Ten Tips On Writing Race in Novels

Should an author include descriptions of a character's race in a story?

Well, yes and no. It depends. How's that for a wishy-washy answer?

Here's my attempt to sum up a lively discussion that's taken place here, and here, and also here over the past couple of days. As I tuned into the communal wisdom, I gleaned ten tips for authors about describing race in novels. Please correct, disagree, and inform as we continue the conversation, because I say mea culpa on most of the errors I describe below.

1. Forget about "race."

Identity is actually more about ethnicity, a word that comes from the Greek "ethnos," literally meaning "gentiles" and related originally more to language than skin color or hair texture. There really isn't a generic "African" race, for example -- there are groups who speak Kikuyu, Zulu, Ashanti, Fulani, etc.

Every one of us has an ethnicity. What language(s) did your four grandparents speak? The sixteen great-grandparents? If you don't know, then you don't know. Whether that matters is up to you, but one rite of adolescence in North American culture is to identify one's own ethnicity.

The consensus is that in a third-person narrative voice it's best to avoid socially-constructed race words like African-American, Asian-American, etc. to describe only the characters who aren't of European descent. And North American authors conventionally don't use "European-American" or white because to label every character's race gets tedious. So don't use any such labels at all. Characters and first-person narrators, however, are free to use them any way they choose.

2. Give your story the power.

If your story is about ethnicity, you're probably going to have to describe your characters accordingly. If the story is not particularly about ethnicity, ask yourself two questions.

First, why are you describing the ethnicity of your characters? Don't do it if your honest answer is "I want to show how open-minded I am" or "I want to move the world towards a better day."

A better answer might be "because the particular community where the action is set is diverse." Or: "because my protagonist knows how to make kimchee from scratch." The story and characters, and not your best political intentions, should determine whether or not you provide ethnic cues in description.

, if you're writing for a generation of readers who regularly mix and explore race and ethnicity, why aren't you doing the same?

Bad, but honest answer: "I never really thought about it." If that's the case, take a long, hard look at your story. The descriptions of physical appearances probably indicate the ethnicity of your characters even if you weren't purposeful about it. Alternate your characters' primary ethnic self-identifications. How does that feel? How does that change your story?

Better answer: "My story's set in rural Minnesota, Mitali, and everybody's ancestors came from Norway. Sorry, but their cheeks do turn apple-red when they're embarrassed."

3. Respect your readers right to cast the story.

Heavy-handed authors force readers to receive stories and picture characters the way we want them to, dang it. Authors who understand and celebrate the dialectical dance with a reader often cut descriptions.

If my story doesn't require that my characters affiliate with a specific ethnicity (as with some fantasy or science fiction books, for example), could I err on the side of giving my readers' imaginations enough space to "see" the characters any way they choose?

It's their loss if they always picture an all-white cast, but defining an ethnic secondary character solely to "broaden kids' horizons" makes us guilty of patronizing them and tokenism. Not good.

As the storyteller, you decide if, how, when, and why to reign in your exceptional descriptive skills. Another helpful practice is to re-read your story with different readers in mind -- some living across borders and oceans, some dwelling on the margins of mainstream culture, and some in generations to come where race and ethnicity will be defined in completely different ways.

Will your descriptions of physical appearance confuse or exclude such readers? What's lost by leaving a few words out or replacing them with others? Do some wordplay with physical descriptions, and think about how the descriptions might empower or limit young readers.

4. Know your characters' relationship to ethnicity.

Define in your mind (a) the languages spoken by your characters' great-grandparents, and (b) how they each see and understand ethnicity. If a teen character jokes about race with his friends, let them go wild. Make his mother the ex-hippie squirm as she overhears their conversation.

5. Check your descriptions of non-verbals.

Go ahead, force your character to pale or blush, or to swish her long blond ponytail, but that means she's definitely of European descent. Hey, if that's what your story and character requires, so be it. But be aware of what you've done.

6. Do your homework if you cue ethnicity with jargon, diction, or accent.

Language can be a lazy shortcut to convey ethnicity. It can also be a powerful tool. The storyteller who crafts dialogue with jargon, diction, and accented English must be diligent in study as well as creative -- listening, learning, and communicating linguistic differences in the right way at the right time for the right reasons.

7. Question the cover art.

A trend in YA lit is to feature a realistic photo on the cover which communicates the physical appearance of your main character in one fell swoop. Likewise, in an illustrated picture or chapter book, the artist casts the characters.

The group of people with an interest in packaging the book -- editor, marketing folks, designer, bookseller, author -- should be having this conversation: By trying to sell more books with this particular cover, are we usurping more power than necessary from the imagination of the reader?

Is the rendition true to the author's description or does it add to or even contradict it, as in Cynthia Kadohata's Weedflower, where the sole instance of the protagonist dressed in kimono is on the cover and nowhere to be found in the story?

One of the advantages of a written story over a film is that readers are free to cast the characters in the imaginary YouTube video playing in their minds as they read your story. Or just to let the story roll forward without mental pictures of the characters, something I do often as a reader, especially with secondary characters.

Did you picture Brian McBrian, Tibby's romantic interest in The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, as Leonardo Nam to the left?

How about imagining Laurent, the least lethal of the evil vampires in Twilight, as an African (played by Edi Gathegi)?

Hollywood made those decisions for you. Am I glad? Yes, because on screen every character MUST have a specific appearance. But books can leave it up to us.

8. Challenge apartheid.

Don't let anybody inform you that you can't venture outside your own ethnic self-identification as you create characters.

9. Take a purposeful risk.

Push your authorial envelope. For some of us, a risk is to avoid ethnic cues and clues and descriptors altogether as a purposeful technique to give room for the reader's imagination. For others, risky writing means striving to describe the ethnicity of our characters in a way we never have before.

10. Unleash your creativity when it comes to descriptions of appearance.

It's unanimous: stay away from food metaphors when it comes to describing skin color. Scrupulously avoid cliché when talking about a character's appearance.

Let's invent fresh ways of describing the human diversity on our planet, and set our young readers free to enjoy fresh ways of seeing it.


Sarah Park said…
This is awesome. Thank you for creating it! :)
Mordena said…
Thanks for #1. My daughter is always puzzled when people describe someone like, say, Colin Powell as "black" -- when he is clearly paler than many folks classified as "white." It's made me realize that kids today don't necessarily divide the world the way we did thirty years ago (thank goodness). "Everyone has an ethnicity" is a good way to put it.
Jeanie W said…
Thanks so much for compiling this list. This is incredibly helpful.
Lisa said…
Thanks for this post. I must admit that I had been stuck for months on my novel because I didn't know whether or not to identify the racial identity of my characters. I think my problem was not whether it was integral to the story (because it isn't) but the fact that race is a topic that does not escape my daily life. So to avoid it in my books would be very purposeful and perhaps something that would "sanitize" my writing. I mean there is a reason why publishers put caucasian modles on the covers of lots of YA books.
TadMack said…
Mitali, as always you inspire me to my own thoughtful blogging and I think it's really cool that this conversation has spawned such wide-ranging thought! I'm grateful that you take the time to be coherent and informative on the behalf of the random writing public when you have all of your own stuff to do, too. Thanks.
Thank you, Mitali, for yet another thoughtful post. It reinforces your global point, I think, that I'd urge writers to use specific tribal affiliations rather than Native American or American Indian generally--so long as that information is available/applicable to the narrator POV. It also discourages defaulting to Hollywood stereotypes or "fungible" Indians, who make little to no sense to insider readers.
Mitali Perkins said…
When it comes to describing cultures, specific is always better than general. And more interesting, too. A story set "somewhere in Africa" won't match the authenticity of a book set in a particular village in Mali, for example. Thanks for that point, Cyn.
Sunila Samuel said…
Great discussion and great list of tips. I asked a writer friend about this once, and he said that describing a character's ethnicity shouldn't be that big of a deal---if we can describe the color of a flower or a car or a dress, why not mention the color of someone's skin or certain facial features? It’s totally natural to notice what a person looks like. If we go out of our way to avoid describing something that even the most open-minded person notices---a person’s ethnicity---are we just trying very hard to be PC? I’m not saying I agree or disagree with my friend; I'm just throwing these questions out there to contribute to this interesting discussion!
Ellen Booraem said…
I was a writing mentor for a fourteen-year-old here in lily-white Maine who wrote a story about a kid from a predominately African-American neighborhood. Since the story was entirely from his protagonist's point of view, white people were the only ones whose race got defined. We figured that was the only racial distinction the protagonist would notice.

Seems to me the racial markers have to be up to your protagonist. If they matter to him/her, then they matter. If not, they don't.
Mitali Perkins said…
You underline the points about letting the characters and the story lead the way. If you're writing from your progatonist's point of view, like your mentee, he would certainly use the racial and ethnic labels appropriate to him.

But in an omniscient narrator's voice, unless you're willing to say "black person" AND "white person" every time someone enters the scene, you'll have to be more creative to describe ethnicity when your story and characters and setting require it.
Mitali Perkins said…
Your decision about how to describe your characters' appearances should have little to do with YOUR race or location as the author, and everything to do with the story and the character. But be careful about your own prejudices creeping in and taking over. Many of the most lethal ones are latent.
Ellen Booraem said…
Yes, I agree. Even when omniscient, seems to me your narrator's (and characters') viewpoints would dictate ethnic descriptions. Skin color, for instance, may be simple description for one character but emotionally charged for another. And not even noticeable for a third.

I remember reading a novel by an African writer years ago and being struck by the fact that, in a hot setting, the temperature of a woman's skin was described lovingly as "cool," when a chilly Northerner like myself would get a more positive vibe from "warm" skin.
Thanks for this -- you've got some great points for helping shape character. I'm a believer in the #3 philosophy. While her characters were obviously English, Jane Austen rarely described any of them as more than "handsome" or "pretty" or "plain." The characteristics of their personalities define them most strongly. In doing that, she allowed us each to imagine our own, private, Mr. Darcy. Mmm.
Sunila Samuel said…
Mitali, I suspect many people choose to describe ethnicity because of your point #2 above: "First, why are you describing the ethnicity of your characters? Don't do it if your honest answer is 'I want to show how open-minded I am' or 'I want to move the world towards a better day.'"

I think many writers would like to be thought of as "culturally-aware." It's a noble sentiment, but perhaps not workable when writing literature. However, race and ethnicity are still big factors when it comes to identity, politics, and just everyday life happenings, so mentioning race and ethnicity will often be a necessary component in a story.
Sunila Samuel said…
I wonder: do readers often look for the race or ethnicity of characters when reading a novel? In other words, do we as readers try to determine race and ethnicity to help us better picture the story in our own heads?
llemma said…
"The consensus is that in a third-person narrative voice it's best to avoid socially-constructed race words like African-American, Asian-American, etc. to describe only the characters who aren't of European descent. And North American authors conventionally don't use "European-American" or white because to label every character's race gets tedious. So don't use any such labels at all."

Doe you mean European American authors? I think this works very differently in narratives not centered on white characters.
Mitali Perkins said…
Not necessarily. When I set my book in Bangladesh, I didn't use "bengali" as an ethnic label every time I described a character. In Coe Booth's KENDRA, the author never uses ethnic or racial labels but we get that information anyway. Any author would only use "white" or "black" as labels only if character of the narrative voice demanded those words to be used -- so once again, it doesn't depend on the ethnicity of the author.
Katia said…
Hello Mitali,
Chiming in from India, where the Diwali celebrations are deafening :) I greatly enjoyed this discussion, even though I did wonder about your point number 10, and the apparent ban on food metaphors to describe skin color (which I personally see as loving and positive). But then, I remembered that the whole discussion is meant in the context of the third person narrator's point of view in a novel. Thanks for sharing this with us.
Mitali Perkins said…
Hi Katia,

#10 is mainly because food has been so overdone in ethnic description that it almost always sounds cliche. The point being that we're writers, so it's time for some creative new linguistic play.

Malinda Lo said…
This has been such an interesting discussion to read. I realize you're talking generally about real world-based fiction, but because I'm writing a fantasy novel in which I imagined my characters as biracial (but didn't describe them as such), it struck me that rules are different for fantasy. For fantasy, I totally believe in rule #3, but for reality-based fiction, I think it's necessary to describe race. My blog post about it is here: http://malindalo.com/blog/2008/10/28/writing-about-race-in-fantasy-novels/
Mitali Perkins said…
Malinda, thanks for your comment. Yes, it's great when the reader gets to be in charge of casting a fantasy. I used to and still enjoy doing that.

But in contemporary fiction, what if my biracial reader is hurtling through my story almost unconsciously picturing my protagonist as biracial in the back of her imagination, but then I as an author describe a "biracial" secondary character. All of a sudden, the reader realizes that the protagonist can't be biracial.

Instead of the story buzzing along directed by the reader's imagination, obeying a mandate to ALWAYS describe race can end up jarring the reader, and sometimes feels like the author asserting control.

OF COURSE, the story and the characters decide when it's necessary. But even in contemporary fiction, I don't think it always is.
Malinda Lo said…
Hi Mitali -- I don't think I meant that this is a hard and fast rule in which every single last character's ethnic background is described. I can see how that might not be necessary and could be irrelevant for secondary or walk-on characters. But for me, I just can't imagine writing a primary character without knowing and describing her racial background (but not necessarily by using the terms "black" or "Asian"). That is such a huge element of the character that informs everything from what she eats to how she addresses her parents. How could it be left out? I'm sure it's different for different writers, but that's the way it is for me. :) Again, very interesting discussion!
Mitali Perkins said…
I agree that authors should probably know and imagine our characters' ethnicities, but I'm asking us to develop the discipline of asking ourselves why and how we're informing our readers about the knowledge we have in our heads about the characters -- especially perhaps when it comes to ethnicity given the strange way our culture processes that attribute.
Jackie said…

Thanks for a wonderful discussion! I found this on the internet because I'm having a really hard time describing a character who has a white West Texas Irish mother and a black Nigerian (Yoruba) father. The problem is that the character's ethnicity---how she feels about it and how others react to it---is central to my novel. I can't get away with not describing the character's facial features. My character's ethnicity is important precisely because in the novel, the white characters like her "exotic" good looks and the ambiguity of her ethnicity. In other words, she's black enough to fascinate, but not black enough to scare or intimidate. I just don't know how to convey this in terms of facial features in a way that doesn't fall into cliches.

Any advice????
Mitali Perkins said…
Hi Jackie,

Thanks for stopping by. My only suggestion would be to have a character describe her through dialogue instead of using your narrative voice, unless it's a first person voice. Then just stay true to how that character would see/describe your protagonist.

Hope that's helpful, and congratulations on your writing.

Anonymous said…
Very helpful. I will give it a go! Thanks! Jackie
I found this post via your most excellent new essay in Hunger Mountain, re: book covers. Great discussion. I especially appreciated this point and the specifics from all the comments::

Challenge apartheid.
Don't let anybody inform you that you can't venture outside your own ethnic self-identification as you create characters.
Elle said…
Wow, this post is very helpful and very very true. Thank you so much for writing it.
Micala Burns said…
Hmmm, you bring up interesting points, and I've been reading several discussions on the issue lately. I have to say, I honestly don't understand the problem with food descriptions. Yes, they CAN get boring or be cliche, especially for African-Americans like me, but if you have a reason, I think add it. Like if the girl is young, really sweet, has a smooth skin complexion, has really fine, silky arm hair and is a teenager that the protagonist boy has been dreaming about, then maybe, just maybe, she really is "peachy" in his mind. Classy, sweet, and fresh.

Another point is this: I would avoid race. Unless you've got a reason, avoid race. Just describe your characters! Saying they were half Scottish half Irish is lazy. Saying they were a tall, lanky boy with tan skin, an ivory undertone, strawberry blonde hair and green eyes and giving them a strong accent is much more effective, and much more imaginative. Here are some words I've found for skin by the way:

•Rich Earth
•Coffee - more description required
•Clay - add to this with more description
•(Ornamental, Antique) Bronze

•Falu Red
•(Chiffon) Lemon
•Rose (Misty, French)
•Orchid - specify

Blush Colors
•French Rose
•Orchid - really qualify the word with extra description



That's a very small selection of words compared to how many I have saved on the Word Doc I've made for imaginative terms for skin, but there are a few. I just got tired of cliches. Some of the ones I didn't mention are words reffering to minerals such as bronze or gold, trees such as oak or maple, or other abiotic factors such as clay or rich soil. Even using flower colors, really study the flower. Does it sparkle in the light? Is it multi-toned because of its specs? Sand can be used to describe someone with ivory and bronze mixed skin, with freckles of a seppia color mixed in. Race is almost always going to offend someone. Just describe your characters and let their interests and dialect "speak" for itself. Also, in a more racially diverse world, it's really hard to tell races from one another. Rather than try, just let your character be. Unless their lineage or social standing is affected by it, and important enough to be mentioned, why qualify it?
Anonymous said…
Hi, thanks for sharing, this is useful! Anyone have tips on describing a mixed race female character (caucasian mother, Irish, black father, South African)?
Anonymous said…
Thanks for sharing, this is useful. Anyone have tips on how to describe a mixed-race female character (caucasian mother, Irish, black father, South African)?
Anonymous said…
Thank you! I have been struggling with how to represent different ethnic groups in my writing and I really like writing descriptions of characters, but my main character is really causing me to realize that I need to take a step back and think more about who he is and less about what he looks like. I'm several chapters in and haven't given him a detailed physical description and part of me didn't want to, but I thought that I absolutely had to describe his skin, his eyes, his hair, his lips, etc. and now I feel like I can just describe his height and build, since that's really all I need my readers to know about him for the story, and leave the rest up to the readers.
katemariaprice said…
Thanks for writing this article! I'm writing a YA fantasy novel, and have really wanted to see what would happen if I told this story in more universal terms. I don't want to write a blank protagonist, but what if I used different ways to describe character's appearance? If I want to describe a character's eyes, and I say they were wide and bright and filled with a childlike wonder, does it matter if they are pale blue or dark brown? Or if a character is embarrassed what if it's her body language that is described instead of whether or not she blushed?
So I guess what I'm getting at, is if the skin tone of the characters is not important to understanding them, or the world they exist in, can I write a more universal story without these indicators? Or is that completely side stepping the issue of the lack of representation of POC in the fantasy genre?
KiraxSummers said…
You bring up some good points, but I do believe that the 'default color' of characters in western fiction tends to be white. If nothing is said about it, and the name is anglicized (or even ambiguous), most readers will conjure up a white character. This isn't any one person's fault, but simply a result of the society we live in. It's no good to fixate on race (unless that is the topic of the book in question), but leaving it out completely solely for the reason that you don't want to color your reader's perspective is suspect at best. If you go to great lengths to describe the scenery and situations (and in fantasy and sci-fi, you must), then go on to leave all the people as blank slates, that seems like a more tryhard attempt at being PC than describing race. An earlier commentor compared describing people to describing anything else in your story and I think that's exactly right. There's no reason to spend any more or less time on it than anything else. It just IS.
As for spoonfeeding your readers, you will end up doing it at some time or the other, and not being too heavy handed with your descriptions goes for everything, not just people. I would avoid huge blocks of text (because those are hardly ever fun if you write mainstream), but to describe in brief a character's appearance is usually fine (expected, even). Slipping it into your writing (the ponytail example) is a good idea too. From a fantasy/sci fi perspective, it's important to realize that you are imparting to your reader a universe that exists in your head. They didn't come up with it. You did. And you should feel free to tell them about it in whatever way you choose. It's unfair to say that only artists get to decide what your characters look like. If a multiracial, mixed race populace is the aesthetic that you wish your story to have, then more power to you. Do it, and don't let anyone tell you otherwise.