So, how's NaNoWriMo going?! Only four days left! Those on schedule have written 43,342 words already. =D (I forgot to mention, but I fell off the NaNo bandwagon AAAGES ago. I don't even remember when I stopped writing daily; it's just the epicest of all fails.)
I don't really write on this topic, dunno why. I guess it feels like purposefully putting my foot into a bowl of high-risk shit. But for the sake of fantasy writing, here goes. Duty calls.
Image: The Princesses Of The Fantasy Kingdom by dracarysVG
Why Describing Skin Tones Is Challenging in Fantasy
Describing skin colours is tricky. Not in ACTUALLY DESCRIBING IT, but in having to remember the politics of cultural sensitivity. Plus, things you might be able to get away with in literary fiction, for example describing a character as Black British or African American, won't be possible in fantasy where Britain, Africa and America don't exist.
In a world where the fastest way to travel to another country is by ship (no Eurostar, no aeroplane), this means that exposure to other places is limited. This is often the excuse for only portraying only one culture in a fantasy. However, this shouldn't be a problem if the reader can see many sides of this fantasy world (A Song Of Ice And Fire) or if that fantasy location imports goods from other places and trades with foreigners. So we should just get right on to describing skin tones. Yes?
But wait, let's backtrack.
I am black british, which already indicates what I would call a 'complicated cultural background' ie. not really knowing what the correct term to apply to myself is, as that seems to keep changing. My heritage is Jamaican, but I was born and raised in London. My perception of the world has always included a vast range of ethnicities and cultural experiences (like Hyper Japan or the London Mela!).
My experience reading books, though, is that the main character is almost always white. If it isn't specified, it's assumed they are white. Now that I've decided I want to portray my own culture in a culturally diverse fantasy world I have created, I realise that I don't actually know how to go about that. And there seem to be a lot of little unspoken rules to remember.
How Should Skin Colours and Ethnicities be described?
Even in literary fiction, I rarely see a character described as 'British Asian' or whatever the correct term for a character's cultural status may be, because usually it doesn't matter. What is described is how they physically look, which counts a lot more. The colour or shape of their eyes; the structure of their nose; and the set of their mouth provides better imagery and gives away more about the character than simply saying they are Middle Eastern or Native American.
Also describing what they are doing, or what they believe, or how they act, coupled with where the story or scene is set often makes it obvious what that character's background is. Observant readers will just pick it up. I really like the following quote about J.K. Rowling's technique;
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”.
from Describing Characters Of Color, pt. 2 by The Magic District blog.
Many times, I've come across posts about whether J.K. Rowling tackled this issue well or not. Apparently (from what I picked up) the US publisher of Harry Potter explicitly stated that Dean Thomas was black, where the UK version only hinted at it with cultural references that British readers would pick up. But I agree with the quote above - it's better to describe how a person physically looks. That way you're making no assumptions and the reader gets a better grasp on the character.
Method: Descriptions and Synonyms
PLAIN: describe what you see. 'Pale skin.' 'Brown skin.' No illusions.
HINT: if a character has blonde hair and blue eyes, they're unlikely to be black. -_-
METAPHOR: be careful of stumbling into a danger zone. I would probably say describing a character as having a 'chocolate face' is doing just that.
SYNONYM: 'Her skin was like a sheet of ivory satin.' Okay, that one was pretty crap, but you get the gist.
HYPERBOLE: ... I really would not recommend this for skin colour descriptions.
Here is an example of PLAIN:
eg. 'My arms were so painfully white I could see the veins criss-crossing down them; next to me, her tanned arms were positively brown. Her hair was a thick, lustrous ebony. It kinda wasn't fair that she was born to be a supermodel.'
My only problem with what I just wrote is what's being insinuating with pale skin (appearance of illness) and tanned skin (desirable, even artificially). I know many beautiful girls with naturally pale skin who appear in great health (even without rosy cheeks, their eyes have a sort of perkiness.)
Image: from ladyfabuloux.blogspot.co.uk. There are so many things wrong with this I don't even know where to begin - the fact that every sim has a pupil that covers their entire eye...? Or the fact that there is a tone actually labelled 'normal' (ridiculous in itself) which is exactly the tone you'd expect it to be; that 'exotic' fuels misguided stereotypes (the concept of Latino/as being 'sexy' is one I've heard before - why? Every nation has sexy peoples. O_O); that 'native', which should invoke homeliness and belonging, feels like a synonym for 'alien' here. It also appears to be lighter than 'dark', which kinda defeats the point of the chart.
Mistakes not to make...?
Do not use foundation make-up labels as a guide for skin colours, EVER.
Second, adding a black person to a group of white people isn't exactly 'diverse'. That is called a 'token'. There's such a wide range of cultures in the world - obviously, I'm not saying you have to 'sample them all' in one novel, but come on. We live in the world. We know what diversity looks like.
7 Offensive Mistakes Well-Intentioned Writers Make on springhole.net condemns "food-coloured skin". That was profound for me as I realised, for black characters, it was the only type of description I'd seen in books. What springhole points out is that food-coloured skin is only used for dark-skinned characters ('chocolate', 'coffee') to hold them apart from what is considered normal. Interesting point. Lighter colours are often described as 'fair', pale', or not described at all, (even though there's a range of edibles for lighter skinned characters like 'peach', 'milky', 'honey', 'creamy'...) er, but I think it's a good rule to stay away from the yummies. So, you see the image to the left? Those are all barred.
My particular problem is that because my protagonist's father was an orphan, Karalan isn't really sure where she is from. She knows where her mother is from and where she was born; for her that's enough. But when she starts climbing through the ranks and is scrutinised by the Divine Court and the Lords Of Spirihil, she begins to care about her heritage. In addition to this, each member of the Kaia Gang have a different background. They look different to each other, and to the people they meet on their journey, so for this novel I feel that it's important to tackle describing them correctly. The reader needs to already have that mental image solidified before they meet the auran races in the story, like Druids, Disirs and Valkyries.
Karalan and Aura Earth
This first fantasy novel OOTD, I adore because the way the world is set up means cultures can mix very easily. Most people in the world speak at least two languages and are rarely surprised or fearful of foreigners. There are cultures that are tucked away, but this tale doesn't deal with them. However, writing about this world... what a pain in the ass! (I did mean to say 'ass'.) And what a shame. I'm a little at a loss as to how to describe my own culture in fiction, and I need to describe a dozen other real and fictional cultures decides. I must say though, writing this post has really got me thinking. I'm gonna go back to sleep, and wake up and tackle another chapter of my novel.
Advice From Around The Web
- Handy Words for Skin Tones at joshroby.com, which provides two pdfs of synonyms for skin tones.
- Words used to describe skin color at macmillandictionary.com, which gives a list of TYPES of skin (pasty, rosy, tanned)
- An article by N.K. Jemisin on Describing Characters Of Color In Writing. She wrote an incredible book that I reviewed called A Hundred Thousand Kingdoms.
- I suppose I should mention N.K. Jemisin did another article looking at examples from other authors, including Suzanne Collins, Octavia Butler and many others.
- The Descriptive Faces blog, a resource for writers, did a post on Skin Tone.
- Another intriguing article my sister forwarded me was Describing Characters Of Color, pt. 2 by The Magic District.
- Finally, an eye-opening article about 7 Offensive Mistakes Well-Intentioned Writers Make on a really great site called springhole.net.
Image: I think Google...?
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For Inspiration - It Begins - (Fake) Nanowrimo
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I hope you found this useful! How do you deal with writing a diverse cast? Is it an issue that's been swept under the rug? Tell me what you think in the comments beeeeloooooow =]
Ashana Lian .