I think I need the distraction.
So I ran into this problem when I was writing awhile ago with Jhenne-bean. We both play in the same A:TLA roleplay, and I play a (lightly tanned, with yellow undertones) firebender, and she plays a waterbender (who is for all intents and purposes brown, while my character is not).
We like to play with the cultural dynamics of their relationship, but I noticed I also needed to be able to describe her character (Karasa) in the third person without…describing a candy bar.
(Bear with me here) First, I pointed out my problem - I can’t just call Karasa brown all the time. So we tried to come up with alternatives to see what we would get for “black” or “brown” skin and again with all colors/tones and this is the list we had for skin (roughly):
chocolate, bronze, golden, dusky, caramel, sandy, tan, chestnut, coffee, mocha, copper, tawny, olive, ebony, black, cinnamon, honey, peaches & cream, peach, gold, milk/milky, pearl, paper, linen, fair, snow, yellow/yellowed, parchment-like, sallow, ivory, pale, alabaster, wan, pallid, waxen, ashen, chalky, bloodless, bone, cream, lily, sun-touched, rosy, ruddy, tea, dusty, teak, beige, pasty, plum, dark, light.
And then hair color/texture/styles can be important: fine, wavy, curled, curly, sleek, soft, springy, tightly wound, coarse, thick, auburn, mahogany, inky/ink black, soft black, charcoal, brown, black, blonde, red, strawberry blond, dirty blonde, sand, reed, wheat, gold, queued, topknot, braided/braids, twists/twisted (a braid with only two twisted strands of hair), dreaded, looped, umber, amber, ebony, dark, nut, light, shiny, etc
Eyes could be: almond, round, drooped, wide, lively, small, big, angular, striking, sharp, dim, watchful, ovular, lidded, hooded, deep-set, wide-set, closely set, hawk-like, catlike, arched.
Noses: hooked, small, big, beak, beak like, broken, bumpy, flat, blade like, wide, flared, inset, etc
Lips: thick, thin, small, (I usually describe actions with lips more than anything else, so smiles, grimaces, pursing of lips, etc occur more often than the shape of lips themselves - cupid’s bow, that sort of thing.)
Obviously there are way more but we had to sit and ask ourselves what would be tasteful (puns aside) and what wouldn’t be. For us, as long as we didn’t go overboard on the food references, most of those words are fine. Obviously, someone doesn’t need to be described like a starbucks drink - “I’ll be having the tall mocha with cream please.” it just… doesn’t work.
You’ll notice I left out “wild” or “frizzy” for hair, because these can quickly gain some negative connotations if you’re say, referring to someone who would be black. I think when we laid out adjectives used for colors across the board, most of them were objects (like woods or papers or something) or foods (chocolate, peach, cream, mocha, etc), the problem is in making a point to describe one set of people as more normal and the other set as more “Exotic”. When you only describe using foods or objects as metaphors for POC it becomes a problem. (It bothers some people more than other - so. But for an example, I have stood in a Latina group and been told that they “Had girls from the darkest chocolat to the lightest caramel” and I jokingly commented that I was a bit leche or milk. My grandparents call me “Weda” which is slang for Whitey. They called my brother “Wedo Ike” as in White Ike, as in Dwight D. Eisenhower levels of white. Uh…that’s off topic. But different cultures have different phrases for colors.)
I avoid things with negatives that are obvious - I wouldn’t say someone is dirt, or mud colored, and maybe not pottery either. The Help went really wrong when they compared someone’s blackness to that of a cockroach.
Not everyone is going to agree with my list of descriptors, but in a thoughtful context, I don’t think they’re offensive on their own. But comparing someone’s skin to a bug? Bound to raise some hackles.
That’s why non-earth based cultures are so difficult, because part of the basis of world building is to give people a starting point for what to expect or not from a new culture or people. When adjectives fail, cultural markers can pick up where they leave off, even if they’re not from a straight up fantasy country x, y, or z.
I like this article:
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.
If someone else wants to make suggestions, I welcome it. :x
Not writing a fantasy but I feel like maybe possibly this could be useful? We’ll see. Although I have to say that I’ve never liked when foods are used to describe people’s skin.
Reblog if you’re participating! I figure a Tumblr-wide support group may come in handy…