My MC decided she is mixed race (Chinese/caucasian), and this is a first for me. How can I describe her appearance without being insensitve or offensive? What do I need to avoid altogether? Is there any reading material out there that I can pull from?
Extra details: She's 17, Chinese father, American mother. The novel will be in 3rd person, but follow her point of view rather closely for most of the book. Other parts might be from the POV of her best friend, who is of Eastern European descent.
Why do you need to describe her at all? Just mention the nationalities of her parents, and maybe mention traits she has in common with each of them (her mother's eyes, for example). Focus on the details that make her unique. The reader will fill in the rest.
This is probably what I'll end up doing. I'm mostly concerned with what I should avoid.
Physical Descriptions of POC Characters
1. KISS Keep it simple stupid.
Glowing amber skin... no. brown, light brown, etc.
2. Play an even hand.
Whites should get described too. White =/= default. Don't make it so.
3. 99.9% of the time do not use food.
Especially with women. Women aren't there to be eaten.
4. Do not exoticize the character.
Unless your character POV is a jerk, in which case, go at it. This would be things like making the PoC character all sexual (or over sexual), only hot for white guys/gals, mysterious and distant, a beast or basically un-human. Human comes first.
5. Look up stereotypes and the full range.
There are Chinese with freckles, naturally wavy hair, naturally lighter hair, black eyes, brown eyes, double eyelids,. single eyelids.
6. Not all PoCs in the same group look the same. *show* the range or at least *mention* it.
7. DO NOT rely solely on physical description to tell what culture the person belongs to. If you don't feel compelled to describe every detail of someone white, why are you playing such an uneven hand? Also avoid lynch pin physical traits.
8. Oh and if your head is still stuck, read PoC authors from those specific groups. The majority of the time it's done well.
Physical concerns should be the least of your troubles though. It should be the cultural concerns that get the majority of your attention. Writing 101 FAQ covers culture and writing other.
Thanks! I'm basically printing this out as a reminder for November. Physical concerns are definitely NOT my biggest concern, it's just where I'm the most ignorant.
Point 3 made me curious. There are people who compare women to food? Could you give any examples?
Using things like "cream" and "chocolate" to describe skin color, etc. It makes authors sound like cannibals.
I have a character on a star trek forum who is of darker skin tone and I usually describe it as caramel lol.
But I understand your dilemma, i'm in the same boat with a Native American character in my story. Lucky I knew someone from that decent online and we had a discussion on stereotypes and how to describe them. He told me what to avoid and what terms are actually racist that I was unaware of.
Almond eyes, Chocolate Skin. Mocha, Latte, honey, espresso, raisins (raisin-colored skin, meaning the dark kind), mango, coconut, Twinkie... (Last two are derogatory and were reclaimed.)
For some odd reason, with more frequency it happens more to PoC women in books which means it's crossing both issues.
This is most egregious in 19th century accounts of mixed-race women in the South. There's even that "Lady Marmalade" song where the woman, a prostitute in New Orleans, is described as having skin the colour of cafe au lait. Mixed race women get it a lot -- it's to make them sound exotic and desirable and consumable, especially when they are presented to the reader as a sex object.
It's a trope I hate. Find another comparison. There are thousands of things out there that resemble skin tone, not just food. Food is a really dangerous ground. Also, consider how you describe yourself to others. If you had to describe yourself to an artist, what comparisons would you make to get across the tone of your skin? Food's not high on my list, personally.
Don't refer to her eyes as exotic or, even worse, slanted.
Where is the best friend from?
I guess this is also an issue for me because I'm one of those writers who goes into a lot of detail when describing main characters---like what their nose and facial structure looks like. Descriptions like "She had brown hair and brown eyes" have always annoyed me to death.
Would it be considered insensitive if I described my Japanese MC as having "almond eyes" and a "button nose"?
Yes. I'll show you pictures.
Emperor of Japan (That's a huge nose and not button)
Yes, there are people with smaller noses, but don't automatically go for the Western stereotype (Which oddly looks like the alien stereotype Really? Short with slanted eyes and big and round with no noses... *cough*)
http://wiki.d-addicts.com/Yamashita_Tomohisa has a smaller nose.
Also check the heights... many Japanese now can be taller than the average American. The height stereotype is OLD and outdated.
And no comparing to food. Foreigners are not edibles.
Eye shapes vary in Japan too, despite that stupid game that kindergarteners like to play. I think the few people and pictures I've linked show that.
Writing outside of your experience usually means flushing the stuff that was indoctrinated into you while you weren't looking. I know it's hard. Which is why looking at the range is a good idea. If you want to cheat and get away from the alien image, pick a Japanese celebrity and then base the looks on them when you describe.
Since we're here, I have to repeat my question from previous year. Sorry for stepping in italiana's thread, but I suppose this discussion is about general guidelines and not any specific example.
Here's my problem: I have no idea how to describe what is often refer to as "Asian eyes". I don't think there's an appropriate (non-offensive) way to do it. Well, there is: I can mention epichantic folds. But I'm afraid not many people know what it means.
The usual way to do it (mentioning character's nationality or ethnic group (not to be confused with race), mentioning "Asian eyes") won't do it because I write fantasy and there's no such a thing as Asia or any countries, nations and ethnic groups known to us.
And before you ask: no, it's not a big deal that some of my characters have eyes with epichantic folds. But, a) one of them is a narrator's love interest so she is more likely to notice all the little details about him and b) being fantasy that's not set in a world inspired by any Asian cultures, I do wish to signalize to readers that there's a variety in my cast.
No apology needed -- I'd like to see an answer to this myself. It would probably end up helping me out too!
I talked to many people about this (mostly East Asians) and there's no good word, only the bad ones. It's not like I find it surprising: racial slurs are still alive and ticking and I think it's good that words get questioned. It's also telling, in a bad way, that there isn't an inoffensive word for eyes with epichantic folds
The thing is that eyes that are common with NE asians are also seen among people of African descent.
The thing is that there isn't a single Asian eye, which will get you into trouble. In addition, remember that Asia covers a whole bunch of countries. Not all East Asians have epicanthic folds or single eyelids either. And some other peoples also carry the trait (Look up Mongolian conquests... and look at Hungary) I also vaguely remember that some Native Americans also carry the trait.
This usually runs people into trouble because they use it as a lynch pin trait to say to the reader: LOOK THIS PERSON IS EAST ASIAN!! But if you look at the range you'll see that's not true.
It's easier to talk about double eyelid surgery on the side or compare eyes casually rather than hit the reader over the head. You can do make up room kind of stuff, if you want to go cheap.
Google Japanese People and you'll see a range of eye shapes, colors, and eyelids. Same with Chinese and Korean.
Ah, also remember that it's thought that the trait was developed to help with snow glare, though this isn't 100% proven by a long shot, and the thesis may have changed while I wasn't looking.
Like I said, I know it's not unique to people of EA descend. Scandinavians and Eastern Europeans often have them. I know all about Mongolian conquests - they happened in my part of the world and you should see my eyes as a baby. It's not as pronounced now (nose growth neutralized it; I have one of those sharp, bird-like noses). Native Americans migrated from Asia to the Americas.
I also know there isn't a single Asian eye - but I still don't know how to describe eyes with epichantic folds.
None of my characters will undergo a double eyelid surgery; it's often done here due to problems associated with racism (external or internalized) but without it, I strongly suspect many people would want to change the shape of their eyelids. Sure, I can have someone hit my character in the eye and mention his epichantic fold in passing, but it's not really descriptive.
I have a character who's also bi-racial (Japanese/Italian). What might throw people off is that he has blue eyes (which have a mild fantastical explanation. It's a fantasy story). I either allude to his heritage or just flat out say that he looks part Asian.
I noticed that I tend to describe Asian eyes as sharp (most likely in regards to the epicanthic fold), though it's not really accurate, and it usually also alludes to the character's personality. Hooded also does not apply to just Asians, and I don't know if that may be considered offensive terminology. Almond-shaped is also not really accurate. (On another note, I think I finally figured out why Asian eyes look so distinctive; it was one of those things that I had a hard time trying to describe. Now to figure out a good way to explain how weasels and ferrets look different...)
If I was in your situation, jefflion, I might say epicanthic fold anyway. A lot of people probably don't know what it is (I didn't until recently, and I'm East Asian myself), but they'll have a chance to learn. Though this does bring up some inner conflict about my feelings when authors use obscure words... Hmm...
Yeah, my first thought when I read the word "epicanthic" was that is was so oddly specific. It is the perfect word to describe it, but it's almost...too perfect. Unless every other main character is described with this much specificity, I feel like this description would stick out in some way.
I'm thinking of just mentioned that the character is Japanese, not going into too much detail about the facial features and letting the readers fill in the gaps. I feel like I'd rather be vague than say something that could possible offend someone.
I do like to describe my characters by drawing attention to certain details rather than head to toe description. But come on, he's her dream guy, of course she'll look at his eyes a lot! "He had black/dark brown eyes" just won't cut it here.
My problem is that there is no Asia or Japan in my world so it's next to impossible to imply these things and let people fill in the blanks.
Ahh, I see your dilemma haha :P
In that case, I would say go ahead and be as specific as possible. Especially if it's a first person narration, it actually makes sense for your characters to be described in a lot of detail since you can't rely on describing race. If anything, I think it will actually make your story more realistic and make the readers feel like they are actually part of a world without such countries.
Honestly I would never use the word epicanthic just to describe a person's face. Just flat out say that they're asian (or half-asian) and let readers use their imagination.
I'll repeat: I write fantasy. There's no such a thing as Asia in my world.
Inda is Asian. Japan is Asian. It's kind of tricky to tell which one a character's from just by the words "they're Asian."
That obviously goes without saying. If you want readers to make sure they're envisioning a chinese person then use chinese instead of asian, etc.
But you don't need to physically describe the shape of their face, their eyes, their skin tone, in order to tell readers that the character is asian. Just flat out tell them they're asian. This is one of those cases where you TELL not show.
They can also pick up clues that the character is asian (or a specific type of asian) from the character's name too. No one would think that a Wendy Chang would be anything other than chinese, for instance, unless you state otherwise.
That's the thing. Naming system in my world is different and there are no Asian countries, so how can I make my readers picture my characters?
You might profit from "dreamcasting" some of your characters. Get pictures of real people that resemble your characters and have their picture in front of you when you try to describe them. How do they differ from each other? How do they differ from other races? Do some exercises before November where you simply describe the physical characteristics of your characters.
I don't know if this would help you, but it might be interesting to see how you react to images.
Oh, I know how they look like. It's just somewhat difficult to find people who look like them because most of them would be seen as racially mixed in our world, and sadly, mixed race celebrities are still not that popular. (Though one of my guys just forces me to imagine him as Slash even though he is not supposed to look like him).
But there are some celebs I might use as inspiration. I believe I mentioned model Aline Nakashima earlier in this thread. I just have no idea where to find pictures of regular (non-celebrity) people.
Also, the character I was talking about is narrators love interest so obviously he has to be described in more flowery terms. Call me a hopeless romantic, but I'd rather make her focus on his eyes and the rest of his face than his abs or something. ;)
I don't know about the eye colour being influenced by magic. I mean, it can happen without it so make it clear you're not doing it to explain why your character doesn't have dark eyes.
For example, model Aline Nakashima. I believe her eyes are naturally green (at least this is how it's listed in her profile).
I mean, I totally dig magic eyes and what not but I wouldn't focus on it.
I don't like to use obscure words but what can you do in this situation? I'd rather use an obscure word than something cliche, inaccurate or, worst of all, offensive.
Oh, don't worry; I know it happens, it's just rather uncommon. The reason for his eye color isn't really touched upon in-story--they just are. (It's actually because he inherited it from his not-human dad, though I don't think I'll ever explain it precisely. Then again, considering his family, it may also be completely natural regardless of magic. Hm... Ambiguity.) I wanted to touch a bit on how some people will fetishize or discriminate because they don't look *certain ethnicity* enough.
Mm, yeah. I suppose part of it is that there aren't really good (and accurate) descriptors for eyes in general. Large, small, wide, narrow, almond-shaped, round... It doesn't really portray the /shape/, except for maybe almond-shaped.
The first time I encountered the description of 'Asian' eyes as having folds was in Diana Wynne Jones' The Homeward Bounders, where one character is described as having folds in his eyelids, but the word 'epicanthic' doesn't come up. I didn't realise that was what they were called, so I imagined something very different and inaccurate, and it was completely lost on me for years that the character was supposed to be fantasy-Asian.
(It probably didn't help that the character as pictured on the cover was super blond.)
Cover art is another issue. Many POC characters end up being Caucasian on the covers.
I do agree that "epichantic fold" is probably not the best way to describe it. Not many people will know what it means.
Most East Asians on their own TV shows tend to call it single eye lid or double eyelid and compare in that fashion. Since that's consistent across East Asia (Japan, Korea and I think Taiwan, if not Mainland) that would be the safest bet.
Yes, I might go with that. At least it sounds like something a teen girl might say when describing her love interest (there's no way she'd mention epicanthic folds; no teen talks like that).
In my fantasy novel, I write about Elves - many of them happen to be Asian. However, I don't narrate what they look like... I let the dialogue reveal what they look like. That way, 'racism' doesn't become a sensitive issue since it's not the author describing the characters, it's the characters describing/insulting each other... I feel less guilty that way lol
And if anyone thinks I'm racist, they can look at my published book cover fold and realize I'm *gasp* Asian. haha (that is, if I ever get published)
I am probably a complete noob when it comes to this topic since I am white and from a country with few non-Caucasian immigrants. So issues like this rarely arise here.
Your discussion, however, reminded me of a poem by Langston Hughes which I studied as a teenager when I spent a few months in an American high school: www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/177389
I find this poem really beautiful but he uses food and drink A LOT to describe the women of Harlem. So... is this OK because he is an African American poet? Or because the poem was written many years ago? Or is it not OK?
I think there's a difference between 'this is not okay ever' and 'this happens a lot and it's getting old and could people maybe try a little harder to come up with something new'.
The same thing applies to character types (not to derail the thread, just to draw an analogy) - what's wrong with a character who's a dark-skinned dude, tall, strong, good-hearted, spiritual, who speaks slowly and deliberately but with meaningful insight? Nothing. What's wrong with hundreds and hundreds of characters being like that to the point where we get Magical Negro and Hulking Black Man clichés? Lots.
Sometimes it's more about the pattern than the specific case.
The thing is that magical Negro, noble savages, etc. are archetypes based on racism. It's not about noble Native Americans in touch with nature being simply overdone. These types don't have any base in reality - they are based on European stereotypes and misconceptions about these cultures.
It's more than having a tall black man with a heart of gold or a Chinese character who happens to know martial arts.
I'd say it's okay since he's an African-American who uses it with a specific poetic purpose rather than just as a tired cliché. To me, thats an entirely different thing. Though I'm a white guy, so obviously I don't have the last word on the subject.
The poem is called "Harlem Sweeties" the point was to describe them as treats. It's kind of like the song Brown Sugar, where he could be singing about a woman or weed. That's just artistic license. If you write a book comparing every single character you introduce to a food product, I say go for it.
This is a good topic. I honestly do not go out of my way to make things "less offensive" because when I describe a character, it's usually from the point of view of another character. For example, the MC meeting a love interest for the first time. I don't describe the love interest as I see her, I describe her from the mind of the MC. If the MC is a bit close-minded, he may describe the other person in exotic and stereotypical ways.
If you are describing the character from YOUR point of view, it is best to at least be not OVERLY offensive, but if it's coming from the POV of one of your characters, don't be afraid to offend if it adds to the overall personality of your character. You do not want them to be someone they are not.
Common stereotypes to be avoided (yes, with links to TvTropes, which I don't think it's the best or most educational source, but they provide a lot of specific examples):
Scary Black Man
Sassy Black Woman
Asian and Nerdy
And since we're there, some other common tropes:
Mighty Whitey - probably the most important trope for white authors to understand (and never attempt in their fiction!)
Stereotypes about Chinese People
Some of My Best Friends Are X - Why having friends of other races, sexual orientations, nationalities, etc. doesn't automatically make you non-racist (homophobic, xenophobic, etc.)
But Not Too Black
Also Submissive Asian woman, but wild in private. (All ages forum... so yeah)
General note to check with a group of people from that group to get range of opinion. Not just one person.
I'd also like to add to the list stupid statements such as "India isn't part of Asia." Uhh... Might wanna check that.
I am writing a half caucasian half chinese MC as well.
I'm not physically describing him other than how he does his hair and his body size. There's no point to describe facial features. Rather you can depict such a character's mixness through other means, like showing them at home and how they have to juggle two cultures, etc.
Another thing white writers should keep in mind: mentioning a person's race per se is NOT a bad thing. There's no problem in saying that someone is black, for example. Some whites falsely believe that mentioning someone's race or ethnic group (again, it's not the same thing!) is offensive, but in reality, ignoring to acknowledge something like this is offensive because it makes you ignore an important aspect of someone's identity. In short, "colour blindness" doesn't work, mainly because it's not honest.
So, in short, acknowledging someone's race or ethnicity is not a bad thing per se, and sometimes, saying "John is black" is easier than going at great length describing his appearance because you don't want to mention his race.
Note, however, that mentioning only races or physical appearance or anything else for POC only and not for whites is bad because it signals that you believe white is the norm. Try to avoid sending the message that everybody in your book is WASP until proven otherwise. For various reasons, readers will probably fall into this trap (especially if you are a white author) but make sure your novel is not sending this message itself.
Oh, and another thing: please, make an effort to understand why certain things are bad, offensive or simply make you look incredibly stupid & ignorant. Don't let your only motive for writing POC characters be to prove that you are an open minded person. Don't expect a cookie - POC are not there to be grateful to you.
Similarly, choose to use neutral (inoffensive) terms and character traits because you understand the need for portraying real, three dimensional characters of all races, NOT because you fear you might be called racist for using certain words or stereotypes (this isn't about italiana87; just a friendly reminder to white writers that they should not do this for a cookie).
And since we're there, don't pick other (non-racial) stereotypes because certain groups are seen as accessible targets. Please, no stinky hairy Eastern Europeans. No sexist Muslims. No sassy Italian girls whose dad is a mafia boss. No confused foreigner with a funny English accent. You get the idea.
Remember, racefail is not the only type of fail; you can still display xenophobia or religious intolerance through your writing. Not to mention your ignorance.
One of the first things I do when approaching the writing of a story is to create its narrator. The narrator can be very different from me. This choice of narrator will set the voice used to tell the story, its tone and diction. Some of the voices of my stories are "high-brow"; others are informal and friendly, almost chatty.
The narrator will use whatever language s/he wants to to tell the story and describe its characters. If the narrator is a racist jerk, then her/his voice will reflect that attitude when describing the characters and settings and, well, everything else. If the narrator truly does not care about those sorts of things, then the reader likely will not be told about them.
A good popular example of this "narrator creation" is Nabokov's 1st person POV narrator Humbert Humbert, in his "Lolita". When I read that novel, I don't think Nabokov is writing out of any experiences as a sexual predator and child molestor. I think he's writing out of the brilliant creation of a 1st person voice; a wonderfully snarky and jaded loser of a narrator.
I create narrators for my third person POV stories too, not just my 1st's.
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