Today’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?