Six Questions To Ask About A Story: #6

Here's the next installment in the Fire Escape's summer series of six questions to ask about a story. This time, let's get physical.

Question Six: How is race described?

We've talked before about the dilemma of writing race on the Fire Escape. Remember the description of perfect physical beauty in Pretties, Uglies, and Extras, the futuristic sci-fi trilogy by Scott Westerfeld, with straight hair (not kinky) and wide eyes (not squinty) as that evil society's ideal? Remember the wide range of phrases J.K. Rowling wielded when white people emoted in Harry Potter, while characters like Parvati, Padma, and Lee Jordan were never able to blush or pale?

And then there are the tired clich├ęs that have long cued race in our culture. I'm talking about coffee-colored skin, high cheekbones, flat noses, big lips, almond eyes. Ask yourself if the storyteller has stretched the language to come up with fresh terms or is relying on overused, boring descriptors.

Last but not least, try this exercise. If you've recently read a story where race isn't particularly defined, how did you picture the characters? Try imagining them as members of various races and be truthful with yourself about how you're affected.

One of the reasons I don't like movie adaptations of my favorite books is because when I read the book, I am usually still in charge of the race of the characters. In the film version of the Lord of the Rings, for example, I was surprised to find myself jarred by a white Bilbo and Frodo, taken aback by a white Gandalf, and worst of all, turned off by an Aragorn who didn't match the brown hero of my adolescent dreams. If a teen watches the film version before reading the book, isn't his ability to imagine someone like himself in the story overpowered by the race of the actors?

The virtual version of  Six Questions to Ask About a Story. To discuss the list, why not attend YALSA's inaugural Young Adult Literature Symposium this November 7-9 in Nashville? Early bird registration ends today, September 1st -- you can save up to 25% over advanced and onsite registration fees. Registration for the symposium is available at Questions? Contact YALSA at or 1-800-545-2433, ext. 4390.


Sunila Samuel said…
This is a really interesting question. I notice that writers often rely on their characters' names to indicate race, but that is not always reliable. In reality, names are the result of marriages, adoption, or deliberate name changes. For example, many African-American men have Muslim names, but they are not Middle Eastern, are not of north African descent, or are followers of Islam.

I was also wondering: how many readers in the West generally assume that all characters are white, except for those that are clearly given "non-white" attributes?

What other indicators do writers use to describe race? Clothing? Accent? Geographic location? None of these are entirely reliable either, since we live in an increasingly mobile society.

Mitali, I was like you when I read Lord of the Rings. I could've sworn that somewhere in the trilogy Tolkien described the Elves as being "dark." So, I simply imagined them as having brown skin. But, other readers insisted that he was trying to say that they had dark hair and eyes. And we all saw that Movie Arwen (played by Liv Tyler) had dark hair and eyes, but fair skin.