riting character descriptions can seem like a rather daunting task initially. How much is too much? How little is too little? Add in the aspect of describing the character’s race or ethnicity, and you’ve got a hundred more reasons to put that laptop down and give up. But hold on a bit longer because this article is for exactly the opposite. To not give up.
Every primary character deserves a description, including, but not limited to, their skin tone, superficial features, cultural background, and of course, their personality traits. Often, race and ethnicity are ignored or hard to work into the descriptions and can cause writers anxiety and worry over doing it correctly. So, the often unintended mistake of skipping description of ethnic details perpetuates the idea that white characters are the default unless explained otherwise.
Here’s a list of general things to avoid as much as possible:
- Avoid delaying race and ethnicity descriptions just like you would other character descriptions. These descriptions are as key as introducing the killer in the first couple of chapters in a mystery novel.
- Avoid lengthy descriptions of minor characters, unless very necessary for your story.
- Don’t use food-related terms as adjectives, especially to describe characters who are persons of color (POC). This practice has been met with much criticism in recent times, as it can come out to be dehumanizing, fetishizing, and cliché. These include, but are not limited to, words like caramel, cinnamon, or butterscotch. An exception to this could be olive as a skin tone descriptor; but again, it shouldn’t be relied on alone, as it is racially vague, much like the term tan.
- It was a different time when Scout Finch from Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird said, “Atticus said Calpurnia had more education than most colored folks.” Presently, it is best to avoid the term “colored” in your writing unless you are writing a political or historical fiction novel where characters would use this descriptor in their speech.
- The term dark is not only inexplicit, but may also be offensive to some readers and should seldom be used without a secondary descriptor. Example: Her dark brown skin had a sheen of misplaced pallor that was most difficult to ignore.
- Avoid writing accents. Intentionally misspelling words to convey a different accent is most likely going to upset more than impress. Simply stating that the character has an accent, with or without additional descriptors depending on the context, such as an American accent or Indian, Australian, etc. will do the job efficiently. Example: The woman had a strangely familiar accent reminiscent of his grandmother’s famous French drama collection.
- Historically, there has been the implication of light colors symbolizing good (character traits included) and darker shades symbolizing more negative terms. This should be modified in modern literature, at least to the extent of character and personality description.
Describing Skin Tones Effectively
Most great character descriptions are born out of simplicity. Black, brown, beige, pink, and white are all effective skin tone descriptors that fit well in most contexts. These terms can also be used to illustrate undertones, if necessary. Additionally, more specific colors—like ivory, pearl, gold, amber, tawny, khaki, and sepia—can be used in combination with the basic colors mentioned above to improve details. These simple and complex indicators work even better with terms like dark, rich, deep, warm, tan, pale, and light. Then finally, add in a simile or metaphor, and you’ve got yourself a victory!
A modification of one of the previous examples could be: Her dark brown skin looked tawny under the orange lights, as remarkable as her faithful sparrow, even behind the sheen of misplaced pallor that was most difficult to ignore.
Note the small explanation of tawny (being an orange-brown color and rare) within the sentence and the usage of sparrow suggest not only the color of the bird, but also encompass the ideas of happiness and friendship surrounding the bird, which gives us a small insight into the character being described. Character and creative descriptions (the use of sparrow here) are two sides of the same coin in fiction that when paired together can provide immense input into the kind of person your fictional character is in addition to their physical traits.
Other terms that could be used to describe skin tone can be inspired from nature, such as the sky and its several attributes (dawn, dusk, twilight, sun, moon, stars, etc.); plants (rose, jasmine, wheat, etc.); different types of wood (mahogany, chestnut, etc.); and metals (gold, bronze, etc.).
Examples from Classic Literature
Some examples from popular classics illustrate these points:
1. From Look Homeward, Angel by Thomas Wolfe.
“My brother Ben’s face, thought Eugene, is like a piece of slightly yellow ivory; his high white head is knotted fiercely by his old man’s scowl; his mouth is like a knife, his smile the flicker of light across a blade. His face is like a blade, and a knife, and a flicker of light: it is delicate and fierce, and scowls beautifully forever; and when he fastens his hard white fingers and his scowling eyes upon a thing he wants to fix, he sniffs with sharp and private concentration through his long, pointed nose.”
The author used the descriptors, slightly yellow ivory, white head and white fingers to indicate that Ben, the man being described is fair-skinned. The rest of the description uses creative description to depict the kind of person Ben is through Eugene’s perspective.
2. From The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain.
“He was most fifty, and he looked it. His hair was long and tangled and greasy, and hung down, and you could see his eyes shining through like he was behind vines. It was all black, no gray; so was his long, mixed-up whiskers. There warn’t no color in his face, where his face showed; it was white; not like another man’s white, but a white to make a body sick, a white to make a body’s flesh crawl - a tree-toad white, a fish-belly white...”
Mark Twain used both character and creative description together in the italicized sentence above to portray the fifty-year-old man being described, his fair-skin becoming more prominent through the years. The comparisons with the tree-toad further amplifies the fact that this character’s appearance is a sickening sight and could also be an analogy towards his personality traits.
3. From I Know Why the Cage Bird Sings by Maya Angelou.
“Her skin was a rich black that would have peeled like a plum if snagged, but then no one would have thought of getting close enough to Mrs. Flowers to ruffle her dress, let alone snag her skin. She didn’t encourage familiarity. She wore gloves, too. I don’t think I ever saw Mrs. Flowers laugh, but she smiled often. A slow widening of her thin black lips to show even, small white teeth, then the slow effortless closing. When she chose to smile on me, I always wanted to thank her.”
Maya Angelou used the descriptors rich black and black lips to convey the skin tone of the character, Mrs. Flowers. The use of plum instead of any other easily peel-able fruit also solidifies this idea of the character’s skin tone.
A side note to avoid possible obscurity when it comes to using only skin tone to establish race and ethnicity can be understood from an example from the modern young adult (YA) fiction book, The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas.
Note how the author uses physical characteristics other than skin tone, such as body type, to describe the character.
"Kenya could be a model, if I’m completely honest. She’s got flawless dark-brown skin—I don’t think she ever gets a pimple—slanted brown eyes, and long eyelashes that aren’t store-bought. She’s the perfect height for modeling, too, but a little thicker than those toothpicks on the runway...”
Also from the same book, note how in the example below, the author incorporates a specific hairstyle to convey race.
“This big, light-skinned girl with bone-straight hair moves through the crowd toward us. A tall boy with a black-and-blond Fro-hawk follows her.”
Stating a Character’s Race
State the character’s race along with any combination of all the other traits already discussed. Be it Black, White, African, Asian, or any race, depending on how important it is for your story that the reader does not misread your character’s race, explicitly stating it works perfectly well, too. It’s just a matter of avoiding overuse. This can work well for all primary and minor characters.
The Hate U Give has an example for that, too.
“...The ironic thing is though, at Williamson I don’t have to ‘play it cool’—I’m cool by default because I’m one of the only black kids there.”
Note that this isn’t necessarily a character description. A simple statement from the character’s own voice or another character stating it through dialogue can work also.
An example of how magically dialogue clues work can be found in the popular YA novel, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before by Jenny Han.
“No, I could not. You know why? Because I’m Asian, and people will just think I’m in a manga costume.”
This book also has great examples to show how describing parents or siblings can help effectively depict a character that is mixed race.
“I’ve asked Margot what she thinks it would have been like if Mommy hadn’t died. Like would we spend more time with our Korean side of the family and not just on Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day?”
Also from the same book:
“I was the flighty one, the flibbertigibbet, as my white grandma would say.”
Ethnicity can also be depicted by simply stating it (Indian, Arab, etc.) or through scenic descriptions of the place your story is set in; cultural attributes, such as names and surnames; religion; festivals; food; clothing; and even language. For instance, a character who is Muslim can be depicted by describing the hijab they are wearing.
Establishing the external setting, country, and culture in your story’s initial chapters greatly assists your existing character descriptions.
Take a look at three different contemporary published works that have incorporated this beautifully. Note: All of these stories have established that their primary setting is in the Indian subcontinent in either the summary or the first few chapters.
1. From The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy.
“She had a delicate, chiseled face, black eyebrows angled like a soaring seagull’s wings, a small straight nose and luminous, nut-brown skin. On that sky-blue December day, her wild, curly hair had escaped in wisps in the car wind. Her shoulders in her sleeveless sari blouse shone, as though they had been polished with a high-wax shoulder polish..."
The author used descriptors such as luminous, nut-brown skin to depict the appearance of the South Indian woman being described. Even without the last sentence describing the character’s traditional attire (sari blouse), the Southern Indian state of Kerala, having been already established as the setting in the initial chapters, makes it merely a good addition rather than a necessity.
2. From Life of Pi by Yann Martel.
“The people who found me took me to their village, and there some women gave me a bath and scrubbed me so hard that I wondered if they realized I was naturally brown-skinned and not a very dirty white boy. I tried to explain.”
Yann Martel used the descriptors naturally brown-skinned to describe the character is from India, but this simple descriptor would not have been enough to convey this if the character’s Indian background and the story’s primary location being India was not already established in the book summary and the first few chapters of the novel.
2. From The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga.
“A blinding flash of light: a blue door opened, and four light-skinned Nepali women, in gorgeous red petticoats, looked out.”
The author used the direct descriptors light-skinned Nepali women to describe the protagonist meeting Nepali women in India, the setting of the novel that was already established in the book cover and initial chapters. Nepali as an added descriptor would not have been necessary if the women the protagonist met were Indian because they are assumed to be the default in this context.
Comparing Your Characters
And finally, there’s one last way to smoothly incorporate race and ethnicity into your writing. It is the tried and tested method of comparison with another character in your story. What is best about this technique is that it gets two jobs done for the same number of words as one!
Here’s an example from the published classic, Middlemarch by George Eliot.
“The rural opinion about the new young ladies, even among the cottagers, was generally in favour of Celia, as being so amiable and innocent-looking, while Miss Brooke’s large eyes seemed, like her religion, too unusual and striking. Poor Dorothea! Compared with her, the innocent-looking Celia was knowing and wordly-wise.”
George Eliot used a single paragraph to effectively incorporate the public’s point of view in order to compare and contrast two characters based on both physical and personality differences. This is an example from one of my writings.
“...Gaia Dunne noticed a particular skinny boy, dusky eyes holding a perplexing shimmer, skin rivalling her Afro-Latin brown, crooked teeth and curly black braids almost as long as her own brushing just inches past his shoulders...”
Note that the name of the character (Gaia Dunne) isn’t a sure indicator of the character’s race or cultural background. Therefore, comparisons also work well when names aren’t enough to convey the message. Also note the usage of Afro-Latin is an indicator used to reference the character is mixed race.
For a long time in the history of writing fiction, sensitive topics, such as race and ethnicity, were handled with anything but because the idea of inclusivity was merely a shadow at the time.
This is no longer the reality, and the diverse audiences for your fiction demand this inclusivity and variety, bringing more responsibility to you as a writer to cater to these needs.
When stories are an established gateway to freedom for a significant portion of the public, every single person, regardless of their skin color or cultural background, deserves to grow up befriending their own version of Harry Potter or Heidi.
A failure to expand on these limitless avenues offered by characterization and stories aided through diversity can cause unwanted criticism for an otherwise good work of fiction.
Therefore, all things considered, the beginning of this learning process can seem like a never-ending cycle of ifs and buts; however, I sincerely hope this article makes at least the start easy, so that the ending can in turn be less tortuous.
Nanditha Narendran is a medical student whose spare time is spent writing short stories, visiting old monasteries, and watching sports and films.