Welcome to day 2 of JJ Will Probably Alienate A Lot of People By Blogging About Race! In case you missed the previous posts:
Race in Fiction Week
Today I want to tackle how to describe race in fiction. There are many schools of thought about this and I don’t think my opinion is the only “right” way to go about it. But my thoughts come a personal place: as someone of a “minority” race in the US who reads a lot of books.
There are (more or less) two schools of thought with regards to describing characters of a different race. The first is DO EVERYTHING BUT MENTION THEIR RACE DIRECTLY. The second is a much more forthright approach.
The Circuitous Manner
You might guess on which side of the line I fall. Here’s an exercise: describe what I look like in the comments! Flex your writing skills. Also, I would love to see how other writers tackle race when describing what their characters look like. I promise that 1) won’t be offended if you describe me as a wart-ridden hog, and 2) judge you for whichever angle you decide to approach it from.
I’m of two minds about the circuitous version. I like when race is such a non-issue as to not be made a huge deal of, so kudos for keeping the colorblind lines open. There are many ways to indirectly approach the issue of race and a really great YA example is J.K. Rowling.
Yes, HARRY POTTER. I know the books about the Boy Who Lived aren’t shining examples of “multiculturalism” (or whatever), but that’s what I like about them. The way J.K. Rowling approaches race in her books is to give very subtle indicators, the most direct of them being names. Cho Chang and the Patil twins are three characters who are not Anglo-British. Cho Chang is most likely of some East Asian descent (either Chinese or Korean) and the Padma and Parvati are two Indian girls. Not once does Rowling mention this. In both cases, the names are the biggest giveaways. And while they may not be “main characters”, they just a few of the many students who populate Hogwart’s hallowed halls, neither cliché nor a statement. All three girls are described as being “good-looking” or “pretty”–Cho is actually given a talent, which is Quidditch. (That’s before she devolves into a hosepipe, but that’s something else.)
Of course, J.K. Rowling is a master at conveying fully rounded characters in an economy of words. Dean Thomas is a black character. I find it interesting that “black” was inserted into the American editions when they didn’t bother in the UK. I’ve heard that his penchant for soccer–excuse me, football–and his support of West Ham (…?) were large indicators of his ethnicity, but that might be a regional thing that didn’t translate across the pond.
Here’s the thing: I latched onto Cho, I really did. If I lived in Harry’s world, I would totally be sorted into Ravenclaw. Until the delayed release of THE ORDER OF THE PHOENIX, I was even “Cho’s age”–that is, a year older than Harry (in the books, not based on the actual year he was “born”). Here was a girl on whom Harry had a crush–all he noticed about her was that she was very pretty and was good at Quidditch. And she was ASIAN! And it didn’t define her! She was incidentally of another race! I could practically be her! And Harry sort-of-kind-of-maybe-not-really has a crush on not-me! Huzzah! (In my defense, I was 14 at the time, okay?)
That’s an example where the circuitous manner works. Unfortunately, it doesn’t always.
There are many occasions when it doesn’t. It doesn’t work when an “ethnic” character is a protagonist–I mean, I could go for several blog posts without mentioning my own racial heritage, but every once in a while, it’s bound to come up. It also doesn’t work when you rely only on physical descriptors. “Dark skin” is so broad as to describe a rainbow of complexions from practically every ethnicity and race. To some of my Korean relatives, I have very “dark” (i.e. brown) skin. I’m more pink-brown than pale yellow. What exactly are “almond-shaped” eyes? Not all Asian people have them. Some have very round eyes, others do not. I don’t have straight, sleek, shining black hair; my hair is dark brown and wavy-ish. Within a race or an ethnic group, there are so many variations of physical appearance, it’s going to be pretty impossible to glean any race aside from “white” (the default) unless you are more direct.
The Direct Approach
Which brings me to my preferred way of seeing characters described. Look, I get it. One of the first adjectives people will use to describe me is “that Asian girl”. I’m fine with that because it’s true. I’m Asian. And I’m a girl. If I were in Korea, you’d probably describe me differently: “that big girl with a huge butt”. (I have indeed been described this way. I’ve also been described as the “fat American with big boobs and lion hair”.)
But these are only descriptors of what I look like, not who I am. And I’m more interested in who a character is. Race is secondary, but dammit if it isn’t nice to go into a novel knowing that the character is incidentally a “different color”. I’m not asking that it be mentioned all the time, but a little nod close to the beginning would be nice, as long as it’s not the first thing that comes to mind.
In my opinion, Justine Larbalestier manages this quite elegantly in her book LIAR. You’re not aware of Micah’s race (…or anything else about her, really), but little hints filter through. I believe Micah mentions she got “the nap gene” with regards to her hair (I read the ARC, and I think it might have changed in final production) and there are other subtle hints that build up to your impression of her race before she mentions fairly soon that her father is black.
That was all I needed. I, uh, won’t discuss anything else about this book because it IS about a compulsive liar, but this is my take on it.
I know a lot of writers shy away from loaded terms like “black” and “Asian” and “Hispanic”, afraid of alienating readers or I don’t know what. But the thing is, a good writer will work with it. A good writer will work with all the implications that accompany racially/ethnically-charged words and still convince me that a character is a whole person.
Embrace the connotations and the negative associations, but work them to your advantage and to the story’s advantage.
That’s my take on describing characters of color. What are your thoughts? Also, I’m interested to see in how people describe me!