Ask Daphne! About race and descriptions

December 15th, 2009 • Kate

cat_shoesToday’s question comes from Anne B., who writes:

This is one of those politically correct questions. Recently I’ve read a few books where a character is introduced a few chapters into the story and the narrator/main character describes her as “black” or “Asian” or “Hispanic.” It always jolts me because the rest of the characters in the book are not described as “white,” but it is assumed as a reader I know they are. Now if by saying a character has blue eyes and red hair the author figures I’ll know the character is white, why can’t he/she just say something like “her eyes were as brown as her skin” to describe someone who is black? It just comes across that the author assumes his/her readers are white. Does this bother anyone else? Am I being overly sensitive? For the record, I’m white.

Anne, I wish there were a simple, easy answer to this! Rexroth had a great post on descriptions the other day, which said, in part:

I firmly believe that in any situation where the description of a thing only does one thing (tells you what something looks like), it can probably be left to the reader for the most part. Certain things can be implied in order to inform the reader’s impression, but you don’t need to spell stuff out. In fact, you’re better off not to, because what the reader comes up with out of their head will be (subjectively) better (read: more effective) than anything you write down.

But sometimes, yes, you’re butting up against assumptions that are going to be wrong, and you want to be clear and avoid confusion. So what do you do?

Well, I asked Maureen Johnson her thoughts. She’s always got thoughts, after all, and as a writer, I think she’s much better equipped to answer your question than I. Her fantastic, detailed response to Anne’s question follows (with The Last Little Blue Envelope scoop!):

This is something we (and by we, I mean me and some other writers I know) have been talking about recently, because there have been a lot blog posts recently about this very issue.

Doing good descriptions is hard, because you have to choose which facts are relevant to mention. How people *interpret* these facts–well, that’s another matter entirely. But when you write something, you have to have SOME sense of what impact your words are going to mean. That is pretty much the job description. Those descriptions are code–they should tell you something about the character, something aside from what’s there, flat, on the page. If you say the character went to the ball in a wonderful ballgown made by mice–that’s one story. If you say that the character went in a karate outfit–that’s a very different story. (Clothes, of course, are wonderful and sometimes much too easy flags, but they are also necessary! Because going to the ball naked is ANOTHER STORY ENTIRELY.)

So, okay. You have to pick your facts. What have you got? You have physical appearance, behavior, and dialogue. That’s basically it. And you want to carve out as specific a portrait as you can using those things, and you want to take the reader with you into your head to show them this person. The thing is, readers have stuff in their heads too. We all carry certain assumptions into things we read, whether we mean to or not.

I happen to be white. Not all of my characters are. I was working on a scene today for the sequel to a book called 13 Little Blue Envelopes. There are three people in the scene. One of the characters (her name is Ellis) is black. This fact in and of itself doesn’t impact the scene–she’s there having a conversation with Ginny and Keith from the first book, and they are both white. I do describe her, because this scene is her entrance, and she’s important. But I never said Ginny is white or that Keith is white. I don’t want to have to make a point of mentioning that Ellis is black. Also, “black” isn’t just one skin tone. If I’m going to talk about the color of her skin, it’s not really enough to say she is black. There is a whole language of pigmentation. I know variations of white, because that is the skin that came with my body. I’m a pale, easy burner. I don’t tan correctly in the sun. I only stay this color or explode into a second-degree nightmare and walk around for a week looking like a human strawberry, one who gets lectures from total strangers about skin cancer. “Black” is a massive range with a lot of descriptive terms that carry cultural weight. I’ve had friends tell me about the issues they’ve had being “too black” or “not black enough.” So it’s complex, and I don’t want to overcomplicate the scene by loading it down with endless descriptions that capture her skin tone PRECISELY.

At the same time, there is a nagging voice in my head that tells me that people might then assume she is white, when she is not.

Why might people assume this? Well, part of it might be the covers. My covers all seem to feature white girls with no heads. (And YET, people always seem to know my characters have heads! MYSTERIOUS!) Maybe it’s my moony face on the back flap. All I know is I want Ellis to be known on her own terms. I don’t know how I’m going to do it yet. Right now I’m thinking that I simply won’t bring it up at all, because I can’t figure out why she would. I’d rather say nothing than to do one of those “her beautiful cafe au lait face” descriptions. (The one thing that I have been told by several black writers is that the comparisons to coffee and chocolate confectionary are very, very old and wearing and quit it with the food. The same can be said of “milky whiteness.” These things must die.)

Speaking of common assumptions, my characters are also not all straight. Sexuality isn’t something you can see, so that requires more context. And sometimes, I don’t go into that much detail about certain characters because it is irrelevant to the scene. It might be weird to have some guy say, “So now I must go and see my boyfriend, who is also GAY LIKE ME” if the scene doesn’t call for it. I’ve tried to sneak it in here and there, like Olivia mentioning her girlfriend at home in 13 Little Blue Envelopes, or Billy Whitehouse [in the Scarlett books -kt] saying that he has a husband to think of and can’t stay late at rehearsal, but I can only do this if it makes SOME KIND of sense for this to happen. If the characters are major, then you can work it in a lot more naturally.

So I guess my long non-answer is context. You can’t have a description in a vacuum. You have to pick your data points because they are relevant to understanding something about the character in the world in which they live. The more context, the richer the reading experience. You don’t want to throw in the entire kitchen sink in the hopes that you will be able to make people know EXACTLY WHAT IS IN YOUR HEAD because that is a). impossible, and b). unwanted. The descriptions must have purpose and meaning.

Also, I have long advocated the abolishment of covers, unless they have pictures of cats on them, because people love looking at adorable cats. Preferably ones in clothes [Or shoes -kt]. Otherwise, I would much rather have a book covered in plain paper that you can draw on yourself.

I am not sure I answered your question, but I certainly talked a lot, and that must count for something.

Anne, I hope that helps! Readers, do you have any thoughts or suggestions for descriptions of characters?

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32 Responses to “Ask Daphne! About race and descriptions”

  1. Elizabeth Kaylene Says:

    I am guilty of the "delicate coffee and cream skin" description of characters of color. I never really put too much thought into it before, but Anne and Maureen both brought up great points.

    I agree with Maureen: keep it relevant and don't overload with description, otherwise you will sound like Terry Brooks in the first Shannara book (great book, great author, but WAY heavy on the descriptions of every. single. rock. and every. single. piece of dirt).

    I like to write up little mini profiles of my characters, with their physical descriptions and their personalities, tastes, etc. This helps when I'm writing, but it's also easy to forget to use these descriptions, and you don't want to assume that your reader knows every thing you see in your own head. I think the best thing to do is when writing a scene, ask someone else to read it and then ask them what they got out of it. Ask them questions: "Did you get that so-and-so is black? Did you get that so-and-so hates spinach?" If they didn't get it, you need to go back in and touch up. If they think you overkilled it, you need to go back in and get rid of the excess.

    Admittedly, I am so very guilty of assuming the reader is in my head with me, so I should really take my own advice!

  2. JJ Says:

    I always thought J.K. Rowling did a great job with the race of her characters without actually describing them. I'll admit it's a little easier when the names are ethnic indicators; for example, one can infer the Patil twins are of Indian descent because of the names Parvati and Padma. The same can be said of Cho Chang–East Asian based on last name alone.

  3. A. L. Sonnichsen Says:

    This is a fascinating subject. I've thought a lot about ethnicity descriptors (and even blogged about them) mainly because my daughter is Chinese and I think it's so weird that Asians have traditionally been described as "yellow." I mean, come on! White people with jaundice are "yellow." Chinese people are some of the whitest people on earth. Instead of tanning lotion they wear whitening lotion for goodness sake! I've never seen a yellow Asian person in my life and I've spent most of my life in Asia. There's nothing you can say about that except whoever came up with these color descriptors was either color-blind … or just plain weird.

    As for my writing, I have an important character who is Latino, but that was easy because his name gave him away. I described his mother at one point, so now I need to run back to my ms and make sure I didn't use a food-word to describe her skin tone. Yikes!

    Oh, and thanks to Maureen. "My covers all seem to feature white girls with no heads" made me laugh out loud.

  4. Rissa Watkins Says:

    *bows head in shame* I used a chocolate brown reference. But have changed it. I try to describe the character as they meet other characters- but not too much. I am not a big fan of spelling out every detail because as a reader I don't care about that stuff. I want to know the story.

    I am lucky in that I have one tactless character who has no qualms coming out and asking, "So what exactly are you? Asian, black? Something in between?" She is so blunt and inappropriate but I kinda like her.

  5. Becka (Fie Eoin) Says:

    I've had this problem with one character of mine. I never really bother describing her, aside from the fact that she wears her hair in a bunch of little, spikey buns. You would probably assume, because she's born and raised in Scotland, that she's white, but she's not. But I don't think I ever once mention that in the book, because I'm not sure how.

    I've had the same problem with age too. I gave my writing group a scene and they all told me what a horrible person my MC was, until they learned that he was only 14 or so in the scene. Then it made more sense and they felt bad for calling him a jerk (he was still a bit of a jerk, but a young, hormonal jerk, which apparently makes all the difference in the world).

  6. Rebecca Says:

    I'm always trying to figure out how to drop those little descriptions in my stories. Because I feel like they're important, but it drives me NUTS in books when people just dump it on you. Because then suddenly the descriptions carry WEIGHT and it MEANS SOMETHING and then you've drawn attention to it when really all you wanted to do was put in those little details that allow readers to connect the dots themselves. Aaahhh. It is so hard to do, but so essential. I run into this because a fair number of my supporting characters are gay (some of the main ones too, but that's easier, like Maureen said) and then of course there's the race thing too. I don't think this sort of thing will ever get any less difficult. And you can't account for the filters through which everyone views books–or anything–because everyone's experiences are different. Ooooh, and I totally agree about the food descriptions. HAHAHAHAHA. I've probably done that too. I can't even remember.

  7. Karen Says:

    As a black author, I think of these things when I write. I’m not overly tired of the food analogies with describing people of color. I’ve used something like that to describe a biracial supporting character (cream with a few splashes of coffee). Maybe I’ll go back and change it, but I liked that so who knows. As for a main male character in one of my books, I never say that he’s white only that he has blond hair and green eyes. My main female character, I never say she’s black only that her skin is bronzy and sunkissed, that her hair is wild with bushy curls. In a later version I say she’s black in the context of her slathering on sunscreen because black people can get skin cancer too. Maybe I’ll change that, maybe I won’t. Her race is not really an issue with this story so I don’t make it an issue.

    What annoys me is when an author uses race as the only way to describe the character—the big black man, or the Puerto Rican man/Asian man—true, sometimes lesser characters don’t need much more than that, but it can get annoying. I don’t need the author to tell me flat out that this character is black/white/Asian or Hispanic, what I need for them to do is give me clues so I can come to it on my own. But then we fall into stereotypes and that can be far worse than just saying a characters race or skin tone.

  8. David Johnson Says:

    I like Mrs. Johnson's response, but I want to add one thing.

    "At the same time, there is a nagging voice in my head that tells me that people might then assume she is white, when she is not.

    Why might people assume this? Well, part of it might be the covers. My covers all seem to feature white girls with no heads. (And YET, people always seem to know my characters have heads! MYSTERIOUS!) Maybe it’s my moony face on the back flap."

    I find that, in our ("our" being used loosely here, because I don't live the US) culture, white is assumed simply because it's the norm. If you were to go to a random movie theatre, go to a random book store, watch random tv for an hour (especially advertisements) you'd find that there are disproportionally more white characters than POC characters. So it doesn't matter if the cover of your book has a white person on it or no person at all, white will be assumed. There are exceptions to this norm and assumption, of course. If you write a book in which race plays a large role, and the vast majority of the so far introduced characters aren't white, then whiteness won't be assumed.

    Similar norms exist for other aspects as well. Unless specifically mentioned otherwise, or implied by setting, a character will be assumed to be male, white, straight, cis, able-bodied, etc.

  9. Ellen Booraem Says:

    Interesting discussion. I agree with Maureen that context is everything. In ANANSI BOYS, Neil Gaiman never says what race the protaganist is, and I didn't figure it out until about 20 pages in, as I recall, and I didn't need to know. I should go back and look at how he eventually made Fat Charlie's race clear to me…as I recall, it was more than the fact that his father is an African god.

    On the other hand, in the first Harry Potter book Dean Thomas is introduced as "Black." This, too, works, because the book is so entirely from Harry's POV and he's grown up seeing practically no one but the Dursleys. So a kid's skin color would be a big characteristic and one of the first things Harry noticed. I can't remember Rowling identifying Dean as black ever again, because we get to know him and he's just Dean.

    The hardest thing for me to learn has been to let the reader's imagination do some of the work. If the reader doesnt' see a room or a person or a piece of cheese the way you do, that's OK as long as there's no confusion. You describe as much as you need to for clarity.

  10. Stina Says:

    First. Cute kittie!

    Great post. My current manuscript also has characters of different races, and not once do I compare them to food. I also took into consideration that there's a variation in skin tones. You can be white, but very few people are pure white. In the summer, you might have a light golden tan, and by Christmas it's faded. The same is true with other skin tones. Of course those of us who wear foundation are probably more aware of this than those who don't.

    As Maureen pointed out, you should only use those descriptions that are important to the story. Anything beyond that isn't necessary.

  11. Najela Says:

    I've been guilty of writing the food analogies for people of African descent as well. I'm an African-American author and it's interesting because some of us will refer to ourselves using the food analogy. (my cousin was complaining that she was caramel But then I remember that one type of ethnicity isn't going to read this book, hopefully everyone will read books regardless of their ethnicity.

    It's kinda of problematic because not mentioning race could potential negate that characters experience and what makes up that person. Not to say that people are the sum of their ethnicity, but my experience as a black woman would be vastly different than those of someone else and vice versa. And my experience as an individual would be vastly be different than someone within in my ethnicity.

    My religious studies professor said one of the most intelligent things. He stated that for someone to be colorblind, that means that they'd have remove your color for you to be on the same level. It's a well meaning phrase, but I'm not sure a lot of people realizes what it implies.

  12. Rissa Watkins Says:

    I agree David. I am guilty of that- assuming characters are white if there is no other description, and I am a half Asian half Italian mix married to an African-American.

    But, if it isn't important to the story, it doesn't matter to me.

    Reminds me of Tara on True Blood. Charlaine Harris wrote her as a white girl in the books, but HBO changed it. I like her character on the show so it works for me.

  13. Kate Says:

    Diana Peterfreund adds her thoughts on this subject on her own blog. Worth a read!

  14. Diana Peterfreund Says:

    Sadly, the poll on my blog is bearing this out. If you don't say the character is black, they aren't going to see him as black. Too bad.

  15. Anne B. Says:

    Wow, what a great discussion. The issue came up for me because I'm in the final draft of my ya novel and a consistent criticism of the earlier drafts had been a lack of physical descriptions. Since all my characters aren't white, I've been looking at ways other writers have handled that and came across the blatant mentions of race. I think there are some good ideas for alternatives and even stronger points about determining the relevance of race in a story. Thanks for sharing everyone.

  16. Diana Peterfreund Blog | On Describing Race Says:

    […] post by Maureen Johnson over at Ask Daphne yesterday in response to this […]

  17. Sarah Rees Brennan Says:

    This is such an insightful post! I totally agree with Maureen! What we need are far, far more books with covers which display cats. I especially wish to see historical books take up this trend, because cats in gowns and bonnets? Amazingly cute. We all know I'm right.

    Ahem. In more seriouser news, everyone is so right it is complicated. For nobody likes the awkward insertion, and yet sometimes I do think it's necessary: I didn't specify on one of my characters because I could think of no way to do so except for the blatant 'Right here, BLACK! Get your cultural diversity right here…' and yet it makes me sad when people assume she's white, and they do. And I am to blame also for these white assumptions – I assumed all the characters in Malinda Lo's Ash were white, but both the heroines are Asian!

    So sometimes – we need to be told. But not too much. And never with food analogies.

    Also, KITTENS IN BONNETS, that is all.

  18. Ellen Booraem Says:

    Just read Diana P.'s post, and remembered how Neil Gaiman tipped us off (or me, anyway) about Fat Charlie's race. Simple–he described another character as "white."

  19. Kaye George Says:

    Thanks so much for starting this discussion! I don't have anything to contribute, but have soaked up much here. I'm sure I have used African-American-food connections, but will think about it next time!

  20. Malinda Lo Says:

    Describing race appropriately is difficult indeed. SRB, it is so nice that you've read my blog where I say I think the two heroines in ASH look Asian (or half-Asian). 🙂 However, I have to admit that I've gotten a lot of confusion from people over this because I don't specify this in the book. And Kaisa has green eyes, which may throw people off even more.

    Then there's the problem that I'm writing about a fantasy world where there is no Asia, so I couldn't really say "Ash is half-Asian," anyway. So, hmm. I'm still figuring out how to deal with that problem.

    And then I have to admit I'm not a big fan of over-describing characters, anyway. When I read books, I want to be able to imagine the character in my own head, so I like a few indicators (brown hair, tall, etc.), but I don't want a lot of detail. Some people don't like that, but I like the freedom that gives the reader. If the reader doesn't take those hints that a character isn't white, I'm not sure the writer can do anything about it. And if the character's race wasn't important enough to indicate more clearly, then … maybe it's OK that the reader didn't get it. After all, I don't walk around all day thinking, "I'm Asian American! I'm Asian American!" That only comes up in specific situations. The rest of the time, I'm happy to be raceless (at least in my head). Know what I mean?

  21. dust Says:

    As always, Maureen's non-answer is better than 98.73% of actual answers.

  22. Kate Says:

    Guys, this is a fascinating discussion, and I'm finding my knowledge of it is already beginning to effect how I read queries. I noticed an "almond-shaped eyes" in one query, and in another, noted how the author had conveyed a sense of race through dialect. I'm not sure I liked that use — it felt "ghetto-ized" to me, if I can say so.

    But what do you think? Is language a way to describe race? Maybe by seeding foreign words from the character's heritage in his or her speech?

  23. Kaye George Says:

    It seems to me there are two discussions going on. One is whether or not to convey race at all. The other is how to do it.

    My take on it is, if race is unimportant to the story line, there's no need to show it. But, if it is, it must be conveyed. It isn't offensive to convey race if we're using it in the story, but there may be offensive ways to convey it. Or maybe, delicate and indelicate ways?

    If a protagonist already has a certain ethnicity because he or she has appeared in other works, and if the ethnicity is unimportant for this particular story, I'd say leave it out. But if race figures in the story, you gotta put it in somehow.

    I'm seeing here what's overused, or what seems clumsy to some.

  24. In the Blogosphere: 12/14-12/18 « Ricki Schultz Says:

    […] in terms of incorporating more multicultural characters in juvenile lit, shoe-obsessed superagent Daphne Unfeasible turns to young adult author Maureen Johnson for help with regard to race and descriptions in “Ask Daphne” over at the KT Literary […]

  25. alvina Says:

    Hi all,

    I'm coming late to the discussion, and I've only skimmed all the comments, but I wanted to put in my two cents as both an editor and an Asian American. I have absolutely no problem if the narrative/narrator described a character as black or Asian, even if other characters have not been described as white. It drives me crazy when people go to all lengths to avoid those descriptors. For example, once a friend was trying to reference a friend's friend, and said, "She's short, she went to NYU, she works in publishing…" and I said, "Is she black?" and he said, "Yes." Well, there you go–I knew exactly who he was referring to. We are not color-blind or race blind. Avoiding it is almost more offensive than mentioning it, because then it seems that it's somehow WRONG to describe someone as Asian or black, when it's not. I'm Asian. I'm fine with people describing me as such.

    Then again, if it isn't that important to the narrative, I'm fine with keeping things vague and letting the reader interpret. I used to see all characters with black hair as being Asian as a kid (well, even now…) because I wanted to see myself reflected in the books I was reading. Keeping descriptions vague allowed me to do that, even though most of the time I knew I was kidding myself.

    Anyway, I know there's more to the conversation than this, and believe me, I could talk for hours about it, but just wanted to add in my two cents!

  26. Stina Says:

    This was an amazing discussion. I've done some more editing to my ms because of it. Since one of my characters is Latino, I've slipped Spanish words into her dialogue (when it made sense to add them). That was easy at least.

    Kate, you commented on queries. Some agents are interested in multicultural stories. If you have characters of different ethnic backgrounds, should you mention it in the query? That really isn't the same thing as a multicultural story, is it?

  27. AudryT Says:

    I vote for making the race/color of lead and secondary characters unquestionably clear. As a writer, you made them that race/color for a reason, so don't hide your decision. If you know going in that most of your target audience assumes all characters are by default white/female/middle class, by not making other colors/races/classes clear, you are choosing to hide the true nature of your characters from your reader. How does this serve the story? How is this good for the reader, who is already surrounded by too much generic whiteness if they are making this assumption in the first place?

    Consider THE DEMON'S LEXICON, not specifically for issues of unclear color, but for how not knowing what a character is can damage a story. How many readers didn't realize the characters were British, rather than American, until half way to the Goblin Market? That's like watching a movie set in London, only you think it's New York until the movie is half over. So much for ambiance. So much for characterization.

    Don't do that to your characters. They are 100% what you made them. Make that 100% clear to the reader, even if the only description you can think of is "chocolate." A world with a little bit of chocolate in it is far better than a world that is nothing but watered-down milk. IMO.

    (On a side note, I loved LEXICON and actually think it was very well written. I'm just ruthless when I want to make a point, and LEXICON made for a good contemporary example.)

  28. AudryT Says:

    Stina, please ignore this comment if you are already well aware of the following and have factored it into your writing.

    PLEASE keep in mind that "Latino" does not exist as an actual race, just like "Black" doesn't. I hope you factored your character's actual roots — Mexican, Jamaican, Peruvian, Brazilian, Argentinian — into WHICH version of Spanish she speaks. There are huge differences in each country's language, especially in their slang. There are also differences between the Spanish that natives south of the border speak, and immigrants in, for example, Los Angeles, who have been here for years and adjusted their slang to fit in with the surroundings.

  29. Stina Says:

    Thanks, AudryT. Great point. I was aware of that since my two youngest kids go to a Spanish bilingual school here in Canada, and the teachers come from a diversity of Spanish speaking countries. I purposefully limited the amount of Spanish I used for the reasons you mentioned, as well as for some other reasons.

    But it was a good thing you pointed it out for someone else who wanted to add Spanish to make their story sound more authentic. You can't just look up the words in the dictionary and translate it directly from English. It's too easy to form sentences that could mean something oppositive to what you meant. And your sentence might even be offensive in some Spanish speaking countries–like the one you're trying to portray.

  30. Jessica Says:

    Please, please PLEASE be upfront with a character's race. So many teens of color are searching for books with protags they can relate to, so why tip toe around it, as in making them guess or give a big reveal at the end of the book. Personally, I don't have a problem with how its done, though I agree the food references have been overdone. And with as many bi-racial children, brown skin and greenish eyes aren't uncommon any longer (Wentworth Miller for example). It can be brought up once, directly and left alone. Or elaborated on, as in how lamb soft her hair was (I'd like to point out how many times I've read a white protag described as beautiful and in glowing terms, but rarely the characters of color) Maybe that's why I've made it a point to go overboard in description. I really enjoyed this discussion, and if anyone's interested, my webcomic featuring a diverse group of teens goes live Jan, 1st. There will be no PC for these paranormal characters, so you've been warned ( I want it to reflect real life, even though they're paranormals.

  31. Sarah Rees Brennan Says:

    @AudryT *blinks* The characters all speak in British English and they move to London in the third chapter – is it reeeeally that unclear they don't live in America?

    That said, if it is, it's interesting to think of how much that is a reader's assumption – so many of us reading characters as default white and possibly default American, how much responsibility do writers bear to obviously and clearly break out of the assumptions to make clear we live in an infinitely diverse world?

    (Also, thanks for the kind words!)

  32. AudryT Says:

    :::Now feels guilty about using LEXICON as an example, since the characterization and setting really were quite good.:::

    Sarah: How much responsibility do writers bear to obviously and clearly break out of the assumptions to make clear we live in an infinitely diverse world?

    I don't know that we have a responsibility to do anything. But I think that as a writer, I looooooove kicking people's assumptions in the [insert colorful explitive from any language here], so any time I get a chance to do so, I do so with relish. 😉