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!


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