot but it's important to readers and writers who want diversity.

Corinne Duyvis
04-24-2013, 11:41 PM
I'm another one who needs to briefly describe all the main characters because I have a lot of diversity in my WIP AND it's a fantasy where things like African-American/Asian/White/Whatever or being able to guess that someone looks a certain way because of their surnames does not exist. I definitely DO NOT want my readers defaulting to white, I'm not a huge fan of all-white books and am certainly not trying to contribute yet another all-white book into the vast ocean of all-white YA books out there. I would much rather annoy my readers with 'she has brown skin! her skin is brown! did I mention brown? BROWNBROWNBROWN!' rather than have the "But isn't Rue white??" stuff happen to me. It might not be important to the plot but it's important to readers and writers who want diversity.

YUP. The book in my sig is a fantasy as well, so I was faced with the same need to describe them physically. It was impossible to hint at their race with other cues. So, ditto-ing everything you said.

(I mean, I'm a very visual person--I always want to describe my characters anyway. But there's more need for it in certain circumstances.)

Whenever I read a secondary-world fantasy these days I try to go in completely blank instead of assuming white, but I'm never surprised when the text then actively supports that, yeah, actually, 's all white. :(

Kim Fierce
04-25-2013, 12:45 AM
In my books I definitely don't want the default white assumption, since in one series everyone is multi-racial. Sometimes diversity is important to the plot, sometimes it isn't. Look at a bookshelf in any place that sells books and see all the white faces on the covers. . . right now we need to address our diversity, promote it, and send a message that readers want and need this.

I just think at least a basic character description for all my characters works best for me, as a reader and a writer, whatever the characters look like.

judes
04-25-2013, 08:15 AM
Description doesn't necessarily have to be the holy trifecta of skin/eyes/hair (which can sometimes read like you're rattling off a list--though I do think skin is important, linking back to the point of representation). But a certain tic, an oddly-shaped nose, a habit of wearing colorful clothes, lip piercings, size or build, a detail of deep-set eyes or protruding teeth or a forehead lined with zits...Description can really help ground a scene.

I agree with some of this point, or at least the idea behind it. I think description, when relevant to the story, is important, but I think what turns me off is just mentioning the color of someone's skin off hand as an identifier. It is great that we have representation of all of the colors of the rainbow, but someone mentioned above already that they start to become "tokens" instead of "persons".

What I really appreciate with representation is I don't want a girl who is Asian, but who acts just like the main girl who is white. That's not what I'm interested in. I want to read about characters who had experiences that I remember. So instead of reading about someone's almond shaped eyes, I want to read about someone who had to suffer through Chinese school every Saturday morning and that was why she couldn't hang out with the MC. Or how the first time that she went to the guy's house, his mother plopped down an entire fish in front of them and that was the first time the MC has ever seen a full fish head.

Those kind of cultural details are more meaningful to me than "There's a girl who looks like me in this story, but I can't relate to her at all". I am happy though that there is more diversity in books, I'm not saying that I'm against mentioning physical descriptions entirely, only that I think we can continue to push for greater representation and understanding.

Corinne Duyvis
04-25-2013, 04:42 PM
I agree with some of this point, or at least the idea behind it. I think description, when relevant to the story, is important, but I think what turns me off is just mentioning the color of someone's skin off hand as an identifier. It is great that we have representation of all of the colors of the rainbow, but someone mentioned above already that they start to become "tokens" instead of "persons".

What I really appreciate with representation is I don't want a girl who is Asian, but who acts just like the main girl who is white. That's not what I'm interested in. I want to read about characters who had experiences that I remember. So instead of reading about someone's almond shaped eyes, I want to read about someone who had to suffer through Chinese school every Saturday morning and that was why she couldn't hang out with the MC. Or how the first time that she went to the guy's house, his mother plopped down an entire fish in front of them and that was the first time the MC has ever seen a full fish head.

Those kind of cultural details are more meaningful to me than "There's a girl who looks like me in this story, but I can't relate to her at all". I am happy though that there is more diversity in books, I'm not saying that I'm against mentioning physical descriptions entirely, only that I think we can continue to push for greater representation and understanding.

Agreed. I aim for that when writing stories set in our world, too.

JimmyB27
04-25-2013, 05:06 PM
And when authors don't describe, I come up with my own visual appearances, and then it bugs me no end if the book contradicts those imaginary appearances halfway through. For me as a reader, it would therefore be a problem if a writer decided only to get to description when it became plot-relevant.
This is a good point. I think I will try to bear it in mind when I get to editing and consider taking any description that does come about at the point it becomes relevant and moving it back to that character's introduction.
Thanks.



Except what Corinne is talking about (I believe; since I feel the same way!) is better representation, not tokenism.
But my point is precisely that describing someone as black, or gay, or whatever is tokenism, unless there's a reason behind giving that description.



I would much rather annoy my readers with 'she has brown skin! her skin is brown! did I mention brown? BROWNBROWNBROWN!' rather than have the "But isn't Rue white??" stuff happen to me. It might not be important to the plot but it's important to readers and writers who want diversity.
This is the Hunger Games thing, right? My answer to "But isn't Rue white?" would have been "No, fuck off", and I'd have been quite happy to lose the readers should they be offended.


What I really appreciate with representation is I don't want a girl who is Asian, but who acts just like the main girl who is white. That's not what I'm interested in. I want to read about characters who had experiences that I remember. So instead of reading about someone's almond shaped eyes, I want to read about someone who had to suffer through Chinese school every Saturday morning and that was why she couldn't hang out with the MC. Or how the first time that she went to the guy's house, his mother plopped down an entire fish in front of them and that was the first time the MC has ever seen a full fish head.

Those kind of cultural details are more meaningful to me than "There's a girl who looks like me in this story, but I can't relate to her at all". I am happy though that there is more diversity in books, I'm not saying that I'm against mentioning physical descriptions entirely, only that I think we can continue to push for greater representation and understanding.
Agree 100% with this.

kuwisdelu
04-25-2013, 05:23 PM
I would much rather annoy my readers with 'she has brown skin! her skin is brown! did I mention brown? BROWNBROWNBROWN!' rather than have the "But isn't Rue white??" stuff happen to me.

IMO, in some cases it's better to just mention race outright. Skin color isn't actually a very good indicator of race. Plenty of people are brown who aren't of African descent. Myself included.

Corinne Duyvis
04-25-2013, 06:21 PM
But my point is precisely that describing someone as black, or gay, or whatever is tokenism, unless there's a reason behind giving that description.

Tokenism is usually defined as someone only existing in the story for the pure purpose of 'diversity.' If a character is useless and just hangs around the story to make it look less white, or if all they do is gossip with the MC about her new hawt boyfriend and have zero story of their own, that's tokenism.

Having a well-rounded character who's an active participant in the plot and slipping in--whether via description, cultural details, or showing a dude kissing a dude--that they're not white or straight, that's just telling a story.

Those aspects are just as much a part of characters as them being insecure, or a good artist, or being an orphan. Even if it doesn't actively forward the plot, it served characterization and a fully rounded, populated world. Why shouldn't we mention these things? Particularly knowing that the majority of readers will assume the characters are straight/white if we don't? Particularly knowing that marginalized people crave good representation? Particularly knowing that literature, as with all media, does not feature nearly enough minority characters?


IMO, in some cases it's better to just mention race outright. Skin color isn't actually a very good indicator of race. Plenty of people are brown who aren't of African descent. Myself included.

Yeah, though that doesn't work in every setting--like Hunger Games or secondary fantasy worlds.

kuwisdelu
04-25-2013, 06:38 PM
Yeah, though that doesn't work in every setting--like Hunger Games or secondary fantasy worlds.

On the the one hand, that's why I said "sometimes."

One the other hand, I'm not sure why it wouldn't work in Hunger Games since (it seems to me like) it's clearly supposed to be a future Earth scenario. I can't really see why ignoring explicit depictions of race in that case aren't possible.

And on the third hand, if it's a fantasy world that's totally separate from Earth, I'd assume there are other races, ethnicities, or factions, that would still stand-in for our own conceptions of "race." I'd expect these to be referenced as well.

To be honest, expecting someone to get that a character is of a different race or ethnicity based solely on a description of the color of their skin is just asking to be misunderstood. I have no sympathy for such authors if they later complain "but I described them as brown and clearly that meant 'they're black'!"

If you're writing about a character who's a PoC, have the balls to be explicit about it. If you actually expect us to infer their culture, race , ethnicity, etc., have the balls to be explicit about that, too.

Rachel Udin
04-25-2013, 06:46 PM
There are Asian Americans that grow up in say a 100% Hispanic neighborhood, never learn their heritage's language and have parents that want them to blend in and pressure them to do so.

Just pointing that out. I think that story is also worthy to tell as much as the showing cultural exceptions, because no matter how that person tries to blend in, at the end of the day, they still have to remember that they are whatever ethnicity. And they still have to take the heat for being thought less than for their cultural labels by both their "in-group" for being "too white/whatever" and the mainstream group.

Which can be safely backgrounded as well without making it _the_ thing that defines them.