Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Should Authors Describe a Character's Race?

Should an author describe the race of a
character or leave it to the reader's imagination?

During an elementary education class at Boston College, one of the students asked me this question. I shared it this afternoon via my Facebook and Twitter status updates, and here's what people have been saying (emphasis mine):

If a character is of a certain race in writer's mind, why not describe it? Otherwise the reader assumes it's dominant group, right? — Sarah Rettger

I'm not an author, but I'd think that if it's important, then it will come out in other ways, such as in the reaction of others to that character. — Kathy Christie Hernandez

How important is it that the reader understand the author's original intent, and how much can the text speak to his/her experience apart from it? I think details on race, especially in your genre, will help some readers identify with the characters, while other readers may gloss over those details to find something more universal to identify with. I would vote to describe race. — R. C.

For me, I'm torn because my character's race has nothing to do with the current story. I know she's black, though, and in her background, I know how that plays into the choices she's made to get to where she is when this story happens. I see her clearly in my mind, I have to give her a bit of a physical description, as I would for any other character. Where I feel stupid is, natch, that I don't describe any one as Caucasian or mention that my hero is probably half-Jewish, so why would I describe this character as black? But I also feel, when I describe her, that if I don't make it clear what she looks like, I look like I'm avoiding this detail of who she is. It all comes back to the fact that, in my head, her being black is an important part of why she lives where she does. And the book will (hopefully) be part of a series and maybe in one of the later books, this bit of background that's tied to her being black, may come out into play. — Becky Levine

How does one "describe" race since race is a social construct? Color-related terms? (Then we end up with awful similes and metaphors - many to do with food!) — Pooja Makhijani

In my current WIP (middle grade) the protagonist is Indian (or South Asian-American, or Indo-American, or of Bengali heritage - what do we call it?), but the story really has NOTHING to do with BEING Indian. However, her background, and her family's background, add texture to the story. But if her heritage is not integral to advancing the story, then how much attention should I call to her "ethnicity"? I'm happy with the book the way it is, but readers and reviewers may think otherwise. — Anjali Banerjee

I think in some books it's important for the plot (Come a Stranger by Cynthia Voigt, or The Moves Make the Man by Bruce Brooks, Jaqueline Woodson's Maizon trilogy are a few that come to mind right away), but it can also build plot -- you don't realize that the character is of xyz ethnicity until something happens in the plot. I like that picture book artists are being more inclusive, using many different types of children in their illustrations ... Overall, "show don't tell" comes to mind. — Suzi Wackerbath

When a "white" character comes on scene, I don't think I've ever read "a white girl with blonde hair." But if a person of any color is described for the first time, I see a lot of "African-American boy with light skin" or "Asian-American girl with long hair." It's a little off-putting as a reader, plus isn't it kind of clunky? — Justina Chen Headley

I think Sarah may have hit on one of the key things here--that idea of assumption that a character is from the dominant race. Yuck--not to Sarah at all, but to that feeling that we (I!) DO do this. So then, what are we doing when we identify a character by race/ethnicity--are we playing into some idea I wouldn't want to touch with a ten-foot pole? — Becky Levine

I also reacted to Sarah's comment -- because no, I don't assume the character is of the dominant race. As a child, I was always looking for cues that a character was of MY race (Asian), and would take physical cues, such as black hair, as evidence to support my wish. I think if it fits in naturally, if it matters what their race is, why not? But I'm also all for being vague, and using a broad variety of physical traits for your characters. It makes a difference. — Alvina Ling

I, like Sarah, would tend to assume.Jackie Parker

Alvina, I probably should have phrased that differently -- when I assume a character is white, it's just as likely that I'm assuming s/he looks like me. I went to college in an environment where identity politics were huge, so I'm very conscious of the fact that I continue to make these assumptions. With my latest WIP, I've run into this from the writer's side. I submitted the first few chapters to my critique group, and one critique partner said that based on my main character's voice, she knew just what the character looked like -- Drew Barrymore in Ever After. I didn't describe the MC physically in those chapters. In fact, she's a mixture of English, Spanish, and Afro-Caribbean, something that comes out in a later scene (which I've now moved up in the story) where she meets characters with skin darker than hers - and notices it. A cross between Drew Barrymore and Eva Mendes is a little closer to what I was aiming for, but without being explicit about the main character's background/appearance, that wasn't coming across. And to Pooja's point, I'm definitely not using food metaphors to do it! — Sarah Rettger

I remember reading The Princess Academy in early 2007 while preparing for a trip to China and Tibet. While reading the book, I imagined the characters to be from this part of the world. I don't recall physical descriptions of race or ethnicity, but reading about traders, the mountain pass, village elders and the harsh living conditions made me think this. The girls pictured on the cover were faceless and I didn't take any cues from them. I don't know if this is what Hale intended, but I enjoyed my reading of the book this way. I was terribly disappointed when the paperback copy of the book came out with the image of very white girl on the cover. This image made me rethink my reading of the book and wonder what I missed. When I read, I picture my characters based on the setting and cultural cues the author provides. And must say, I like it this way. — Tricia Stohr-Hunt

Just a week ago someone in our (writer's) group asked me what my character looked like -- she has leg braces and crutches and dark hair, but there was a complaint because no one exactly knew her race. I think it's an identity thing and important to certain human beings for some reason. Maybe adult human beings more than young adults? I'm with Pooja; I find it hard to describe sometimes, and God help me if I default to mocha or chocolate or caramel... (because the paler alternatives are almonds and bananas and peaches. Which is just as ridiculous.) — Tanita Davis

I think it's important not to use "race" and "ethnicity" interchangeably. (i.e. My ethnicity is South Asian [or whatever we're calling it these days]; I don't know what my race is.) As a reader, I'd like to see even more books with non-white characters. (We've come a long way, but there's more work to do!) And I think it's important for readers of color to recognize themselves in the books that they read. If we, as writers, have to be more explicit about it (sans food metaphors), why not? Alvina, as a child, I didn't see myself in any of the books I read. But, I imagined my favorite characters looked like me. In my head, even Anne of Green Gables was a dark-haired, olive-skinned gal! — Pooja Makhijani

I definitely struggle with this, because I have characters with various ethnicities in the YA novels I write -- many of whom are of mixed ethnicity and somewhat ambiguous in actual appearance (in my head, anyway!), not just in their descriptions on paper. In fact, that's an important theme in one of my novels, which sort of spoofs the whole food-metaphor idea. Sometimes I end up slipping in a person's last name somewhere and using that as a clue to ethnicity, but it can't be used as the sole cue for appearance, or the writing may fall into the trap of assuming that everyone of a particular ethnicity will look the same. I feel like it's a tough line to walk, because I really want to include a variety of characters in my novels but as part of a normal environment, NOT necessarily as a plot point. As someone of mixed ethnicity who grew up in a fairly diverse environment, a lot of my YA settings reflect my own experiences...but unless it's part of the plot, I try to rely as much as possible on implication through small telling details rather than directly stating somebody's ethnicity, if possible. So far, anyway... :) — A. Fortis

I second Pooja's comment about race versus ethnicity. We should not use the terms interchangeably. "Race" generally refers to biological (phenotypic) characteristics. "Race" is not particularly useful when we talk about humans, as all humans are about 99.9% identical in genetic terms. There's more genetic variation *within* groups than *between* groups. This kind of homogeneity is unusual in other species, apparently. "Ethnicity" is a social construct, a cultural classification. We have many ways of interpreting and defining ethnicity. We also have to consider the tension/relationship between our role as artists -- telling a story and being true to the story -- and the culture in which we move. In a way, we're asking, what is our responsibility, as writers, to the society at large? An interesting aside -- the Indian cover of my novel, MAYA RUNNING (Penguin-India) shows a black silhouette of a teenage girl on a pink and white background. The North American cover (Random House) shows a brown-skinned girl, clearly Indian, with a huge image of Ganesh above her head. Hmmm. — Anjali Banerjee


Please keep posting your thoughts and responses in the comments section. I spent Tuesday in Newington, Connecticut doing an author visit at the high school and the library, and on Wednesday will be in Brookline offering writing workshops, so I'll distill and post my thoughts on Thursday.

Stay tuned for Mitali's top ten tips on writing race, and thanks for all the stimulating conversation!

15 comments:

  1. I think Sarah may have hit on one of the key things here--that idea of assumption that a character is from the dominant race. Yuck--not to Sarah at all, but to that feeling that we (I!) DO do this. So then, what are we doing when we identify a character by race/ethincity--are we playing into some idea I wouldn't want to touch with a ten-foot pole?

    Mitali--thanks again for opening this up. I'm going to be very curious to read all the comments and to hear your take on the question.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I also reacted to Sarah's comment--because no, I don't assume the character is of the dominant race. As I've often said at conferences, as a child, I was always looking for cues that a character was of MY race (Asian), and would take physical cues, such as black hair, as evidence to support my wish.

    I think if it fits in naturally, if it matters what their race is, why not. But I'm also all for being vague, and using a broad variety of physical traits for your characters. It makes a difference.

    ReplyDelete
  3. This is a really interesting topic. I'm curious to hear more opinions, though I don't know if there is a right answer. I, like Sarah, would tend to assume.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Alvina, I probably should have phrased that differently - when I assume a character is white, it's just as likely that I'm assuming s/he looks like me.

    I went to college in an environment where identity politics were huge, so I'm very conscious of the fact that I continue to make these assumptions.

    With my latest WIP, I've run into this from the writer's side. I submitted the first few chapters to my critique group, and one critique partner said that based on my main character's voice, she knew just what the character looked like - Drew Barrymore in Ever After.

    I didn't describe the MC physically in those chapters. In fact, she's a mixture of English, Spanish, and Afro-Caribbean, something that comes out in a later scene (which I've now moved up in the story) where she meets characters with skin darker than hers - and notices it.

    A cross between Drew Barrymore and Eva Mendes is a little closer to what I was aiming for, but without being explicit about the MC's background/appearance, that wasn't coming across.

    And to Pooja's point, I'm definitely not using food metaphors to do it!

    ReplyDelete
  5. This is very interesting. I don't have advice, but an experience to share. I remember reading The Princess Academy in early 2007 while preparing for a trip to China and Tibet. While reading the book, I imagined the characters to be from this part of the world. I don't recall physical descriptions of race or ethnicity, but reading about traders, the mountain pass, village elders and the harsh living conditions made me think this. The girls pictured on the cover were faceless and I didn't take any cues from them.

    I don't know if this is what Hale intended, but I enjoyed my reading of the book this way. I was terribly disappointed when the paperback copy of the book came out with the image of very white girl on the cover. This image made me rethink my reading of the book and wonder what I missed.

    When I read, I picture my characters based on the setting and cultural cues the author provides. And must say, I like it this way.

    ReplyDelete
  6. We just had a discussion last night in our writing group about dialect and dialogue and identifying characters in that way. We left it open-ended because a lot of people have varying opinions, however, this question intrigues me. Just a week ago someone in our group asked me what my character looked like -- she has leg braces and crutches and dark hair, but there was a complaint because no one exactly knew her race.

    I think it's an identity thing and important to certain human beings for some reason. Maybe adult human beings more than young adults? I'm with Pooja; I find it hard to describe sometimes, and God help me if I default to mocha or chocolate or caramel... (because the paler alternatives are almonds and bananas and peaches. Which is just as ridiculous.)

    ReplyDelete
  7. Good stuff here. Thanks for opening the discussion, Mitali!

    I think it's important not to use "race" and "ethnicity" interchangeably. (i.e. My ethnicity is South Asian [or whatever we're calling it these days]; I don't know what my race is.)

    As a reader, I'd like to see even more books with non-white characters. (We've come a long way, but there's more work to do!) And I think it's important for readers of color to recognize themselves in the books that they read. If we, as writers, have to be more explicit about it (sans food metaphors), why not?

    re: Alvina's comments: As a child, I didn't see myself in any of the books I read. But, I imagined my favorite characters looked like me. In my head, even Anne of Green Gables was a dark-haired, olive-skinned gal!

    ReplyDelete
  8. Sarah--I think your comment just pointed out something that might be true--at least for me, that I do make that kind of assumption when I read. I'd rather not, obviously, but it's a definite possibility. And pooja, thanks for pointing out the race/ethnicity distinction. :)

    I think some other commenters are hitting on it for me--how to describe someone without either sounding just as obvious as if you'd applied a label, or feeling like you've left out something that needs to be shown.

    Still struggling with it here!

    ReplyDelete
  9. I definitely struggle with this, because I have characters with various ethnicities in the YA novels I write--many of whom are of mixed ethnicity and somewhat ambiguous in actual appearance (in my head, anyway!), not just in their descriptions on paper. In fact, that's an important theme in one of my novels, which sort of spoofs the whole food-metaphor idea.

    Sometimes, I end up slipping in a person's last name somewhere and using that as a clue to ethnicity, but it can't be used as the sole cue for appearance, or the writing may fall into the trap of assuming that everyone of a particular ethnicity will look the same.

    I feel like it's a tough line to walk, because I really want to include a variety of characters in my novels but as part of a normal environment, NOT necessarily as a plot point. As someone of mixed ethnicity who grew up in a fairly diverse environment, a lot of my YA settings reflect my own experiences...but unless it's part of the plot, I try to rely as much as possible on implication through small telling details rather than directly stating somebody's ethnicity, if possible.

    So far, anyway... :)

    ReplyDelete
  10. I second Pooja's comment about race versus ethnicity. We should not use the terms interchangeably. "Race" generally refers to biological (phenotypic) characteristics. "Race" is not particularly useful when we talk about humans, as all humans are about 99.9% identical in genetic terms. There's more genetic variation *within* groups than *between* groups. This kind of homogeneity is unusual in other species, apparently. "Ethnicity" is a social construct, a cultural classification. We have many ways of interpreting and defining ethnicity.

    I think we also have to consider the tension/relationship between our role as artists -- telling a story and being true to the story -- and the culture in which we move. In a way, we're asking, what is our responsibility, as writers, to the society at large?

    An interesting aside -- the Indian cover of my novel, MAYA RUNNING (Penguin-India) shows a black silhouette of a teenage girl on a pink and white background. The North American cover (Random House) shows a brown-skinned girl, clearly Indian, with a huge image of Ganesh above her head. Hmmm.

    ReplyDelete
  11. My initial training as a writer was in screenwriting where, unless it was integral to the story, characters were written "colorblind" because casting decisions were going to be decided by someone other than the writer.

    Now I find in writing my characters the desire to be conscious of different races, less to showcase differences between them but to show their similarities. For me it's less about wanting a reader to recognize themselves in the book so much as acknowledging that there are people who don't all look the same interacting, and color or race has nothing to do with that.

    We don't give characters sexually ambiguous names because we want readers to recognize the differences in their dynamics. A gender can be established, casually and without incident, and then written to behave accordingly. Can we not do the same thing with race?

    As for book covers, I think that unless the author is consulted no main characters should be clearly represented or "interpreted." Every writer knows that 100 people can read the same book and walk away with different images in their head, why should one art director or one editor be allowed to dictate their interpretation on the reader, or on behalf of the writer?

    ReplyDelete
  12. Looking forward to the SCBWI-NE "Many Voices" conference in April 2009 (24th-26th). I hope questions and comments like these draw a more diverse attendance. Issues such as the white default, and writing race will be covered in workshop format. As the co-director of the conference I welcome you all. Look for registration information at www.nescbwi.org at the beginning of the new year.
    Anna J. Boll

    ReplyDelete
  13. Pooja, Anjali, you're right -- race and ethnicity are not interchangeable. It's a foundational concept for some, however -- when people want to know the race of my characters, they are asking about race, with the assumption that race determines ethnicity. Being in the UK I'm understanding that Scots are an ethnicity, distinct from other British folk. The longer I'm here, the more I'm able to pick out the genotypical characteristics of the various subgroups, which I think is fascinating... as people do when looking at anyone.

    Many readers want to know what a character looks like so that they can make assumptions about their ethnicity.

    ReplyDelete
  14. I'm not a writer (though I play one in my dreams), but I *am* an avid reader and a mother.

    I find that, for me, I appreciate a book more when I can use my imagination and compile a picture based on clues rather than having the author explicitly state a character's ethnicity. It tends to get me more involved in the story.

    In helping my 7-year-old gain a love for reading, we talk a lot about the characters...including when his picture varies substantially from my own. One more way to explain to him that the beauty of books versus movies is the ability to create your own images with your imagination, rather than having someone else do it for you. That 50 people could read the same story and create 50 different characters based on what is meaningful for them is part of what makes reading the wonderful journey that it is.

    ReplyDelete
  15. I recently reviewed an adult novel, Hannah's Dream, which features some African American characters -- an older married couple and then later a young boy (not related to them).

    The woman owned a beauty shop and she is doing braids/ethnic hair dos in the beginning, so I thought, "She could be African American," but no physical description was given, and I didn't want to assume.

    It was only later when the boy's race was identified and the man's race became a plot element that it came out.

    The author had emailed me about the book, and so I asked her if it was intentional, and she said it wasn't, and she didn't even realize it until later, because the character was based on a Black man, so to her, he was always black.

    I loved that unintentional way that she told the story.

    ReplyDelete