Describing Characters of Color, pt. 2

This is something I was going to do on my own blog, as a followup to an earlier post on ways to describe characters of color in fiction. But since a) I was coming up short on something to write about for this week’s Magic District post, and b) this is International Blog Against Racism Week* (IBARW), I figured I could kill two birds with one stone.

I’m a Harry Potter fan, if you haven’t guessed it by now from my repeated references. I’m such a fan that initially I only wanted the British versions of the books, so the first one I read was Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. I did this because I found it suspect that the publisher had changed the name for the US release to Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, completely ignoring the alchemical history that the original title evoked. If they were going to change something like that, I reasoned, who knew what else they would change?

So when I later got the US version and compared the two, I wasn’t surprised to see that a number of words and lines had been changed. Most of these changes were minor, for example clarifying Britishisms that USians might not have picked up on, like using the word “sweater” in place of “jumper”, since in the US a jumper is a kind of girl’s dress. But in several places I noticed a more curious difference. For example, at one point the character Dean Thomas is explicitly stated to be black in the US version — a line which doesn’t even exist in the UK version.

Now, note: Dean is described in the UK version in ways that strongly suggest his race, but it’s subtly done. His dredlocks are mentioned repeatedly, as is his love of a particular soccer (sorry, football) team which is known in the UK for having a lot of black players and fans. There are other clues. But somewhere along the way, some US editor for Rowling’s book decided that US kids just wouldn’t pick up on the clues, and decided to add that line to make it clear.

I can understand why that editor made the decision. Americans know diddlysquat about British football teams, for one thing. Also, some cultural characteristics are racially ambiguous. I’ve known lots of white people with dredlocks, for example (though this is a separate discussion, because even the name “dredlocks” is a culture-specific thing that has been co-opted by outsiders). My problem, however, lies in where that added bit of description was applied, and to whom. Basically, Dean Thomas got text labeling him as black, but there’s never a line pointing out that Harry or Ron or Hermione, etc., are white. The same subtle cues are used to convey their race — the Weasleys’ red hair, for example, or the (predominantly white) section of London where the Dursleys live. But these are just as racially ambiguous (I’ve got red hair at the moment, and I’m black), and the editor didn’t feel the need to add a line clarifying these characters’ whiteness.

Thus we see an example of the racial default at work: the inescapable fact that in any Western society, no matter how multicultural it might be in actuality, most people in it will assume that any character who’s not described otherwise is white. The editor is to be commended for realizing that this tendency to “default to white” exists in USian readers… but the particular method he or she used to address the problem feels almost painfully heavy-handed. Worse, by treating the characters of color so differently, the editor adds to the problem by implying that whiteness is “normal”.

Personally, I prefer Rowling’s method of dealing with it. She didn’t label the white characters white, or the black characters black, or the Asian characters Asian, etc. She drops broad hints about all of them, from culturally-distinct surnames like Patil and Chang and Granger, to culturally-associated styles and foods (braids, sari, Harry’s love of the quintessentially-British treacle tarts), to more subtle cues like Dean’s football preferences. But she does this equally for the white characters and the characters of color. No group is treated as “normal,” or by exclusion/emphasis “abnormal”.

Rowling took some flak for this in the US, though the problem was actually with her US editor, and apparently along the line someone got the message, because later books in the series stop labeling the characters of color in this way. (I think… I haven’t read all the US versions.) But I say all this just to illustrate a problem.

Because so much of fantasy takes place in settings that in no way resemble the real world, featuring species that in no way resemble human, fantasy writers often have trouble dealing with regular people. This is something that, I think, isn’t as much of a problem for mainstream writers, because they can simply describe the world around them and come up with a reasonably accurate representation of humanity. They can also fall back on the plethora of real-world terms used to describe human beings, racially and otherwise. But using these terms makes no sense if you’re dealing with a world that doesn’t share our political/cultural context. You can’t call someone “African American” if your world has no Africa, no America, and has never gone through a colonial phase in which people of disparate cultures were forcibly brought together, thus necessitating the term in the first place.

That said, it’s equally illogical to populate your fantasy world with only one flavor of human being, which is what far too many fantasy stories default to. Granted, many fantasies take place in confined cultural spaces — a single small kingdom in a Europeanish milieu, maybe a single city or castle within that city. (But how did that castle get its spices for the royal table, or that lady her silks? What enemy are the knights training to fight? Even in the most monochromatic parts of the real Ye Olde Englande, I can guarantee you there were some Asian traders, Sephardic or Ashkenazic Jewish merchants, Spanish diplomats or nobles partly descended from black Moors, and so on.) I get that lots of countries on Earth are racially homogeneous, so it makes perfect sense that some fantasy settings would be too. But whiteness is the default in our thinking for Earth-specific cultural/political reasons. So while it’s logical for fantasy realms to be homogeneous, it’s not logical for so many of them to be homogeneously white. Something besides logic is causing that.

So. It’s a good idea for all fantasy writers to learn how to describe characters of color. And I think it’s a good idea to learn how to describe those characters in subtle ways, since they can’t always rely on Earth terminology. Now, doing subtle description increases the chance that the reader might misidentify the character racially — and to a degree, I think there’s nothing you can do about that. You’re working against a lifetime of baggage in the reader’s mind. But you can still insert enough cues so that when combined, they’ll get the idea across.

Below are some examples from my own writing in which I feel I’ve done this. As before, these aren’t necessarily the “right” way to do this, nor are they by any means the only way. They’re just my way.

Oh, and unlike in my first post, I’m going to provide some commentary with each. And there will be fewer of these, because this post is already too long. =)

In the mornings, Adele girds herself for the trip to work as a warrior for battle. First she prays, both to the Christian god of her Irish ancestors and to the orishas of her African ancestors — the latter she is less familiar with, but getting to know.

OK, this is a real-world setting, so I cheat a little here and use Earth-specific terminology (Irish, African). I’m noting it as an example, though, because a determined person could still see this character as white if she chooses. She’s clearly part white (though the “whiteness” of Irish Americans has fluctuated over the course of US history), and on some level we are all Africans. But I didn’t call her capital-B black, or describe her skin and features. There are a few other subtle clues in the story — her diction in lines of dialogue, the neighborhood in Brooklyn where she lives (Flatbush) — but these are things only people familiar with the real-world setting would pick up on.

He knelt before the dais that held Dekarta’s chair, his waist-length red braid falling over one shoulder to curl on the floor… I was surprised to find that he was even paler beneath his clothing, and his shoulders were covered in faint spots, like those of a leopard but smaller and random.

An example from The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, taken from two very different scenes to demonstrate that clues sometimes need to be layered/overlapped. Paleness is a relative thing, after all; I am paler than my father, not as pale as my mother, and all three of us are black. In this case the narrator is herself dark-skinned — this has been established earlier in the story — and most of the story’s characters are pale in comparison to her. But that could simply mean that the “he” being described is a lighter-skinned brown person. The critical clue, I think, is the mention of freckles. That’s racially ambiguous too; light-skinned people of every race can have freckles. But paired with the earlier mention of “his” hair being bright red, I think this gets the idea across.

It fell to the mayor’s daughter, Atlehina Delgado, to escort him. From the first she was skeptical, for Turner hardly looked the savior. He was a thin brown man with a quiet manner and a noticeable slouch. “I’ll see the stone first,” he said when Delgado met him. She had never heard an accent like his, slow and thick as oil.

This is from a story set on a colony from Earth on another planet, centuries after Earthlike racial distinctions have ceased to have meaning for them. However, they retain the genetic and cultural legacy of the original colonists, including surnames like Delgado. Delgado’s not specific to any single racial group; the etymology is Portuguese, and thanks to colonization there are Delgados among people of Hispanic ethnicity, African descent, European descent, etc. Later in the story, however, I describe Atlehina as having long black hair. It’s still ambiguous, but I’m hoping to suggest that she’s Latina.

I’m trying a more subtle trick with Turner, though I’m not sure it works. I do explicitly mention that he’s brown, but he could be a white guy with a tan. However, I mention his accent. Now, after several hundred years on a colony world I know their English will be as incomprehensible to us as Beowulf is to modern Americans; they’re not really speaking anything we would understand. But Turner’s using dialect of some sort, which Atlehina notices. I’m hoping that, coupled with Turner’s brownness, this will send a big hint that he’s a black guy.

So. Those of you who are writers — care to share your own examples? Please feel free, in the comments.

* This is actually the fourth IBARW; there have been hundreds of posts on various topics over the past few years. If you’ve got a few hours to kill sometime, check ’em out.


81 Responses to “Describing Characters of Color, pt. 2”

  1. 1 Suzanne
    July 30, 2009 at 3:53 pm

    Have you read ANANSI BOYS, by Neil Gaiman? One of things my anthropologist husband mentioned after I finished it was the way that the characters mention when someone is white, as Ursula K. Leguin does in her Earthsea series. He says they’re “marked” and “unmarked” categories.

    Anyway, I liked that I never noticed in Gaiman’s novel that anything was different than what I was used to reading, just that it was a good read. 🙂

  2. July 30, 2009 at 6:08 pm

    These posts are incredibly valuable, Nora, and I thank you for them.

    I just finished a revision pass on a middle-grade novel and realized the only time I refer to skin color is in describing an African American character. A lot of other characters get a bit of physical description, but she’s the only one whose skin color is explicitly stated. My thinking was largely the result of wanting to make sure everyone — readers, cover artists, etc. — would know darn well the girl is Black. I have brown-skinned Atlanteans (defaulted in my mind to people who are light-brown skinned, like myself, but not explicitly stated), and then, beyond them, I think I pretty much defaulted to white people.

    As an ethnically and racially ambiguous brown person myself, I find myself stumbling nervously through this stuff.

    Anyway, for the record, here’s the description of the Black character, as seen from the POV of a white boy:

    *Solidly built, she stood a couple of inches taller than me, with an FBI Academy baseball cap jammed over a head of tight black curls. Lively brown eyes stared from her dark brown face.*

  3. 3 Rachel T.
    July 30, 2009 at 9:02 pm

    Thanks so much for this post. I have been thinking about this subject a lot lately, since my work-in-slow-slow-progress deals with it.

    [context: people living on an island tell a story about some invaders]

    “But the things they carried were not as strange as the men themselves, for their skin was white as a fish-belly, and some of them had eyes like the sea.”

    So it’s sort of a reverse description of the characters of color, I guess. I’ve never described the islanders as having dark skin–since that is the norm for them, none of my PoV characters would have cause to remark on it.

    (Also, not on the subject, I can’t wait to buy your book.)

  4. July 31, 2009 at 12:00 am

    These posts are wonderful (and I want your book already!)

    Here’s one of mine:

    He is like a fire-shadow: dark, long, and quick. Caste marks shadow his eyes, for he is cousin to the King. (From Nira and I.)

    Everyone in this setting is a South-Asian analogue, but there’s enough variety within the group that the viewpoint character would notice. To the extent the difference is culturally significant, darker skin is higher class (caste), because, well, why not go against the ever-present default of lighter skin = in charge?

    In my head, the viewpoint character is of about my skin tone (mid-brown) and the king’s cousin is more like my father’s skin tone (dark brown, but not so dark that black caste marks wouldn’t stand out) — but I didn’t think that detail was relevant to the reader, so I didn’t try to specify exact coloring. Especially because the character being described is pretty vivid in my head as a moving form, a boy who never stands still, so it was important to me that coloring was only one aspect of the viewpoint character’s first impression.

  5. July 31, 2009 at 10:28 am

    This comes at a particularly relevant time for me; I just got done writing a short piece where the protagonists were black, but didn’t bother explicitly screaming HEY HEY THEY ARE PEOPLE OF COLOUR, thinking people would understand the subtle hints before the final confrontation with a band of racists at the end.

    They didn’t.

    The thing I kept hearing, over and over again, was, “Wow, what a twist! I totally didn’t see it coming that they were black!” – as if I’d been rubbing my hands together and plotting this incredible secret ending shocker! the entire time. It made me unsure whether or not being subtle had turned out to be a good thing or a bad thing. I’m still not sure. I left it as it was, though. I guess its first encounter with an editor will tell me if that was the wisest choice.

    Anyway, yes, very helpful article. Thank you so much for writing it.

  6. July 31, 2009 at 10:58 am

    Thanks for this very interesting post! It’s something I try hard to pay attention to as a reader…

  7. July 31, 2009 at 12:00 pm

    Thank you so much for this post.

    I have a story coming out in September called “And Their Lips Rang with the Sun,” that was born out of the desire to explore a quality of the Arabic alphabet that’s fascinated me since I was a child — the fact that there are sun letters and moon letters — so it was important to me that the setting be established as Middle-Eastern right away:

    Look at them! Are they not beautiful? Had cinnamon been ground and rubbed into their skin, they could not have been more brown, more fragrant, more beloved of the wine-bright sky.

    I actually didn’t want to be subtle at all — but what I did want to do was make sure, as much as possible, that the colour associations I was making to skin-tone were relevant to the setting I had in mind, and bound up with the landscape I was writing. So for instance, when later on someone is described as pale, his skin is the colour of frankincense bark.

  8. 8 Keyan
    July 31, 2009 at 12:26 pm

    It’s interesting. I try to do a lot with names; but it doesn’t always work. I wrote a story where the MC is African-American. I thought I’d provided clues in the name and the description where relevant; but some beta-readers still didn’t catch it, and needed to revise their default image when they reached the point in the story where it was explicit. Now I try to introduce something definite early on.

    The other approach I have is to use a setting that is clearly elsewhere, where the unmarked state depends on the location – for example, India.

  9. July 31, 2009 at 5:06 pm


    I haven’t read Anansi Boys yet, or any prose/novel Gaiman. I have a peculiar reaction to Gaiman because people keep comparing my writing to his, which bugs me. So I avoid his work because I don’t want people to accuse me of biting off him. -_-;; It’s completely irrational. But, well.

    (Have read “Sandman”, though. Started the first book and then couldn’t help myself; had to get the rest.)

    I’ve heard others comment on this quality of Anansi, though, so I’ll eventually read it. Maybe when Book 3 is done. =)

  10. July 31, 2009 at 5:08 pm


    I did the same thing (turn over the color hierarchy) in my last series of novels! (They haven’t sold, though. =()

    I like the words “fire-shadow” — very evocative.

  11. July 31, 2009 at 5:12 pm


    Yeah, the problem with the subtle treatment is that those of us reared in post-colonial societies aren’t used to subtlety when it comes to race. It’s such a sensitive subject for most of us that we’re used to it being described in GLARINGLY OBVIOUS LOOK LOOK HERE terms. Also, since traditionally in English literature only white characters got any sort of detailed description beyond their race, we’ve been trained to expect that by a lifetime of reading.

    So it’s tough to do it well. And frankly IMO, no matter how many clues you toss in, some people still won’t get it unless you say HE’S BLACK, DAMMIT in big letters. But I figure that we as writers can at least throw the clues out there, and some people will get it. =)

  12. July 31, 2009 at 5:14 pm


    I like the frankincense bark! I have real trouble coming up with non-cliched adjectives for white coloring, personally — if I see more “porcelain” or “milk and honey” I’m going to scream.

    Intriguing about the Arabic alphabet; I didn’t know that. I don’t think I dare take on another language right now, though (been trying to learn Chinese/Japanese characters, which is a fascinating exercise, but time-consuming; there’s thousands of the little buggers)… but maybe one day…

  13. July 31, 2009 at 5:19 pm


    Yeah, names don’t really work with African Americans, unless you’re dealing with kids named by Afrocentric parents or kids of a certain social class (e.g., the Shanitas, ReShawns, etc.). I’d been half-thinking when I wrote “Bittersweet” (the story that features Turner and Delgado) that “Turner” was a common African-American name, so it would suggest his blackness… but it’s not like it’s exclusive to AAs!

    But if you’re writing a story about African Americans, you’re working in the Earth milieu, so why not just resort to Earth descriptive conventions? Nothing wrong with just calling somebody black, IMO, if it does fit.

  14. 14 RDR
    July 31, 2009 at 5:57 pm

    Good article, thanks!

    I suspect some people here would be interested in reading the fiction-writing guide Writing the Other: A Practical Approach:


  15. July 31, 2009 at 6:47 pm

    Love the frankincense bark, Amal.

    Nora, I have the same problem describing fair skin, because it has been the English-language default for so long that all color-descriptive terms are used for variations from that default. I find it a lot easier from the point of view of characters that have a different default themselves — but generally these are characters to whom any hair color other than black (or grey) is deeply weird, so I have a lot of trouble figuring out how to avoid the hair-color-fetish.

  16. July 31, 2009 at 7:03 pm


    Yes! Thanks for recommending that; I bought a copy a few years ago and have found it invaluable. Wholeheartedly recommended!

  17. 17 tielserrath
    August 1, 2009 at 2:23 am

    I threw one of Elizabeth Moon’s books across the room in disgust when I realised that although the protagonist is black, someone had ignored that and the woman on the cover was white. I mean – do they still think that readers can’t cope with knowing ahead of time that they are going to read about a black character??

    Heinlein did it very well – in one of his books he slaps you with your own assumptions by cleverly revealing that the protagonist is black about 75% of the way through. In some ways I prefer that method – it makes you acutely aware of your own biases.

    Perhaps in the way that the surgeon puzzle rarely fools anyone nowadays, we are within reach of being able to drop racial stereotyping soon too. Perhaps.

  18. August 1, 2009 at 9:07 am


    I actually hate Heinlein’s method. He makes the character’s race a gimmick when he does that (Starship Troopers, as I recall, though wasn’t that character Filipino? And played by a white guy in the film version). i.e., He’s not doing that to develop the character, he’s doing it to play a trick on white readers, as you point out. But for readers who aren’t white it’s disrespectful, a kind of objectification. Race is part of us, not a joke or a Learning Experience ™. I don’t walk around constantly thinking “Hey, I’m black today. Blackitty blackitty black…”, but being black informs nearly every part of my daily existence. Where I choose to live (generally communities with a certain percentage of black people in the population, so I won’t be alone), what clothes I wear (earth tones look good on me; pastels do not), what foods I grow in my balcony garden (my collard greens have aphids! ::wail::), how I wear my hair (hmm, a blowout today, I think. Nah, it’s Saturday, I’ll just put it up in a puff), etc.

    I would hope some of this diminishes over time for my descendants as racism diminishes, but I never want it all to vanish. Why would I? These are my details, to quote Greg’s awesome story. They matter.

  19. 19 Lindsay
    August 3, 2009 at 9:53 am

    It took me longer than it should have to start thinking about this “racial default” issue, which is an Epic Fail on my part. But I actually got to thinking about it in an interesting way. In my own work-in-progress novel, my (white) main character has just moved from Super Racially Diverse New York City to a really, really white suburban town. Race doesn’t really register on her culture shock radar, because (a) well, she’s white, so she WOULDN’T notice as much, and (b) more importantly, she’s far more focused on her own (fantasy-based) personal differences from the suburban cultural norm.

    Beyond that, I never really thought much about it — until a friend of mine read the book and said something about “the best friend character, you know, the Asian one.” I had a moment of “…what?” before I realized that she was talking about a character who I’d never envisioned as Asian. But the main identifying feature that this character had was jet black hair cut into a bob. In my head, I was thinking of a look like Enid from “Ghost World,” but this friend of mine just went right to Asian because of the black hair, despite not being Asian herself. Which got me thinking about how my own racial default, and how I probably shouldn’t have one, for all the reasons you mentioned in this post. It’s a tricky thing… one of those tricky things that probably shouldn’t be tricky at all.

  20. August 6, 2009 at 6:51 am

    Very interesting post. Since all my writing is set in our own world, and I almost always write in first person or close third, I usually default to “black” and “Asian” descriptors when writing from a white character’s perspective. They don’t tend to notice other people’s whiteness.

    In that light, I can understand the Dean Thomas descriptor above – it’s from Harry’s perspective. Considering the neighbourhood he was raised in, he’s probably used to white people, so Dean being black would stand out to him. That said, it’s not the editor’s choice, it’s the author’s. Going with more subtle descriptors is just as valid an option.

    When writing from non-white perspectives, it depends for me. I generally just try to keep in mind the PoV character’s upbringing, social circle, familiarity with the character being described, etc. I have a Taiwanese character who grew up in a white family in a predominantly white neighbourhood; PoC stand out more to him than white people do, so he’s less likely to specifically describe white people as white. A black character of mine, on the other hand, does notice people’s whiteness before anything else since his social circle is mainly black.

    When it comes to characters who already know each other, I don’t do a lot of description unless it’s relevant. I don’t think my white girl ever describes her boyfriend as being Asian. She noticed it on first meeting him, but that was months before the book starts off and it isn’t really on the forefront of her mind these days. The only time I vaguely allude to it is when she mentions how her overblown white guilt amuses him.

    Instead, his being Taiwanese is told through his own perspective – letting mispronunciations of his name slide but correcting people who assume he’s Chinese, joking about his “inborn martial arts skills”, describing the circumstances of his adoption… Those details vary a lot per character. It can be about hair care, missing their mother’s accent, behaving differently around police, picking out a church, food preferences, etc.

    And this turned out much too long… This post just got me thinking. *g* Thanks for that. I love those brief descriptive passages of yours, by the way – can’t wait to read your book. I’ve already got it on preorder.

  21. 21 Annah
    August 30, 2009 at 11:02 pm

    Commenting on this a bit late, hope no one minds.

    I think some authors are afraid of using characters of different race or characters from different backgrounds because they’re afraid they’d Get It Wrong. Conversely, I also think a lot of authors include That One BLACK Guy/Girl for tokenism, which might in turn affect the people who don’t want to Get It Wrong, because they’ve seen it done poorly and just for show.

    But you know, I also think, when it comes to all that, people are still just trying to write out a character who’s OMG!BLACK or OMG!ASIAN instead of… well… a very interesting character whose skin tone happens to not be white. I think there needs to be different races in sci-fi/fantasy than white characters, I really do. For a genre that’s so open to nagas, and dragons, and magic, and elves, and dwarves, and super-spaceships, and witches among wizards, and truly stupendous deeds, cities, and peoples… there’s not a lot of people willing to write a character who… who loves knitting, and dancing, and wearing lots of black lace and funny hats… and who just happens to be black or asian or latino and so on and so forth.

    Maybe people just don’t want to stir up trouble, and maybe it’s because they don’t want to Get It Wrong, or maybe it’s because of something else.

    I’d almost attribute it to some authors’s backgrounds and ethnicities… if… well… they weren’t *authors*, you know? We’re supposed to be able to get into people’s heads – if we can get into the heads of gods and dragons, we can certainly get into the head of someone whose skin is just a different shade than the Typical White Hero.

    There’s a qutoe from Guy Gavriel Kay that, I think, relates to this:

    “As for the female psyche, I used to be flattered when people said I did convincing female characters, but lately I confess it bemuses me. The implied idea underlying the comment is that it is startling that a man can do plausible women characters. If you push this just a bit, you have to ask how any woman could do a convincing man, how any young writer could do a geriatric, how any of us could do someone not… ourselves. Creating characters is, in a large way, an act of imaginative empathy, and I’m resistant to the idea that there are absolute borders to that. In the end, I’d say that we’re really talking about good or bad writing, rather than male and female, or young and old.”

    And the same applies to color (among other things like body shape, religion, culture, sexuality, etc). Although it’s all workable through actual *writing*.

    I always thought that color was interesting and described the place and world of a fantasy setting. And I guess color is a part of the character, and should be no more separated from what makes the character who he or she is than their strengths, weaknesses, hates, and loves.

    …I’m gonna go write a black character now who loves black lace, funny hats, and knitting. Maybe she likes black lace, funny hats, and knitting ALL AT ONCE, because, she thinks, “why not?”, and is knitting herself a hat out of lace. And and and… she fights EVIL with her KNITTING NEEDLES. RAWR! 😀 I like her already!

    (Um, that’s it. Also, wanted to say, can’t wait for your book to come out so I can read it!)

  22. 22 edundissesync
    February 28, 2010 at 11:57 am

    He swallowed, eyes still closed, as she wrapped her hand around his slippery, wet shaft. Savous crushed Hyles mouth with his, bearing the shorter man down to the ground. To a raedjour, that could be as effective as a douse of icy cold water. Radins mental warning didnt help. Shaking, she stood still until she thought her vision might be back to normal. It was so different, this control. Eyrhaen peeped up to see her blow a kiss at her truemate. Soon Eyrhaen was whimpering as she sucked on Hyle, riding the rock of his hips. Or even project emotion on him. Were bound, I cant help that, but the two of you should be together. He smiled at her glare, the red simmering behind the hazel of his eyes. Your shield is flawless, Tykir murmured, his heat warming her other arm. Would you let me go? His body shook, his thrusts gone ragged. She wiggled, and he stopped. Dangerously serious behind his smile, he dragged his gaze back up to meet hers. She considered lighting one or two of the lamps but discarded the idea. So, I know how you might feel. But she needed to know one more thing. Chuckling, he nipped at her shoulder before pushing up to his knees.

  23. 23 Jenny
    March 11, 2010 at 8:41 am

    The Dursley’s live in Surrey, not London

  24. 24 holyschist
    April 14, 2010 at 6:54 pm


    If you’re referring to the Moon book with the blonde white woman on the cover (Against the Odds), that’s meant to be Brun Thornbuckle, who is white and blonde. If it’s one of the other ones…yeah. Esmay looks Latina to me on some of her covers, but I don’t ever recall seeing a Heris cover where Heris is portrayed as clearly black, and aside from Against the Odds, there’s no other character the white woman on the cover could represent. Ky looks awfully white on the Vatta’s War covers, too.

    I don’t think that’s Moon’s fault, though. Most of her covers are kind of poorly-done, cliched, generic SF cover art, and I sort of doubt she has any real control over them.

  25. 25 Muninn
    July 24, 2011 at 8:52 pm

    I tend towards describing all the skin tones of all of my characters, but that’s mostly because I’m obsessive about detail. For instance, the main character is a nearly albino male with long white hair, the secondary (or villain, or other main, depending on how you look at it) is a black female with six short braids. Both skintones are described in just as much detail (in the actual piece), as is true for all of the other characters. I’d rather give readers an exact picture of each character over the course of meeting them rather than leaving the reader guessing. So long as you’re concise about it and it doesn’t interrupt the flow of action, that’s fine. But that takes finesse, something some authors have problems with *cough*RobertJordan*cough*.

  26. March 23, 2012 at 12:28 pm

    Hey, I know this comment thread is from several years ago, but I have a writing dilemma: I’m writing a fiction book about food, and the food traditions of the characters are a major part of the story – so their culture is extremely important. Describing their race would provide a frame for the cultural aspects of the food they’re going to present.

    I introduced the first character, an Asian woman (who is probably Chinese to be more specific, but that will kind of depend on the food I eventually select) by having the main character interrupt her morning routine of Tai Chi in the town square, and with a dialect I borrowed from an excellent Chinese voice-over actor.

    This character brings the main character into her Mahjong group, and I need to use this frame to introduce the idea that the other three women are from three different, specific cultures (I’m thinking African American from the southern US, Italian-American, and Jewish – but I might want to include an indo-pak woman as well.) I’m a bit at a loss.

    I’ve decided not to label the race of my main character…though I’m kind of regretting that as I read over this post; I was kind of hoping she could be an everywoman – the only thing we know about her is that her hair is dyed and perm-burnt, so she could be any race, really. As I read this, I’m realizing people will assume she’s white (I was kind of hoping for multiracial.)

  27. 27 Nicole
    April 11, 2012 at 4:52 am

    @Michele Hays, I’d assume she’s white, but I fully acknowledge I suffer from a white bias (unconsciously). I’m white, western-european, higher middle class and I never met very many non-white people at home or in school until I moved to a cultural melting-pot, where the skin-tone ratios are more mixed. Been here a while and only recently I started shedding the white-bias a bit. With ‘perm-burned’ I’d assume she just went and got a perm. If you’d add dark brown or black hair to the description, I’d be more inclined to consider her multiracial.

    Stupid thing though is, Most of the time I don’t end up giving my characters any physical description because I don’t even think of them as them being of a certain race. (I don’t even give many of them names; if I work with stories with only 2 characters in them or if I’m working with first-person POV). I do think of them in terms of facial features and how they express themselves to other people, but those things don’t say much. I only recently found out some Finnish and Icelandic people have what could considered by some to be ‘Asian’ features. That is, I’d seen photos of Finnish and Icelandic people before, I just didn’t know they were Finnish and Icelandic.
    In a way I’m afraid to write first-person PoC. I don’t know what it is to be anything other than white, and I’m afraid I’ll mess up.

  28. 28 Micala Burns
    May 6, 2012 at 3:26 pm

    (Before you read this, I’m glad you made the post, and follow you on twitter. This isn’t an insult, it’s constructive criticism! Hope it helps!) No offense, and I say that because I’m also “black” and understand we’ve all been a bit brainwashed to say it, but we need to stop calling ourselves black. First of all, no one is black (though some true Africans get really close). That’s just ridiculous. And no one is white, unless you’re dead. So that’s the first problem with American culture. The next is that we seem to think brown is brown is brown. Even tan is brown! No, you are probably not qualified to call yourself brown if you’re no darker than caramel. I mean that, it really bugs me. Not every person who isn’t pale and pink is then automatically brown. What about mohagany? Toffy? Caramel? Golden? The difference between dark chocolate and milk? How about comparisons to earth, trees, or the sun? Tawny? Catching my drift? Here are some ways I choose to describe characters that make it possible to tell their race, without outright defining then BY their race, because I think we all agree that’s obnoxious!

    “She had a positively gentle look about her, with large brown eyes framed with mahogany lashes, and perfectly sculpted, though thick, eyebrows. Her face was somewhat heart shaped, and she had a small nose that delicately curved down from between her eyes and ended in a soft circular shape, with only the tiniest tilt upward at the very point. Her cheekbones were there – yet they weren’t exactly pronounced or sharp, denying her a fierce look. The only thing decidedly stubborn about her face was the square jaw, which she proudly showcased with make-up to contour her face so the lines were stronger. It was a strange mix, and oddly beautiful. She was no elf or princess – yet she was no rebel or world leader either. She was stuck somewhere in between.”

    “Then one day, I met her. She appeared and had the same curls, the same hazel eyes, the same long legs everyone else raved about.” (She is defined as more of a golden color in contrast to the next character, who appears in the same project.)

    “She’d grown up. Long chocolaty legs led to a dazzling ruby and apple red dress that reminded me of a cross between shimmering fire and dripping blood. Her outfit was strangely beautiful and menacing at the same time. It flowed with her every time she moved no matter how small the motion. Then there was that beautiful face with a strong jaw and deep brown eyes, and the black hair braided into a crown around her head. Magnificent. Wonderful. Mysterious. I couldn’t decide what she was, but it was captivating at the least.” (Then this same character again here) “I looked back towards the tables, and back again at Nyoka, and the fire burst out upon a lovely, glimmering tree behind her. Bella.”

    So that may not be the greatest, but that’s my sample. I just turned sixteen, so I’m working on descriptions, but I’ve been writing sinnce I knew my letters. NEVER have I had to use BLACK to describe a person. A car, a shirt, or a chandelier, yes, but a human being? No. There ARE better words. We should neither crown nor push down any one race in the way we describe them. It’s just not right.

  29. 29 Brittany Jones
    October 14, 2012 at 11:38 am

    This definitely a problem across the board. Remember the big Hunger Games scandal?… People were very upset over the black characters that transferred from the book into the movie. So sad.

  30. 30 keira.n
    December 14, 2012 at 5:16 am

    I see this is quite old, but decided to comment anyway, so here it goes.

    Yeah, I don’t call my characters “white” or “black” at all either… I describe skin-tone, usually, or leave it up to the reader to decide with some clues (which might not be a good idea after what happened with The Hunger Games, where Rue was described as having dark brown skin more than once, and people still thought she was just “dark-skinned / tanned white”. I mean, come on, people! How can we make it any more obvious without saying someone is “black” or “white” – and neither of those are real skin colors. Except a guy I saw once on the beach who had the darkest skin I’d ever seen – now he was ‘black’, or as close as. Wish I had skin like him…)

    It’s sad how writers have to state that someone’s “black”, because most teens really won’t pick it up. I believe that if you’re going to say someone’s “black” in your book, make sure you put in “white” for all the other characters. What’s so special about “black” that you have to mention it, but not others? It just fuels the whole “us and them” mentality, as if we were all a different species. Do you see a ginger cat having a go at a tortie for having different fur? Next thing you know, we’ll start dissing people for eye color.

    I don’t think someone’s ethnic background or “race” (man, I hate that word), will really matter in a few decades anyway, and in a few centuries? Certainly not. And people are going to be looking back and reading books where someone is described as “black” or “Chinese / African / insert whatever else here – American” (why not just American for all citizens? -_-).

    I also don’t use labels because it’s not like everyone labelled “white” or “black” will have the exact same skin tone. Look at Will or his son Jaden Smith. He’s nowhere near “black”. Sometimes I have to ask my parents if someone is considered “black”, because some are paler than a lot of “white” people, but still have “black” ancestry (I think it’s more facial characteristics that matter now, rather than skin tone). I heard Jesse Williams described as “another black actor with blue eyes”. I thought he was considered “white” for a pretty long time, then I read that his father was African-American. Apparently that mean he can’t be anything other than “black”, even with a Swedish mother. In Hunger Games, I pictured Rue as having skin a lot darker than Amandla Stenberg’s.
    And how would you describe someone like Dudley O’Shaughnessy? Gary Dourdan isn’t “black”, either. And what of Obama? Why do people call him “black”, when he’s really “half-white”? Shouldn’t they be asking him what he considers himself, if labels still apply in the twenty-first century? It’s still the “one-drop” thing, isn’t it? Appalling.

    I guess I did a lot of venting here, but I hate this “white until proven black” thing we have going on in books. I like subtlety, but sadly, not many will pick it up. Though thinking about it now, maybe I should only really be writing for those people who can read between the lines a little. I truly don’t want to have to poke my readers’ eyes out with this, and make more ‘worthy’ readers cringe. Is it really so hard to picture someone with a little more melanin?

  31. 31 Nick
    March 7, 2013 at 9:34 pm

    Nitpicking, but it’s Lee Jordan (friend of the Weasley twins and Quidditch commentator) who has the dreadlocks, not Dean Thomas.

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  43. 43 Maddie
    March 22, 2014 at 2:40 pm

    I’m guilty of defaulting to white, and I would rather not. Sometimes I feel like I should be exempt from it, my niece is Thai and my cousin Japanese – Native American. I live in a community that is more poc than white, but I’m white. and I work at changing my attitude but it is hard. So when I write, I try to keep my characters racially ambiguous, but I know that it isn’t a solution to the problem.
    That being said, I want to thank you for sharing your descriptions and your advice on how to better describe.

  44. March 28, 2014 at 1:55 pm

    Truly an excellent post. As a white-guy writer, sometimes I find myself a little hyper-conscious of “labeling” characters simply by calling out the color of their skin, admit to the whole ‘defaulting to white’ thing. Certainly skin color is a viable, distinguishing trait, and would mean something different in a fantasy context than it does in real-world Earth, but I am in total agreement with the message of this post.

    I have a setting in which there are non-human peoples, but also a variety of “regular human” peoples, too, and I’ve invented some terms they use for each other. For instance, one important character is essentially black, and folks of white persuasion would consider her “a woman with desert in her blood.” Since her race matters little in terms of the plot, I figure “mocha skin” and “copper eyes” are about as spotlighting as I let myself get.

    I saw someone else in the comments remark on Neil Gaiman; here’s my little bit regarding him. In “American Gods,” Gaiman hangs a lantern on the racial ambiguity of the protagonist by describing him (once) as “Milk and cream colored,” and having other characters wonder out loud “Just what are you, anyway?” Later, hints are dropped about his (racially distinct) parents, so we can paint a picture ourselves.

  45. March 31, 2014 at 10:39 pm

    I am writing a fantasy novel that is pretty much all black characters with African (though no Africa exists) features. So I don’t feel the need to describe them so much, but because I know people default to white, I’m going to try some subtle clues (and as we know from the backlash Rue’s movie character received in The Hunger Games, this doesn’t mean people will actually catch these obvious clues) and the first time I mention color is at a birthday party for a 5-year-old girl. Her whole family is there celebrating her birthday as the 5th birthday is especially meaningful for the girls in this world. She gets chocolate cake (which didn’t exist BACK THEN according to one of my critters – back when? this place is nowhere and no time compared with earth) and ANYWAY this is how I do it:

    The chocolate frosting, slightly lighter in color than the skin of the Wasipu, was formed into little flowers around the sides, with animals marching across the top. “It’s so beautiful,” Amanya said, leaning close in to smell the rich aroma of the chocolate. “You can’t cut it, Baba,” she begged.

    I may change “the Wasipu” to “her Baba” – which is Swahili for dad as another clue, but the point being, they are darker than chocolate frosting. Later, the most handsome boy has a broad, round face with a wide smile with white teeth that contrasted so beautifully with his dark skin, blah blah blah. I’m not mentioning color much, though, as the cover will show, the names and places are all distinctly African (East African to be specific) and I want their color to be the norm. There is a fascinating white skinned man that Amanya meets later in life, the first one she has ever seen, and she’s fascinated by him, while her mother is disgusted by him, so that puts race into the picture a bit, but it’s not the topic of the book. Oh, AND the elvish race (called Watu Haki or “fair folk” in Swahili) are darker even than the main people, and far more beautiful. But the ugly dwarf race is also dark, so it’s not like “dark = good” or anything. (and it’s a world ruled by women). So there, all fantasy standards!

    I’m glad to find these threads and Ms Jemison am LOVING your novels and stories as I just recently “discovered” you.

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  49. 49 CL Mannarino
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    Thank you so much for this — it’s definitely something writers should be aware of! (Readers, too, should be trained to look for it.)

  50. 50 Graciela
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  55. 55 M.N
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