Describing Characters of Color 3, OPPoC

I was re-reading a favorite novel lately, because its sequel is coming out soon and I wanted to refresh in preparation. Anyway, I was struck by the fact that it contained really good descriptions of several characters of color. So I thought that book — Griffin’s, below — deserved a shout-out, as do some others I’ve read that stuck in my mind. Which means — you guessed it — time for another post on describing characters of color! Other People’s PoC (OPPoC) Edition.

(Previous iterations here and here.)

As with the previous articles, this isn’t a claim or judgment on what’s right or wrong. In this case, they’re just descriptions of people of color in fiction I’ve read and liked. Also, I’m annotating this because good descriptions aren’t just a matter of picking the right adjectives; sometimes there are worldbuilding techniques or stylistic tricks involved.

From Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games:

This one isn’t a quote, but a worldbuilding note. I don’t often see science fiction or fantasy novels dealing with the ways in which race itself — who belongs to which group over time, what characteristics have which meanings, etc. — changes and evolves over time, but this book tried to. I spent awhile trying to figure out the protagonist’s race, the first time I read this YA book. Katniss supposedly comes from what used to be Appalachia in the United States, which is a predominantly (and stereotypically) poor white region, yet she’s described in the story as having straight black hair and olive skin. Later, it becomes clear that the people of each district are so isolated from each other that they’ve essentially homogenized; each district’s citizens have become their own recognizable, unique phenotype (though probably all of them are multiracial). So the people from District 11 are mostly dark-brown-skinned i.e. black; the people from the protagonist’s district resemble American Indians, east Asians, or light-skinned Latina/o people; and — in what I thought was a very nice touch — the people of the Capital play games with race, surgically coloring themselves blue if they feel like it, or dyeing their hair pink. It highlights the difference between this ruling class, for whom race is malleable and optional, and the oppressed classes, who have had their races imposed on them.

From Carol Berg’s Transformation:

A similar worldbuilding trick to The Hunger Games: this novel (first of the Rai-Kirah trilogy) is set in a secondary world in which the races never corresponded to ours. For example, one of the main characters is a member of an Arablike desert-dwelling tribe of pale-skinned redheads. The protagonist is something like an American Indian (despite the first book’s cover art). I’m starting to see more of this in fantasy — and have used the trick myself, to some degree — but it isn’t always handled well. Too often the darker-skinned characters read to me like white people with Boehner-tans and “exotic” long hair. (Oh. Ohhhh, that wasn’t an image I wanted in my head. Oh, no.) There are rarely corresponding cultural differences, or consequences to those differences. Berg doesn’t skirt either.

Anyway, in the below scene, the protagonist meets a member of an enemy race.

How could I have failed to notice how different he was? White-blond hair cut short and straight about his face. Smooth, pale, white skin, absolutely unlike the ruddy, weathered Derzhi or the reddish-gold color of my own race.

From C. S. Friedman’s When True Night Falls:

Most of this trilogy is set in a society of white people which values tanned skin, because paleness is usually a sign of somebody who dabbles in dangerous magic. But in the second book, they meet people from across the sea, who are even darker. I’m fascinated by this because it hints at a racial division somewhere in this colony’s past (their ancestors are from Earth, and may have initially brought racial baggage with them) which has since been forgotten.

His skin was a rich brown, doubly dramatic against the white of his outer robe, and the sun picked out copper highlights along high cheekbones, a stern forehead, a strong jawline. His features were broad and well-formed and his black hair, closely cropped, did nothing to distract from them.

From Octavia Butler’s Adulthood Rites:

Butler always did a good job, IMO. An especially nice touch in this example: in the Xenogenesis trilogy Butler didn’t really describe any of the human characters while Lilith was primarily among aliens. Only when Lilith joined a small human society did race begin to matter again; at that point the descriptions of the characters became frequent and noticeable. Also, although the aliens just find the variety interesting, Lilith’s part-human children definitely notice race — as in the example below. Note that the Joseph mentioned in this passage is a Chinese man, and Lilith is an African-American woman. (Both are parents of the viewpoint character.)

The man was shirtless, black-haired, clean-shaven, and stocky. His hair was long and hung down his back. He had cut it off in a straight line across his forehead. Something about him reminded Akin of the picture he had seen of Joseph. The man’s eyes were narrow like Joseph’s, but his skin was almost as brown as Lilith’s.

From Kate Griffin’s A Madness of Angels:

This book contains not only multiple descriptions of individual CoCs, it also depicts the multiculturalism of London itself in the background — subculturally, class-wise, racially, whatever. Griffin does an especially good job of describing the white characters as well as the CoCs, so that the CoCs don’t stand out as exceptional. (I do have an issue with her use of “coffee” here; I get really tired of seeing African-descended characters described in terms of the goods that drove, and still drive, the slave trade — coffee, chocolate, brown sugar. There’s some weird psychosocial baggage attached to that. But I can overlook it in this case because the same character gets other descriptions throughout the book; she’s a major character.)

Next I became aware of the tension in one man, with a long, pale, horselike face, who sat hunched forward, knees locked together, white-knuckled fingers clasped on his lap… “Is this a sorcerer?” asked (another) man, who wore what I assumed was some sort of African tribal costume, despite his being as pale as snow in December, and ginger… Of the other two in the room, one was a woman in jeans, with skin the colour of roast coffee, and a tight black jacket which bulged in odd places; she looked like she was ready to set something on fire… (later description of the same woman, who becomes a major character) She smiled again, lips shockingly pink in an otherwise dark, finely formed face. Her black curly hair was braided so close to her skull it had to hurt, and her eyes were wide and alert.

From Steven Boyett’s Elegy Beach:

Boyett does a weird and complex thing here. The protagonist lives in a world in which a catastrophic change has caused race to cease mattering, though only quite recently. Because of this, the protag’s father (who grew up in modern-day America) has all the usual social baggage attached to race, while the protagonist himself just treats color as another detail. This is never explicitly stated, but it’s implicit in what’s not mentioned. Hard to capture that in an example, but I’ll try.

Here, the speaker (the protag’s father) is describing some time he spent among Vodoun practitioners in the Baton Rouge area. By context it’s clear they’re black or predominantly so; the father is white. As he narrates this passage in which he meets the protagonist’s mother, I feel like he uses the typical modern white American technique of tiptoeing around the word “black”, as if just saying it is an epithet, because he’s probably been raised to believe that it is. His son, however (whom we eventually realize is biracial), describes his mother explicitly as “big and dark”, and doesn’t hesitate to mention skin color at other times, in the very few descriptions the novel contains. The father’s color-averse description stands out (relatively speaking; it’s all very subtle) by comparison.

While I was recovering from whatever had laid me out there was this girl who’d show up sometimes. She was a hoodoo woman, sort of a wiccan and midwife and nurse. Serious mojo. It didn’t hurt that she was about my age and awfully easy to look at.

From Cherie Priest’s Not Flesh Nor Feathers:

Just started reading this one recently, and I’m not done with it. But noticed this early in the book:

Though the girls looked much alike, Lu was the older, taller, and stronger of the pair. Her hair was knotted into black braids and her jeans were ratty around the knees, showing brown skin and scabs where she’d fallen one time too many.

From Ishmael Beah’s A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier:

Something this book made me consider: it’s set in Africa (Sierra Leone, during its horrific civil war), with an almost all-black cast, so there are lots of descriptions of characters of color. But Beah almost never describes their hair or the specific shade of their skin. He seems to take these things for granted. Having seen American writers (white and PoC) go through agonies trying to figure out how to describe kinky hair, or the various shades of brown skin, I’m reminded of this discussion on the unmarked state in anime/manga and how Americans habitually resort to exaggerations of PoC physical features in their art — exaggerations which people from other cultures don’t see or employ themselves. I’m beginning to wonder if the emphasis American writers place on black hair texture and skin shade is another example of such exaggeration. Or maybe this emphasis is simply necessary in a multiracial society, and not in monoracial societies.

Mamie Kpana was the name that my grandmother was known by. She was tall and her perfectly long face complemented her beautiful cheekbones and big brown eyes. She always stood with her hands either on her hips or her head. By looking at her, I could see where my mother had gotten her beautiful dark skin, extremely white teeth, and the translucent creases on her neck.

::whew:: OK, enough of that; got a book to write, after all. I’d love to see other examples in the comments, though, if folks have the time to go look ’em up!

11 thoughts on “Describing Characters of Color 3, OPPoC”

  1. Terrrrrific post. Your comment about coffee got me thinking — the other coloration word set that gets used a lot is all exotic woods from exotic places, ebony, teak, etc. It’s baggage and/or just a semantic connection that was once evocative and is now just plain cliche from overuse. For that matter “olive” goes along with mediterranean, etc.

    Which got me thinking, what the hell color am I, anyway? A friend called me “tawny” and I said as long as it’s like the port, not the porn star. Since I never ever go out in the sun anymore (writer chained to computer day after day…) I’m white. Except when I get in bed with a lover who is actually white and then I realize, no, I’m a different shade. I guess I’m TAN, pun fully intended, and I guess I have to leave it at that.

    This has got me thinking about other ways of describing shades of skin color. I see “nut brown” all the time but can never figure out what color that’s supposed to be. What kind of nut? It could be dark or light. I have no clue.

    Much for me to think about here.

  2. Cherie Priest has a lot of characters of color in _Boneshaker_, which describes one Chinese character’s eyes as “angled,” just different enough from “slanted” to catch my eye.

    I’m not done yet so I can’t give an overall assessment of its treatment of characters of color, but I did notice that because of a past conversation.

  3. Re: the unmarked state and describing features: I think some of that is distance vs. intimacy. If I see a stranger across the proverbial crowded room, I notice height, build, posture, clothing, hair type and style (if hair is visible), maybe skin color (depending on how crowded or dark the room is, and how much they stand out from the people around them). If I know someone well, I see body language instead of posture, laugh lines instead of skin color, shadows under their eyes rather than eye shape, lost or gained fat or muscle instead of build, a new haircut rather than hair type. That last description you posted makes perfect sense for a grandmother but would feel weirdly intimate for a stranger, and all characters are strangers to the reader at first.

    (Of course, that makes me ponder character introductions and the stylistic equivalents of presenting someone as though from a distance first vs. presenting them as though the reader has known them for years.)

    I would love to see more character descriptions based on things like height and posture and build that can still be seen at a glance from a distance but aren’t necessarily or obviously racial markers the way hair and eyes and skin are. When I’m in Japan, though obviously my hair and eyes and skin mark me as a foreigner, I’m aware first and foremost of my size and body shape and movements being fundamentally non-Japanese, of being in a place where everything from the height of the showerhead to the amount of space between chairs in a restaurant is designed for a body that I do not have. (I imagine people who are more than one standard deviation out from their local norm on any physical axis–wide or narrow, tall or small–spend their whole lives feeling this way.) I can spot a foreign tourist in a New York subway station by the way they hold a map, the angles of heads when they consult with family members on the best way to get where they’re going. As I experiment with crossdressing, I’ve been thinking about male and female gaits, and of course the nuances of hips and elbows and strides and swaggers are cultural as well as gendered. So there are plenty of ways to talk about the ways someone differs from the unmarked state without either getting too personal or comparing them to food.

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  6. I’ve written stories with CoCos before, and as with all my characters, I tend not to refer to their appearance unless it’s important to the story somehow. Otherwise I mention it in passing, as a comparative property to the MC — ie, if the MC has dark skin, she might mention offhand that it’s darker than her friend’s, etc. I try to write from a place where all characters are equal, unless inequality is relevant to the story somehow.

  7. Josh,

    Unfortunately, not all characters are equal, in the eyes of your reading audience, if that audience exists as part of a society with institutional/historic racism. In American society, for example, it’s very rare to see people of color in fiction, especially SF/F, and when PoC appear it’s frequently as a stereotype or caricature. Your readers will be used to this, and it will affect their thinking, even if they believe that racism is wrong. So if you don’t explain/describe what race your characters are, most American readers will assume the character is white.

  8. Thank you for an immensely informative article with brilliant examples. This was sent to me today, by a friend, after I sent out an SOS to various associates and former students (all OPOCs in relation to myself) soliciting adivce on description for a YA MSS dealing with biraciliasm, interracial dating, race relations in high school in a supposedly “postracial America.” Some of this I have heard or read before, but the passages were still terrific. I have also read much about the Katniss perceptions (or missed perceptions) in The Hunger Games and the mild furor over the preliminary casting for the first film. It is amazing to me that so many readers did not pick up on her “otherness” relative to themselves. This is a tribute to Collins, but, I do think, as you noted, a misreading of some important points contained within the intricate social structure of her constructed world. Of course, this may simply reinforce what you have said about the people of the Capital having the liberty to “play” with race, and thus readers who do not identify as PoCs may be granting themselves, unconsciously, this same liberty to play with race simply by overlooking its implications for the main character. You have given me much to work with today.

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