Describing characters of color in writing

Some examples from my own writing, submitted for your consideration. Not a claim of correctness or The Best Way or anything of the sort. Just my way. And yeah, this is in part inspired by a certain very lengthy discussion of race, representation, and respect in the SF/F community that took place recently in the blogosphere. But I also just felt like sharing.

ETA: And because this post continues to get hits months later, folks might be interested in Part 2, which was posted at the Magic District, and part 3, written a few months later.

Some of this is published, some forthcoming, some is not pub’d and never shall be. Taken from shorts and novels.

Across the park’s wide avenue stood a new figure. He had depicted himself as a tall middle-aged male, Shanghainese and dignified, dressed in an outdated business suit.

Meroe stared at the girl, not liking what he was seeing. The avatar was just too well-designed, too detailed. Her features and coloring matched that of some variety of Latina; probably Central or South American given the noticeable indigenous traits. Most of their kind created Caucasian avatars to start — a human minority who for some reason comprised the majority of images available for sampling…

To protect himself, Meroe adopted his default avatar: a lean, bald human male clad only in black skin and silver tattoos. Zo became a human female, dainty and pale and demurely gowned from neck to ankle to complement Meroe’s appearance.

He was a thin brown man with a quiet manner and a noticeable slouch.

He watched the blackeyes of my nipples rise and fall…

I sat on the riverbank, twisting my hair into rows along my scalp. It would dry overnight and then I could let it loose to dangle in spirals like a cloud-dragon’s neck.

His skin was darker than any glancing touch of the sun could produce, a color that reminded Jinn of a warm late-autumn day.

She would never have taken up jogging if there’d still been people around to watch her, maybe point and laugh at the jiggly big-boned sistah trying to be FloJo. Before the prolif she’d only just begun to shed her self-consciousness around the Japanese. They rarely stared when she could see them, and her students had gotten used to her by then, but on the street she’d always felt the pressure of the neighbors’ gazes against her back, skittering away from her peripheral vision when she turned. The days of Sambo dolls at the corner store were mostly over, but not a lot of Japanese had seen black people anywhere except on television.

Wealthy men had commissioned sculptures with lips less lush, bones less graceful; sugared currants were not as temptingly black as her skin.

Instead he had only Anai herself to contemplate: a plain-faced female of distressingly common mien, whose thin frame at the moment was adorned by a stained burku wrap and a magnificent black eye. Anai could guess the old bastard’s thoughts from his face. This is the Shadow? he was doubtless ranting to himself. This gutter scum, the color of tea dregs? She’s not even pretty enough to be a whore.

He had no skill at gauging human ages, but she seemed only two, maybe three decades old, not even halfway to death yet. Lean as an alley cat, equally quick and graceful in her motions; brown-skinned and white-toothed and clever-eyed.

He wore very little, trusting the darkness of his skin for camouflage as he crept along the tower’s wall guided by the sounds of the city.

He had strange eyes — a clear, pale brown, like amber from the tall forests across the sea. Amazing that these Gujaareen had allowed even their royal line to be diluted by northern stock.(Note: this is from a novel in which nearly all the characters are southerners, who are generally black in varying shades; context makes it clear that “northern” = “white”.)

Where they were shades of brown and red-gold, his skin was a matte deepness of black, hinting at blue in the Hall’s variegated light.

Up close, he saw that despite the masculine dress she was pretty in a lowcaste sort of way: small but sturdy-built, her face broad and high-boned, with skin the warm ocher of ripe pears.

She had no idea of the Banbarra’s origins, but they had clearly mixed themselves less widely than Hanani’s folk. Though she caught the occasional glimpse of hazel eyes or paler skin, for the most part they were brown of hair and skin and eye, with sharp features that seemed naturally fierce to Hanani.

She’d ornamented her natural attributes carefully: gold and topaz to emphasize the shading of her flesh, sapphire to offset her black hair.

I got the crown of his head at first, and marvelled as always at the feel of hair like my own — soft-curled, dense but yielding, thick enough to lose my fingers in. The first time I’d touched him I’d thought he was one of my people, because only Maroneh had such hair.

Men praise parts of me endlessly — always the parts, mind you, never the whole. They love my long legs, my graceful neck, my storm of hair, my breasts. (Especially my breasts.) Most of the men in Shadow are Amn, so they also comment on my smooth near-black Maro skin even though I tell them there are half a million other women in the world with the same feature. Half a million is not so many measured against the whole world, I suppose, so that always gets included in their qualified, fragmentary admiration.

My hair, which someone had tied back into a puff in an effort to control it, broke the tie and clouded loose behind me.

I am not very interesting to look at. It might have been different if I had gotten the traits of my two peoples in a better combination. Amn height with Darre curves, perhaps, or thick straight Darre hair colored Amn-pale. I have Amn eyes: faded green in color, more unnerving than pretty. Otherwise I am short and flat and brown as forestwood, and my hair is a curled mess. Because I find it unmanageable otherwise, I wear it short. I am sometimes mistaken for a boy.

Observations after looking at this:

  • 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.
  • Am also surprised to realize that I write a lot of stories in which appearance isn’t described at all, though race is obvious from context — e.g., “Sinners, Saints, Dragons, and Haints, in the City Beneath the Still Waters”, which takes place in New Orleans’ Ninth Ward after Hurricane Katrina. There’s a handful of white, Latino, etc. folks in the Ninth Ward, but I took the risk of assuming that anyone who’s watched Katrina coverage on TV will default to assuming that the characters are all black (they are). So again, I only described them in relation to each other. Also, since I lived in NOLA for several years, I took care to use the particular city dialect used by black New Orleanians vs. white New Orleanians (actually there are several variations of each, but I picked the black NO dialect I was most familiar with, which actually may not be accurate because I mostly hung out with people from NO East, not the Ninth Ward, but anyway), but I suspect that’s too esoteric for most people to pick up on.
  • Am also surprised at how often I describe white people. Going to have to come up with some new words for them, though… I overuse “pallid”.
  • I often use names to convey ethnicity. In “Commission on the Establishment of Extrasolar Trade:
    Evaluation” (unpub’d), the two viewpoint characters are named Paul Srinivasan and Thandiwe Solomon, and later it’s noted that Thandiwe is from South Africa (it’s a Xhosa name). Stole Srinivasan’s name from a friend’s Indian husband. The same story has a Gilberto (Brazilian), a Wei (who is the only one explicitly identified in the story as Han Chinese), a Principe (Puerto Rican), a Wheton (could be anyone in any Commonwealth/Western-colonized country, but I intended her to be British, and white), and a Rafkind (ditto, but intended to be American, and white).

  • I also use a lot of indirection that’s unfortunately easy to misinterpret. In “The You Train”, I never mention that the viewpoint character is black. Her dialect hints at it, as does her mention of a blonde co-worker. But she could just be Southern; a lot of white Southern (and for some reason, Midwestern) women talk the same way. And maybe she’s a brunette. But anyway.

ETA: Whoops, forgot one from The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. That last quote is a description of the protagonist there.

I’m curious to see others’ descriptions. Anybody reading who’s a writer — would you be willing to post some of yours, in the comments?

27 Responses »

  1. THANK YOU for posting this. One of the things that makes me hesitant when I’m writing characters of color is that I don’t know the right words for describing skin in particular. For white I know sallow, ruddy, jaundiced, deeply tanned, pallid… I know that there’s just as wide a range of brown, but I don’t know if there’s a similar wordset or if it’s okay to use the same set that I use for white skin. You know?

    I try to pick it up from reading, but it’s rare to come across a giant cluster of descriptions like this. Truly, enormously helpful.

    Here are some of mine, published and not.

    Something was wrong. The whites showed around Kaj’s remarkable eyes, a blue-green so iridescent they seemed to dull all the plants around them.

    His perfect teeth flashed like sunshine against the ink of space.

    (Set in 1928, Chattanooga)
    He grabbed his jacket as they stepped into the hall, trying for the sporty and casual look. From the classroom next to the lab, emerged Addie. She was a petite colored woman, with large dark eyes. The white aprons that the ladies on the cleaning staff wore seemed as pristine as if it had just come from the laundry. Harloyd didn’t see how she could clean the university and not get her apron dirty.

    She bobbed her head when she saw them, liquid brown eyes going wide for a moment in surprise.

    (Later)
    Addie stood in front of their gas range, frying squash. She might have been a kitchen display at Loveman’s, standing there in her navy polka dot dress with the red apron his mother’d given her. Except her powder had worn away, showing her natural skin tone. He glanced at the window to make sure the curtains were drawn. The ingredients were so darn expensive that she only wore it when they went out or had company.

    Heck, it only worked on account of how her features looked practically aryan anyway. The feds had outlawed importation of jasmine, the key ingredient in a true passing powder, back in 1904.

    His wife’s black hair had been carefully straightened and then forced into pincurls which left her neck bewitchingly bare.

    (Later)
    The latch rattled and Addie slipped out of the stall. Her eyes were red and swollen with tears. He’d known her powder wasn’t working, but somehow, seeing her at Loveman’s where he only ever saw her with fair skin made her natural pale brown tone seem darker than it did at home. Addie flinched when she passed the mirror.


    One of the Fae — a stunning woman with dark brown skin whom Cassie might have said was African-American, if that had made sense — stopped her before she got to the screen.

    Cassie glanced at the — African-Fae woman? That didn’t make sense either, since she was unlikely to be from Africa. And she was gorgeous too. Were all Fae beautiful– no, not just beautiful, but perfect? This woman’s hair surrounded her head in a perfect sphere. She wore small diamonds in it which twinkled as if her head bore stars and the night sky.

  2. Don’t worry — many of us *are* pallid. It’s a very useful word. It’s right up there with “pasty.”

    Let’s see, the examples that spring to mind are:

    “I’ve seen a sliver of your skin. Dark against mine when I fuck you. I’ve memorized the planes of your face, the swell of your lower lip, the way your eyes widen just for a second when you first see me waiting for you here. Your paint doesn’t hide who you are. Not from me.”

    I waited until nearly halfway through the story to slip that in. The only other description of this guy before that is that he has shoulder-length hair. My hope was to startle readers with the fact that this character was actually a dark-skinned man when they got to that bit.

    In Machine, the protag does the classic “staring in the mirror” trick:

    “The face that stared back at her looked exactly like her own. Same warm beige skin, same honey colored eyes and dark tan spiral curled hair that was always just a little too springy to manage. Same lips that were halfway between her mother’s skinny Polish/Irish lips and the full African lips from her father’s picture. The same lips that Rivka used to trace with her finger–”

    I tried looking up better color terms, but the scene read like it was written by a thesaurus. For the record, I stole Celia’s appearance from a woman I saw on the T one day. Good god, she was gorgeous.

    And in “Mercytanks,” I described a black man through the eyes of someone who lives so far in the future that race as we know it is meaningless:

    “A warm brown face stared at her, and she stared back, enthralled at the pure humanblank features. It was a study in imperfections: short, black hair in skinny ropes of haphazard lengths and thicknesses; a nose that splayed crookedly across the face; skin of uneven color and texture, tiny scars scattered across its surface; eyes with slightly different iris patterns. It looked male, but Tanjel had learned not to assume. People from that far back were essentially alien.”

    I’m not thrilled with any of these descriptions, but then again, description isn’t my writing strength. Not by a long shot. It’s so funny to read reviews of my book that say things like “Pelland’s style is clear and sharp. There’s little elaboration and less purple poesy,” or “Pelland’s storytelling is lean yet fluid, devoid of tangential narrative meanderings and overly-detailed descriptions.” Every time a reviewer says something like that, I just laugh and say, “It’s because I’m so bad at those things that I don’t do them!”

  3. Ah, I like your description of the Fae woman. Are yours the usual Irish/Celtic-based Fae, or something else?

    There is a wordset that’s commonly used in African-American Interest fiction, but it’s problematic. Lots of coffees, chocolates, and flavors based on coffee and chocolate (e.g., mocha, cafe au lait). I pointed out to someone on my LJ, as it was pointed out to me (by someone else, whom I would attribute if I could remember -_- ) that black slaves got used to harvest coffee, chocolate, and related crops, so there’s some very creepy historical irony in using these commodities to describe a people who were themselves commodified. I suspect a similar problem exists in Asian American fiction — I’ve seen a few references to “exotic” looks and “porcelain” skin that just smack of the language (and viewpoints) of European colonizers rather than the people themselves.

    So I think the wordsets still need to be improved-upon.

  4. I’ve pulled the “surprise! she’s black!” trick before. It bugs me that this has to be done, and that the assumptions of the SF audience are so damned predictable that it works, over and over again. ::sigh:: But maybe if we do it enough, things will change.

  5. Thanks. The main Fae in the story are Irish/Celtic complete with the Seelie and Unseelie Courts. I don’t reference it directly in the book, but there are other courts in other countries with different traditions.

    I got called on the coffee, chocolate thing by an early reader of one of my stories, so I stopped using them, but I didn’t have anything else to replace that wordset with.

    On the one hand, it’s a matter of not being lazy as a writer. But there’s also the background characters, the ones that appear briefly and go away where you want to be able to sketch them without describing them. If I describe a grocery boy as a “ruddy Irish lad” I’m pretty sure everyone knows what I mean. It’s the short hand descriptions of characters of color that trip me up.

  6. Okay, so this is freaking awesome. Now I want to do one of my own. :D

  7. Ahahaha, and I just saw the part where you invited us to post some in comments. So. Here are two I had on hand. I am most certainly doin’ it wrong, but:

    “Her skin is dark; her hair is a million tight black cords that might either have the texture of soft yarn or cobraskin; her body spreads out below those burning eyes, long and long and long. Of course the Almighty would be a beautiful woman — they are harder to look at than quarks. And they always have some damning reason why you can’t just do what you want, stare at them and love them and know their secrets.”

    “She was the first thought on my mind when I woke up. I knew because I was imagining the way her thick plum-colored hair stuck up at the front and sides; only Natalya’s hair was that obtuse. I saw in my mind … her legs, smooth and endless and crowned by orange painted toes. The fabric of her long dress, flowering down to her ankles when she stood, had crawled to the top of her thighs and revealed the deep brown birthmark across one kneecap. I put out my fingers, touched it.”

  8. Both of these refer to photos of the same woman.

    “The first thing A noticed was the scar, a ragged thing running from near the woman’s left temple across her cheek to twist the left corner of her mouth, giving her a discontented look. She’d turned her face to make sure the photo showed the scar in full, making no effort to disguise it. Would it be more or less obvious on paler skin? A couldn’t tell, still, even without the scar A didn’t think she’d be beautiful, only pretty. The same sort of pretty as L, where good make-up and a strong or engaging enough personality would create the illusion of beauty. And from the hint of defiance in her eyes, and the challenge that curved her lips she certainly had a strong enough personality to make you forget about her appearance in person. Despite the twist her lips were full and sensuous, her nose was broad and snubbed up just a little at the tip. She had broad cheeks and a high smooth brow, with large dark eyes, either black or a brown dark enough to be mistaken for it. Her hair was obviously long, past her shoulders, black and with just a hint of a curl.”

    “She was wearing loose trousers and a high necked tunic with long arms, falling to the middle of her thighs, loose at her waist and maybe just a little tight across her breasts. Tight, or fitted perfectly, A couldn’t tell from the photo. She was partly supporting herself with a cane, meaning there had to be nerve damage – it was one thing to refuse cosmetic correction for a scar, and another altogether to deny yourself functionality. Her knuckles had paled a little from how tightly she was gripping her cane and her free hand rested on her hip, drawing attention to her curves, and to her slight lean. There was a distant look in her eyes, but A could see how she’d set her teeth – enduring the pain of shifting until the photographer found a pose to satisfy him perhaps?”

    Also there’s this;

    “Francis had painted his face expertly, to emphasise and enhance his darkly delicate looks” which I hope is compatable with a character of colour.

  9. This is fascinating–thanks, I’ve linked it at fight_derailing.

  10. Unpublished descriptors:

    “She did admire his clan scars. Three fan marks adorned each cheek, the sign of the Fan, one of the oldest clans of the Inoucain peoples. Her own clan, Blue Starry Robe, didn’t require scars, and since it was a newer clan, she rarely thought about clan-kin and clan-ties. Not like someone from the Fan. Gods, they were almost like the Aireii peoples with their obsession about blood ties—though with the Aireii that had to do more with the magics that ran in their blood than the clan-ties the older Inoucain clans obsessed over. He was the picture of a classic, old-kin Inoucain man—so different from her paler brown self, tribute of her unknown father. Katerin had been teased for being Aireii-kin—though, as far as she knew, she carried no part of Aireii blood; she just ran to the fair side of the Inoucain. But Makri was clearly old-kin, clearly pure-blood Inoucain—she wanted to run her fingers over the scars, through his dark curled hair, kiss his thick lips—by Dovré, the healing circuit had been long and lonely this summer.”

    In non-fantasy writing, I tend to use a lot of Latino characters simply because I know them better than African American or Asians.

  11. Intriguing (your multiple courts of fae). Have you read Midnight Never Come by Marie Brennan? It’s got a similar implication of multicultural fae, though we only see the English ones (which makes sense given that the story takes place in, uh, England =P).

    Re: shorthand descriptions — I think a lot depends on the viewpoint from which you’re writing. There are words that the people within a race use to describe each other. If you’re writing from within the PoV of a CoC, then you could use those. If you’re writing within the PoV of a white character, though — well, I can’t speak for everyone, but I generally expect the white PoV to use the shorthand language that American society has used for the past X hundred years. (Not the racist slurs, unless the character is racist, but just the general descriptors.) It would seem strange to me for a white PoV to say “a red-haired young man of some African and probably Irish descent with middling-toned, freckled skin” instead of just “a black guy.” The latter’s an imprecise description, yes, but the former just kind of smacks of a writer trying too hard to avoid mentioning race.

  12. Here you go!

    These are from The Duchess, Her Maid, The Groom and Their Lover, which takes place in an alternate universe, but essentially European:

    “searching in vain for another flicker of humanity in her pale, regal face.”

    “His thick neck, pale hair, and heavy features could give the impression of stupidity, though she knew he was crafty and perhaps more intelligent than his master…”

    “…cost considerably more for one of the young men Madame Hubert had imported from a desert land far to the south. He had glimpsed them once or twice, on his way to the baths: slender men with flawless skin and dark outlining around their eyes, wearing only long silken drawers, layers of necklaces, and silver rings on their bare toes…their skin was too dark for any child of theirs to pass as the Duke’s.”

    “One of the women, the one with dark curls and brown skin, wore a lazy grin…The other, a skinny moon-pale woman with a squint…”

    “She was tall and willowy, gowned in velvet the color of charcoal, which set off her pale skin and long, wheat-colored curls.”

    “…his tea-colored skin sleek and his chest and limbs pleasingly muscular…the only hair on his body were the tight curls on his head…This close, she could see the old sword scars on his chest and arms.”

    “She saw more dark-skinned people than pale, some so dark they appeared almost like shadows in the bright sunlight, others of various skin shades from olive to brown, and a few paler than Camille, their skins freckled and tinged red by the sun.”

    “Her eyes crinkled at the corners. They were a startling, mossy green, like sunlit water, contrasting starkly with her honey-colored skin.”

    “…the dark-skinned one sat up, blinking sleepily, and Henri realized she was a girl, her long hair confined in many tiny, beaded braids.”

    These are from Moonlight Mistress, which is set in 1914 Europe:

    “Mason was easy; he was half Negro, and the most accurate shot in the company. Lyton was the oldest, already going gray. Private Figgis always had a cigarette hanging out of his mouth, whether it was lit or not; luckily, he also had a mole next to his nose, in case he ever lost the cigarette. Evans had curly dark hair much like Crispin’s own, and the remnants of a Welsh accent; Woods, the same age as Evans and usually in his company, looked at least five years younger. Cawley had hairy knuckles but was already going bald; Lincoln was also balding and generally wore a sour expression. Skuce was the best card player, aside from Hailey. After Meyer, Corporal Joyce was the best-looking, though too muscular for Crispin’s taste, and Southey was another easy one, his hair palest blond, with a graceful walk that reminded Crispin of …Tobin Major…Pale and pudgy, and much tougher than he appeared, Lieutenant Smith of the fourth platoon…”

    “Meyer’s pale skin had always flushed easily…”

    “…a soldier, a Gurkha; there’d been a group of them earlier in the evening, she remembered now, most of them with barely a lick of English. The doctors had depended on one of the ambulatory Sikh patients to translate, and none of them had liked it much. This Gurkha wasn’t much bigger than Hailey, though much more muscular and cheerfully dangerous-looking; he had a dirty bandage around his thigh.”

    “His neck looked startlingly pale and vulnerable.”

    “…even a group of French colonials, tall black men in red caps who came from Senegal, a country that to him was only a place on a map, but to these men was home. The Africans did not look happy with the gray sky and the damp chill in the air; some were so swathed in layers of scarves that their faces could hardly be distinguished.”

    “…human man, his pale freckled skin…”

  13. My work in progress is set in North Africa, so it shouldn’t be too surprising that the cast isn’t white. But still, I pulled a Neil Gaiman near the beginning:

    “Syfax followed her gaze and saw a tall woman in a yellow dress standing beside a short white man in a pale robe.”

    I’m not great with physical description to begin with (I’m stronger on dialogue and action), but painting artful racial portraits doesn’t strike me as too awkward, if you just set rules for your book on what is important, what isn’t important, and what palette of words you want to use (ie, no coffee, but perhaps references to earth, wood, metals, stones, sand, fire, or flowers…).

  14. This is how I described Jeremy and Fletcher in “Rise and Go”, a short story I wrote for Yuletide a few years back set just after C. J. Cherryh’s Finity’s End: I was about three-quarters of the way through the story at this point.

    He’d seen Fletcher naked, they shared a cabin, but this wasn’t Fletcher like he was when they were stumbling in or out of the shower, past each other, when you had to be polite and not look (and not comment on the smell, because just past Jump a body smelt like old laundry). Fletcher had dark body hair — on his chest, down to his belly, around his groin. It was as black as the hair on his head, and looked good against the clear brown of his skin and the blue of his eyes. He looked a bit like Jeremy, as Family goes: they both had black hair, and Jeremy’s skin was a shade darker, and Jeremy’s eyes were brown instead of blue, but they had the same eyebrows — Sue, of all people, had pointed that out once — they looked more alike than Jeremy and Vince, and Linda didn’t look like any of them. But Fletcher was just good to look at, Jeremy thought, and it felt good to be able to lie back and stare without any worries about being impolite.

    If I were doing this today, I probably wouldn’t have given Fletcher blue eyes – it strikes me now (after over three years thinking about it) as not only a cliched way to indicate that in Cherryh’s Alliance the ships are completely racially mixed, but also as biologically implausible. All the description we’re ever given of Fletcher in the novel is that he’s very good-looking: of Jeremy, we have even less.

    (If this appears twice, it’s because it seemed to disappear the first time…)

  15. I’m not one for describing my characters’ looks very much. Two free people of color from my current US Civil War novel in progress:

    “Steel-framed spectacles glinted against her dark brown skin.”

    (Same character) “She jammed the combs tightly into her hair, tugging until it lay smooth enough. She’d bet anything that it was a lot easier for white ladies to look like the fashion-plates.”

    (Same character) “The disguise {as a maid} took away her individuality somehow. Garrett wasn’t much for noticing ladies’ dress, despite his sisters’ years of scolding on the topic. But now that he saw Hannah in the drab blue serge, he realized how artfully she had chosen her own simple clothes, how the styles and colors set off her smooth dark skin and jet-black hair. Most of all, he missed the spectacles, which gave her young face an owlish, scholarly air.”

    “Lafe, it seemed, was what the people in Washington called ‘yaller’. She watched as he and Hannah bent over the newspaper, his chestnut curls against her sleekly pomaded black hair. They made a handsome couple.”

  16. I’m looking forward to reading your work. I haven’t enjoyed physical descriptions of characters so thoroughly since the last time I gorged on Easy Rawlins’ mysteries.

  17. I’m not seeing many descriptions of Afritypic hair, you know, the kinky, coily, NAPPY kind. Not the loosely-curled, ringletty, bi-racial type. I write fanfic with my heroines being BW. And as a BW with napptural hair, I portray them as having the same. And the “bad” kind that is disparaged. In my stories I make it a beautiful attribute. I make it sensual with the women and/or their lovers playing in their hair and revelling in its texture. No, “she somehow makes it to pretty despite her icky Negroness” you find in so many stories. Their Blackness is portrayed as being just as lovely as uber Aryan (pale, blonde-haried, blue-eyed) or Celtic (pale, red-haired, green-eyed) looks. Even so, I get stuck on how to describe in positive ways Afritypic hair in a normalized and desiring fashion.

    Any examples?

  18. There’s several listed in my OP, though a) I don’t tend to describe hair much at all, and b) I’m a firm believer in the fact that nappy hair is just as versatile as any other hair type, so I often describe the style or overall look, not the texture. But these in particular were my effort to describe kinkiness:

    I sat on the riverbank, twisting my hair into rows along my scalp. It would dry overnight and then I could let it loose to dangle in spirals like a cloud-dragon’s neck.

    I got the crown of his head at first, and marvelled as always at the feel of hair like my own — soft-curled, dense but yielding, thick enough to lose my fingers in. The first time I’d touched him I’d thought he was one of my people, because only Maroneh had such hair.

    The first description, of twisting the hair while wet, is actually how I do my own hair, which is natural and standard nappy ™ in texture. I could never have done wet two-strand twists back when my hair was relaxed; it wouldn’t hold the twists. So to my mind that’s obviously kinky hair… though it occurs to me that only a reader familiar with kinky hair would know that. -_-

    Anyway, there are several other characters mentioned here who wear their hair the same way, because I can’t resist a bit of Mary-Sue-ing. -_- But again, I mention the look/effect (“cloud”, “storm of hair”) rather than the texture. (I occasionally wear my hair in a round old school ‘fro, but I’ve discovered this is actually more work than just twisting it and letting it do what it wants. You know that Erykah Badu line: “You need to pick your Afro daddy/because it’s flat on one side…”? This was me, constantly.)

    The second above descrip is notable because it’s the only time I describe texture — and that’s because the viewpoint character is blind and texture’s all she’s got to go on. Also because I tend to describe my black men as bald or with long dreds — both personal turn-ons. -_- I don’t really like men with braids, but I did it a couple of times in a(n unpublished) novel with an Egyptesque setting. Frex:

    The dark ropes of his hair had been threaded with cylinders of gold and strings of minute pearls; the mane surrounded a face which was fine-planed and flawless.

    In the sequel to that book, when the female protagonist at one point goes out among people who resemble the Tuareg of our world (technically the Tuareg are Berber offshoots and thus Caucasian, but they’re dark-brown-skinned and nappy-haired), I gave her a hairstyle mooched from a girl I saw in a book called AFRICA ADORNED — which I highly recommend to anyone who wants to look at creative ways to depict nappy hair. Anyway:

    The top half of her hair had been pulled into its usual bun, though bound with strands of white shells from the distant Western Ocean. The bottom half had been separated into a dozen or more locks, each captured at the tip by a heavy, teardrop-shaped gold ornament. They made a subtle rattle, drawing the eye, whenever she turned her head.

    (The white shells are meant to be cowries, but the protagonist doesn’t know what they’re called.)

    I think it’s time I updated this post, or wrote a new one, maybe focusing on ways to describe CoCs that don’t involve skin color. Like hair.

  19. I sat on the riverbank, twisting my hair into rows along my scalp. It would dry overnight and then I could let it loose to dangle in spirals like a cloud-dragon’s neck.

    The first description, of twisting the hair while wet, is actually how I do my own hair, which is natural and standard nappy ™ in texture. I could never have done wet two-strand twists back when my hair was relaxed; it wouldn’t hold the twists. So to my mind that’s obviously kinky hair… though it occurs to me that only a reader familiar with kinky hair would know that. -_-

    How funny. I twist my hair while it’s wet as a way of adding curl in to the straight sections. I suspect that it’s a different type of twisting, but I read the description as being a woman with straight hair who wanted curls.

  20. And yours holds? When my hair was straight, I couldn’t maintain twists; I’d have to tie the ends, or add curlers, or something. Certainly I couldn’t have worn the twists themselves as a style for any length of time; they’d have come apart the first time I slept on them.

    I read the description as being a woman with straight hair who wanted curls.

    Damn. Then I did it wrong. ::sigh::

  21. Clearly the twists are totally different types of things. The thing I do holds while they are wet. I’d never be able to sleep on them, that’s for certain and the wet version isn’t something I’d wear as a style. Remind me the next time we have a writing date and I’ll do the twisty thing so you can see.

  22. Hmm, ok, so this is from the WIP. It assumes that the vast majority of Unitarians are varying shades of brown, because that’s just my default assumption for the future, although this may be too close for that – the protagonist’s grandmother still remember emigrating from Earth.

    The first description comes in scene one:

    “Felix had frost on his black beard, and his pinkish complexion was reddened by the cold, but he still seemed unconcerned.”

    but I was surprised to notice that we have to wait scene two to see the protagonist, Jason, described.

    “He turned back to the billeting officer, a tall man as deeply dark-skinned as him – a rarity among Unitarians just as Felix’s pink skin was – and said quietly, “We’re off the Aurora, which is in dry dock upside.”

  23. All y’all are more than welcome to use one of my favorite self-descriptors, the phrase in question being “fish-belly white.” ‘Pink’ or ‘pinkish’ is also pretty good, I think. ‘Washed-out’ might also work, in context, and I’ve seen ‘brick-red’ used too, for a white guy with a super ruddy complexion.

  24. *waves hello* I’ve been aware of you since you subbed for Scalzi on Whatever, but I’ve been recently going on a writer-blog-binge and have been exploring your posts the last two days.

    Can I just say, as a white girl, it’s a little terrifying to get race wrong and be part of the problem? Because I know that getting patted on the head and being told, “Well, you tried,” means that actually I failed. :/

    …so here’s a few examples from my unpublished novel:

    “His skin was dark, but in the unnatural light of the galley she saw a hint of freckles on his nose. His black eyes were restful, not severe, and she found she enjoyed gazing into them. Flecks of gold scattered through his iris mirrored the freckles on his nose, and she found the sparkle they gave to his quiet smile intriguing.”

    and later… “Is it your fault that your previous patrons turned out to be racist?” This question held a particular moral authority, coming from the woman on the dais as her skin was a shade darker than Radicand’s”

    …I admit that I was a wimp, though, and while a careful reader might have gotten hints that my heroine and her sister weren’t white, it isn’t until 1/2 way through that the heroine describes herself as half-Pakistani. And the second quote is from 4/5 of the way through the story and is the only time I reference the color of the heroine’s skin.

    I’ve been wondering if I should be more blatant about it earlier… but then my heroine’s also Muslim, and I was afraid if I was all “Check out my Muslim biracial NYU mathematics professor who helps save her sister’s solar airship flock from corporate raiders while falling in love with this hot black guy after it turns out the first guy she was interested in was gay…” people’s eyes might glaze over. I, certainly, would be suspicious of it. But some early readers wished I had been more clear since they already had an idea of the character in their head and adjusting her looks midway took them out of the story.

    Maybe I should read the rest of this series before I whine any more. ;)

Dreamblood Book One:

The Killing Moon

The Killing Moon

Read Sample Chapter 1


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