How to Write About Character Skin Color in Your Novel
The world is full of so many people of different backgrounds, races, and nationalities. But traditionally, popular fiction has centered mostly around the white experience, white characters, and white authors. If you don’t believe me, who are the five most famous authors you can think of?
Are they all (or mostly) white? Do they write mostly white characters? Are they set in Europe, North America, or another western-based world in the case of fantasy or sci-fi? Do you see what I mean?
If you’re reading this article, maybe it’s because you’d like to broaden your horizons and include more diverse characters in your own works—specifically more BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color) characters.
That’s great—our fiction should reflect the world as it is and that means including people of various ethnic backgrounds and skin tones. But the history of writing about people of color is kind of… awful and it’s important to remember that you can’t just throw in a BIPOC character without giving some serious thought to how you represent and describe that character.
That’s where I’m hoping to help you today. Just remember, this is a process of constant learning and things in this area are always changing. What might be “okay” today might not be okay next year, and it’s up to you to continue to educate yourself.
It’s also important to remember that you might mess this up and someone might call you on it, and that’ll feel kind of terrible, but it’s okay. It happens.
Everyone, even writers of color, gets it wrong sometimes. What’s important is that you don’t get defensive or argue. That you listen carefully to what you’re being told, internalize it, educate yourself, and think about how you can do better next time.
With all that said, here’s what we’ll cover in this article to help you get it more right than wrong:
- Introductory tips for writing characters of color
- The history of characters of color in fiction
- Why you shouldn’t use food to describe darker skin tones
- Strategies for writing about characters of color
- Words you can use to describe black and brown skin tones
Introduction to Writing Characters of Color
Before we dive in further, let’s look at a few things to keep in mind when writing about characters of color:
Don't ask BIPOC to educate you
There are countless resources online, like this one, where you can research this yourself. That’s because it’s exhausting for BIPOC to always be the “teacher” when it comes to these issues, especially when there are plenty of resources where you can find the information on your own. Once you’ve done your own thorough and thoughtful research and you have questions, there are additional resources you can use to get those answers. (More on this below.)
Don't speak over BIPOC
And don't decide your opinion is more right or valid. If someone from a community tells you something is problematic, then it is. Full stop. If you aren’t from that community, then you do not have the knowledge to challenge them on their words.
Don't treat BIPOC as a monolith
Having said that, BIPOC within a certain community are not a monolith and what isn’t okay for one person might not bother another. This is where writing characters of color can be challenging. There are many layers and nuances to writing people of color, and there are often multiple answers to every question you have. Sorry. No one said this would be easy. That doesn’t mean you don’t have to do the homework, though.
Also remember, there is huge diversity within different races and ethnic groups. Saying someone is “Asian” or “African” isn’t enough. There are so many various cultures, skin tones, and physical features within these massive continents that simply reducing your character to just one word becomes problematic and assumes everyone with darker skin is the same.
Describe all skin tones
If you’re going to describe the skin tones of black and brown people, then you also must include skin descriptions for the white characters in your story. Otherwise, you’re contributing to the idea that white is the default, and anyone who isn’t is “other.” (We’ll talk a bit more about this below.)
Don't avoid describing skin tones
Don’t avoid describing characters of color because all of this scares you a bit. It’s important to show representation and diversity in fiction. If you leave it up to the “reader's imagination” then most people will invariably default to thinking the character is white (and that doesn’t do anyone any favors). As a BIPOC person myself, even I do it sometimes because white media is so dominant that it’s just what everyone is used to, and it’s hard to break free of that.
And finally, two last things I want to point out:
- Do not describe characters of color as “colored.” That’s ancient, racist language and not how we refer to BIPOC in the year of our lord 2023.
- Just because someone within a certain community uses words that are generally problematic, like chocolate or coffee (more on this later) in reference to skin tone, doesn’t mean you get to do it, too. There are different rules if you are part of a community or not.
The History of Writing About Character Skin Color in Fiction
The history of writing about skin color in fiction is a complex topic that reflects long-standing societal biases and prejudices surrounding race and ethnicity. All too often, people of color are depicted in a way that reinforces harmful stereotypes and prejudices.
One of the earliest examples of writing about skin color in fiction is in ancient Greek literature, where people of color were often depicted as exotic, primitive, and inferior to white people. This trend continued throughout the centuries, with people of color being depicted in ways that reflected and reinforced the dominant societal views of the time.
During the colonial era, people of color were frequently depicted as savages or barbarians, reflecting the attitudes of the colonizers and their conquests. This portrayal of people of color as inferior and barbaric was used to justify the colonization and exploitation of their lands and resources, a practice that hasn’t really changed much even today.
In the 19th and early 20th centuries, people of color were often depicted as stereotypes in fiction, with characters being reduced to a single defining characteristic, often their race or ethnicity. These stereotypes promoted harmful societal biases and prejudices and contributed to the marginalization and othering of people of color.
How the representation of skin color has changed in fiction
Thankfully, things are changing in how people of color are depicted in fiction being written today.
There has been a greater, if slow, effort to write about people of color in more authentic and respectful ways in fiction. This involves acknowledging and challenging those harmful stereotypes and prejudices of the past, and striving to create more complex and well-rounded characters who are representative of the diverse range of experiences and communities that exist in the world.
One significant and important change has been the inclusion of more diverse and representative voices in fiction. This includes seeing more authors of color being published, as well as more characters of color being depicted in a wide range of roles and experiences.
This shift is helping to challenge the dominant narrative and create a more inclusive and authentic representation. We’re seeing a similar phenomenon in movies and TV shows as well.
In addition, there is greater emphasis on the importance of intersectionality in fiction. Intersectionality refers to the overlapping and intersecting identities that individuals may have, such as race, gender, sexual orientation, and class.
In the past, people of color were often depicted in fiction in a way that ignored the complexity and intersectionality of their identities, thus reducing them to one-dimensional characters who served only as a backdrop to the main characters or sometimes as a reductive plot device.
The Black best friend who’s there only to get killed, just so the main white character can find their motivation, would be a good example of this.
Challenges of Writing About Skin Color in Fiction
As I said at the outset, including characters of color and getting it right isn’t easy. But writing sensitively and accurately about people of color is important. It doesn’t matter that it’s “just fiction.”
By doubling down on harmful stereotypes and prejudices in your writing, you’re contributing to those same harmful beliefs being perpetuated in real life. Where real, actual people are really, actually harmed by that.
To avoid perpetuating these harmful stereotypes, it is important to do thorough research and create well-rounded and multi-dimensional characters who are representative of the diverse range of experiences and communities that exist in the world.
Another challenge of writing characters of colors is avoiding cultural appropriation. This is a phenomena when dominant group (i.e., white people) take elements of a marginalized group's culture (i.e., BIPOC) without understanding or respecting the context and significance of those elements.
In writing, cultural appropriation can take the form of using stereotypes, misrepresenting cultural practices and beliefs, or co-opting the experiences and struggles of marginalized groups. This last point is important.
It really isn’t the place of a white person to write a story of how a Black person experiences racism in the world. It’s just not. Not only because someone who’s never experienced racism can’t truly understand it, but also because it is not the dominant group's place to tell that story, and it’s definitely not their place to make money off that story.
Another challenge of writing characters of color is tokenism. Tokenism refers to the practice of including one or a few characters from a marginalized group in a story in order to appear diverse or progressive, without giving those characters the depth, complexity, and agency that they deserve. Remember that best friend example I stated earlier? That would definitely be an example of tokenism.
And finally, you don’t want to fall into the trap of portraying people of color as "other." This happens when people of color are depicted in a way that emphasizes their difference from the dominant group, or when their culture or ethnicity is used as a defining characteristic.
This can be harmful because it reinforces the idea that people of color are not part of the "normal" or "default" group, and can contribute to othering and marginalization. Remember when I said above that if you’re going to describe black and brown skin tones, you also need to describe white ones? This is exactly what I meant.
Using Food to Describe Skin Tone
This gets its own section because using food to describe black and brown skin tones has been so prevalent in fiction, but it is extremely problematic. Why? Using food to describe darker skin tones is a form of colorism, which refers to the preference or discrimination towards people with lighter skin tones.
This is a harmful and offensive practice that perpetuates negative stereotypes and reinforces harmful societal biases.
Words like cocoa, chocolate, coffee, caramel lead to fetishization of people of color. It implies the ability to consume them—something that has happened figuratively through colonization and slavery for centuries.
Speaking of slavery, when referring to Black people by these words, it’s important to remember that these items drove the slave trade then and still do today. Don’t use them. And as I said above, if a Black or brown person uses those words to describe themselves or people within their scope, that’s different. It doesn’t mean you get to do it, too.
Additionally, using food to describe darker skin tones reduces people to a single physical characteristic, rather than recognizing them as multi-dimensional human beings. It objectifies and dehumanizes people of color by treating them as nothing more than a skin color rather than complex and individual individuals.
Another issue with using food to describe darker skin tones is that it also reinforces harmful stereotypes about people of color. These stereotypes often portray people of color as exotic or primitive, and can be used to justify discrimination and prejudice. By using food to describe darker skin tones, we are perpetuating these harmful stereotypes and contributing to the marginalization of people of color.
And finally, using food to describe darker skin tones is also problematic because it implies that there is something inherently wrong or undesirable about darker skin tones. This reinforces the societal biases that prioritize lighter skin tones as more attractive and desirable and can contribute to feelings of inadequacy and self-hatred among people of color.
How to Write About Characters of Color
So we’ve talked at length about what not to do when writing characters of color, but how do you write them then? Here are some tips for including characters of color in your stories.
Do thorough research: It is important to go beyond superficial stereotypes and tropes and gain a deeper understanding of the cultures, histories, and experiences of the characters you are portraying. This can involve reading books, articles, and other resources written by people of color, as well as consulting with people who are knowledgeable about the cultures and communities being represented. Remember that if you’re asking BIPOC to help you, you should be compensating them for their time, knowledge, and emotional energy.
Avoid cultural appropriation: Don’t appropriate cultures that don’t belong to you. Don’t try to write about the experiences of people of communities you don’t belong to. As a general rule, it’s okay to include people of color in your stories—and you should!—but don’t try to write about the struggles people of color experience if you aren’t a part of that community.
Avoid tokenism: Avoid tokenism by giving your characters of color a full range of experiences, motivations, and personalities, rather than using them as props or plot devices.
Hire a sensitivity reader: Get professional feedback from people who belong to the communities you’re writing about. This can help identify any problematic or offensive elements in your writing and can also provide valuable insights and perspectives that can help to make your characters more authentic and well-rounded. You can also join the group Writing with Social Awareness, where members of various marginalizations are willing to help you navigate the complexities of writing these characters.
Acknowledge your personal biases: We all internalize these harmful beliefs because we’ve been exposed to them so often. It’s important to look inward and challenge your own preconceived notions about various groups of people. This can be uncomfortable work, but it’s an important step in writing characters of color with authenticity. To do this, seek out books and articles written by BIPOC on these subjects. You can also take a class or course to learn more about diversity, equity, and inclusion.
Words You Can Use
We talked about not using food to describe characters of color. And of course, avoiding harmful stereotypes. So what words can you use? While this is, of course, not an exhaustive list, this can hopefully get you started.
Hopefully by now, you’re feeling a bit more confident about writing characters of colors in your own works of fiction. While it’s not an easy task, it is definitely an important one and worth taking the time and care to do it right.
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