Q&A

How Do I Communicate My Character Is Black?

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Hello!

I love this site and really appreciate the depth of thought you put into the articles here and how you approach difficult topics. I was hoping for a little help with introducing a physical description of a character.

I am aware of the clichés and the problems with them – staring at oneself in a mirror, looking at photos, just randomly reeling off a list of attributes, but can’t come up with a better way of doing it. My character is black, and it is very important to me that whilst it is not a defining characteristic, her culture, family and heritage make her who she is (as is the same for all of us), and I don’t want it to be glossed over.

There seems to be a bad habit by at least white readers (myself included here) to automatically assume a character to also be white unless told otherwise. I don’t want that to happen here, but don’t know how to incorporate a description that includes race and/or skin tone without it being tactless, heavy-handed, or insensitive.

Any suggestions would be very welcome,

– Cip

Hi Cip,

That’s a great question. When it comes to what words that are okay to use, you can just say it with normal, casual words. You can say she’s “black” or say her skin is “brown.” Writers are more likely to get in trouble when they try to make it novel, poetic, or romantic. In particular, describing skin colors in terms of foods like “chocolate” or “cinnamon” is a big no-no.

The Writing with Color tumblr is a great resource for this. Here’s their guide to describing skin tones. You’ll probably also appreciate their hair description guide.

As for how to work it into the narrative, you have a number of options:

  • Create an excuse for her to look at her hands or another body part. Maybe she gets a cut. Then you can work her skin color in.
  • Alternatively, describe the skin color of her family. That strongly suggests she’s black.
  • Being black probably affects her life or the life of her family in various ways. Maybe she feels out of place at an event full of white people. Maybe she’s going or has gone to a historically black college. Having these in the narrative makes it easy to clarify.
  • You can give her a name associated with black people. I wouldn’t do that alone, but it will at least buy you time to work in other hints.
  • If she thinks “white people” for any reason, that will cue the reader she isn’t white, again buying you time and making it more likely readers will pick up on other hints. You could go with something like, “What is it with white people and stinky cheeses?”

Kudos to you for stepping outside your comfort zone!

Chris

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Comments

  1. El Suscriptor Justiciero

    Kinda reminds me of this time when Spiderman plays the race card to mess with JJ: http://i.imgur.com/13ZUD.jpg (from She-Hulk #4)

  2. Adam

    If your character is featured on the cover of your book, can you just have them depicted as black there? (I don’t know how that whole book cover process works.)

    • Cay Reet

      That means you need to make it clear in the book that a character is black. Because it’s the publisher who pays the artist and chooses the motif. If they don’t know the hero is black, there will not be a black hero on the cover.

      • Oren Ashkenazi

        It’s also not unheard of for explicitly black characters to be depicted as white in the cover art. The people involved are always quick to claim it was a mistake, but you notice it almost never happens in the other direction.

        • Cay Reet

          Yeah, there’s also that. I’d never rely on cover art to depict a character, it’s always important to also give a few basics in the story. That doesn’t mean twenty pages of every detail, but the readers should have a basic idea of what the character looks like and features important to the story should be mentioned.

        • Innocent Bystander

          What Oren said. Look up “Liar” by Justine Larbaleister and the controversy that followed its US release for an example.

  3. Sam Victors

    I was thinking of either just say of my character’s color/ethnicity, if the story has a third person narrative. Or, if my main character is a person of color, i would have them describe themselves in their words, or how something resonates to their race, without defining them solely as their race.

    But I’m always glad to take lessons from sites like here or from other authors, mostly authors of color.

  4. Lydia

    As a follow up to this question, how could I do this actively in a story set in a fantasy world. There are no real world clues I could have my characters thinking about to hint anything. This world doesn’t even have a concept of race based on skin color.

    I’ve had readers complain about me describing the characters on page one. But the later I wait to work it in, the more likely readers will be to assume my characters are white. Then, when the description does come up they will either gloss right over it (I’ve had that happen) or it will jar them, because they had been picturing the characters a certain way.

    • Chris Winkle

      If your readers are complaining about you describing your characters in page one, there’s probably something about your implementation that’s bothering them – maybe you’re going on about it for too long or not putting it in a way that feels natural. It’s probably not being on page one that’s really the issue. Most readers only know what bothers them, and are only guessing as to why it bothers them.

      If the culture of your world doesn’t have black people and white people, you’ll probably want to find a reason to visually describe a body part.

    • Dvärghundspossen

      On writingwithcolor.tumblr.com, they have a lot of advice for this!

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