Describing races in a fantasy world
How does everyone else handle different (human) races in a fantasy story? Like, for example, I have a character who would be described as being from African decent if we're talking modern Earth, but in this fantasy world, I don't have an Africa, so obviously that won't work. I could describe her as dark skinned, but that could easily make people think East Indian, Native American, or Hispanic as well, so it's not really the best work around.
She was of medium height with the broad hips and dark skin that were usual for women from her continent. She wore her woolly hair braided close to her skull in spiral patterns and wore the brightly coloured highly patterned clothing typical of her culture.
Voila, Sub-Saharan West Africa, probably Nigerian or Ghanian.
Other features like tattoos or other scarification, piercings, jewellery etc can be used to create either specific cultures or individual traits.
There's a three part series by N.K. Jemisin on describing characters of colour over on her blog.. I think that covers most of it, the sorts of words and phrases that are commonly used and recognizable as 'African' or 'Asian', as well as what words are considered offensive or just aren't accurate. Pretty thoroughly answers your question, and I think she explains it all better than anyone else I've seen write something up about it.
And a massive list of resources on writing characters of colour (describing them as part of that), over on missturdle's tumblr: here, or here if it's after Halloween.
To answer you more directly, though, I would either draw comparisons to where she is from and Africa, or I would describe her skin as a specific dark shade of brown, something darker than what is common amongst Latin@s or indigenous Americans. Just avoid comparing them to food.
I'm also working with several different races in my story this year since it's set in an important trade city and thus has a lot of diverse cultures and races. Right now, my plan is to simply describe different physical traits like skin color, face shape, hair texture, etc as precisely as I can, and avoiding potentially offensive terms.
I've also been doing something as a writing exercise/novel prep that's been really helpful. I find a photo of a person who's of a similar race/ethnicity as one of my characters, and then I try to write a description of him or her within the worldview of my story. It's definitely gotten my creative juices flowing :)
That's an interesting way of getting descriptions down. I like it, and may try it with my characters. Although I will have to do it in my head, since there are not many pictures of dragons, and starkin around.... ;-)
Find someone who can draw them. :) (Not me...I'm *still* trying to figure out how to draw a dragon that doesn't look stupid :P)
i use NK Jemisin's blog as a good guideline as well - consider the context of the story for how you describe people's race. my MC is half Okanagan nation aboriginal, half white, but since it's a first person story, you get more clues on her heritage from the stories her mother told her, rather than her looks. otoh, there are many other clues than just skin colour when she meets other characters: the curl or style of their hair, the shape of their lips or nose or ears, the build of their body, etc.
I try and rely on point of view characters to do most of the describing, that way you see a little into the head of the PoV as well as get a description of whoever needs describing. Normally I try and limit narative description as I don't think getting super precise details will improve the story. I think larelmian said it very well with "But I personally I don't care if you imagine my dark skinned desert shaman as looking like a Navajo or an Ethiopian."
Most of my characters would be seen as mixed-race in our world. Since their world has different racial system for humans, I don't focus on stuff such as skin color and the like. I might mention skin color if it's outside what they consider a norm, for example, someone who'd be seen as dark-skinned black person or a pale white person in our world. I might mention hair and stuff like this but since they don't have races the same way we do, I don't mention races per se.
If I ever publish this and someone wants to make cover/movie then we will have a looooong talk about why characters should not look white or be played by white actors, but I kind of think it's not the issue I should worry about now. :P
The only problem I have here (and I talked about it a lot back in Writing 101) is how to describe "Asian" eyes. Almost all of the adjectives for this type of eyes are used as racial slurs, so I am not sure what to do. Epicanthic folds seem too technical. I've received an advice to mention monoeyelid eyes so I guess I'll go with that one.
PS- One note on the first link: if you don't write about our world and if you don't have racial system as present in our world, there's no logic behind grouping people as whites vs brown ones. Even if you treat brown skinned people as default and wish to describe someone who is outside the usual skin color, you should describe both those who are lighter ("whites") and those who are darker ("blacks"). Just because both brown-skinned and very dark skinned people are seen as POC in our world doesn't make sense for them to group them together. In fact, many POC are very light skinned.
On that PS: Yes, yes, yes. Actually, in South America (in general, I know it's a big place) there are a ton more classifications for race. Someone who's "black" in the US might well not be "black" at all in Brazil, because there's a whole host of terms for different racial mixes there. So if your fantasy world was more like that, with several different races all mixed together (and race being important) then people might well have more categories to differentiate. Defining people as essentially being non-white is a bit simplistic anyway, not to mention iffy in various ways.
I always like to mention Adriana Lima as a good example. As far as I know (please correct me if I'm wrong), she is seen as "pardo" (as in, mixed?) in Brazil. In the US, she is considered a woman of colour. In Serbia (where her husband is from) she's seen as white.
It's one of the examples why races are arbitrary and different cultures might have different ideas on how to define them.
yeah, I see what you guys are saying - i can't speak for Jemisin but having read her books, she does make differentiations between the races in her writing, even if they are all what would be termed POC in our world, with different group names, skin colours, hair, etc. her comment about pale northerners is more a jab at the whole exoticizing theme that happens with a token POC character, if that makes sense?
I haven't read any of her books. I don't doubt she makes great characters. I just commented on this from her page:
"I frequently write stories in which all or most of the characters are PoC, and thus I describe them only in contrast to each other. (e.g., one is old, the other is young…) In such stories brown becomes the default, so the only characters I describe explicitly are the white ones. "
I am sure she worded this for clarity, so I just wanted to remind people here that taking brown as a default, unless it's our world, doesn't mean making the familiar white-POC dichotomy. There's no need why a pale European person wouldn't be grouped with a pale Asian person, for example, or a dark skinned European with the "regulars" (in this sense: brown people).
ah yeah, i got what you're saying. yeah, agreed - there's no reason to not rearrange the ethnic/racial groupings differently than IRL in a fantasy world with multiple races
I get what she's saying. But as a reminder for those who wish to rearrange their races - what we have on Earth today is hard from universal. Heck, it's hardly universal for Earth. There are many different ways to construct a race, and indeed, various human societies have had their own answers to this. Today's races are a rleatively new phenomenon.
In a fantasy world as long as a certain race isn't being given some kind of preferential treatment I don't think if matters how tactfully anyone is described. I mean -- if you're going to specify the shape of peoples' noses, for example, don't make Fantasy Race A the beautiful norm and then go on about how Character B has the sharp, beaky hook-nose of Fantasy Race B and Character C has the upturned, ugly pug nose of Fantasy Race C.
It bugs me when I see white characters in a fantasy world described as the one with emerald-green eyes and golden hair, and then the one with sapphire-blue eyes and ebony hair, and then we get some darker characters with harping about the shape of their mouths or something. If you're going to get picky with how darker people look, I want to see some pickiness with how the lighter characters look too. I want your white princess to have emerald-green eyes and golden hair, and pinched narrow lips and short fat fingers that make rings look ridiculous on her.
I think I can provide an example - from a fantasy world I've been building long. The people in the South (closer to equator) are darker, actually, and this is a description of a foreign king:
"King Krashhar was dark-skinned even for a Ber'anese, actually his skin was almost black. He was of robust build, looked muscular and a rather tall man. His nose was strong, somewhat aquiline, his cheekbones were high, his eyes almond-formed, a bit tilted, bright and dark brown. His lips were proportionate, his hair and well-cared beard where curly and pitch black. From his looks one could see that he was strong-willed and people easily obeyed him."
No a very fluent translation (quickly made this from my original in Finnish), but I have tried to descrie a person, not to give racial characteristics.
It depends on what your point of view is. There are many books about PoC that do not delve into the colour of people's skin. (Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman springs to mind.) Indeed, many people writing here assume that the neutral stance on skin colour is that, unless described otherwise, the person you're reading about is white. This is an example of white privilege.
I think you can legitimise descriptions of skin colour if it is unusual to the narrator. For example, one of my characters has blue skin and this is described with much greater depth than any of my various black characters. My main character, being white, would likely refer to a black woman as "a black woman". And my main character is also invariably described by other characters as being pale, freckly, ginger, etc. (Then again, my MC is also a very frank young girl from the "real world", so seeing a PoC is in no way unusual for her.)
I don't think vagueness when it comes to describing skin colour is necessarily a bad thing. Many authors opt for "dark-skinned", "olive-skinned", etc. and these can mean a myriad of things. But ultimately, where fantasy is concerned, I don't necessarily need to know much beyond how much lighter or darker a character's skin is compared to the protagonist or whatever is culturally "normal" to the protagonist. After all, if I'm reading about fictional races and nations, I'm much more interested in how they dress, what they eat, what their religious, political and social structures are like, etc.
In my world, I am planning on have the Main Character having learned his magic in the Southern lands, an Empire where the sun is so intense the people are born with ebony skin.
Like the real world African Kingdoms during the Middle Ages, they are a bastion of learning and wealth. I plan to have merchants from this Empire trading spices, medicines, and silks in the Kingdom my story takes place in. The main character will interact with these merchants, and sharing a common language with them gives him an advantage against his antagonists.
I need it's important to establish what is a norm with your protagonist's group. It's completely possible that skin colour is not any sign of racial divide anymore than eye colour is for us.Generally, what's seen as "default" and a norm in a group is not described, so taking your MC's POV into account is important.
Racism and insularity are fairly major themes in my story, so I've run into this problem before. Each of the human-dominated continents has at least one real-world analogue, but in some cases it gets a bit jumbled (such as one area that's a fusion of India and South America.)
My MCs grew up in an area dominated by what we Earthlings would call "white people." When they meet a woman with Arabian-esque features, they describe her as being the darkest person they've ever met. However, they also remark at how incredibly pale a person with typical Scandinavian features is. They consider both to be outside their norm of "light, but tanned in the summer."
Other human characters who are more accustomed to other races don't get so distracted by "Whoa, they're so tall/dark/ginger/whatever!" and tend to describe more unique things about a character, which the less experienced characters would do for people of their own race. The same applies for cross-species descriptions.
TL;DR, Jefflion has the right of it. Start from whatever your character would consider average and describe the things outside of that.
Also, don't assume races are defined the same way as they are on Earth at the moment. There's no logical reason (based on phenotype) why all people of African descent would be seen as one race (after all, Africa is the most diverse continent when it comes to this), same goes for Europeans, etc.
I understand fantasy writers don't have Africa and Europe in their worlds, but seriously, races are arbitrary constructed and there's no much logical reasoning behind it.
This is something I have a lot of trouble with in my own stories. I know exactly what my characters look like. I know what race they are (in my world, race is nearly (but not exactly) equivalent to nationality). However, none of those races neatly line up with the "races" we have here.
My Shynians, for example - when they are actually Shynian and not mixed with either Cygman or Loyalian - have a skintone that is like a very deep tan, bone straight dark hair and gray or black eyes that have a sort of angular look to them. They also have high cheekbones. I'm guessing they sort of look Native American (maybe?). When they're mixed with Loyalian, they're taller and have lighter hair (more in the brown spectrum) and their skintone might be a bit lighter, but not a lot. When they're mixed with Cygman, they're hair gets lighter and wavy and their eyes tend more towards shades of blue.
In any case, I don't place judgements on any of them, except within their individual cultures. For example, Shynians tend to think of the pure Shynians as looking "best", so fairer women darken and straighten their hair to achieve that look.
Most of the characters in my story are vaguely Middle-Eastern: they have dark hair, and olive skin, with other stereotypically Arabian or Persian features. The ruling class of that area, however, has paler skin and fair hair, since they are descended from northern invaders. On the southern half of that continent, there are people whom we might call Asian, closer to people from Vietnam or Cambodia than from China, though. The Elves in the story look most like one of the Native American tribes from the West Coast. In the far, far, north are people known as 'Ice Traders', and only one of those people is met, who has very pale skin and bright red hair - vaguely Ukrainian.
I try to mix up the races so that I can create some racial tensions underlying a few cultures.
Just as another point of view - Unless there was some plot related reason to really dwell on skin color or whatever, wouldn't it be a more elegant idea to let the reader define it? I tend to completely and utterly ignore the author given descriptions, actually skimming over the bulk of it, and I *will* paint your character the way I see him, not the way you want me to. Each time, later on, that you belabour the point of his 'tawny, golden tan" skin , it is going to completely jar me out of immersion, especially since I am already picturing him in my minds eye more like me and less like your ideal.
And I don't think I am the only reader that does that.
The amount of description is down to individual author's style.
However, it's important to keep in mind that most readers "default to white", that is, if there's no description given (and sometimes even when it is), readers will imagine a white person. Some authors who wish to show that their world is not populated by white people alone might want to point that out to the readers.
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