Not long ago, in search of help for describing one of my own characters, which I learned would be called a PoC or CoC (Person of Color / Character of Color) – yay for learning new terms – I came across the author Nora K. Jemisen, who wrote extensively about describing PoC’s. I found it fascinating, for she goes into detail – citing examples of other authors as well as snippets of her own – on how PoC’s are depicted in fiction.
And not just any old fiction, oh no, but Fantasy and Science Fiction as well. This has been something I’ve had a fun time learning about and exploring, as much of the subject matter regarding my own work involves characters descended from a multitude of races.
Now, to any fantasy reader/writer, this ought not to be anything unusual. Of course there are humans (we need characters we can relate to, so I’ve heard), and there’re often elves, dwarves, fae-folk and all sorts of humanoids. But the real topic of today is about describing “normal people races,” and Ms. Jemisen makes some excellent points.
As a white-guy writer, one could say I’m a little self-conscious when writing characters of color, as it’s all-too-easy to try too hard and dance around descriptors for race, or make some assumption about the language used. Alongside an example of another author’s work, Jemisen states:
- “…As he narrates this passage in which he meets the protagonist’s mother, I feel like he uses the typical modern white American technique of tiptoeing around the word “black”, as if just saying it is an epithet, because he’s probably been raised to believe that it is.”
That being said, race in Fantasy means different things as it would in our (arguably) enlightened 21st Century consciousness, and as such it’s important to recognize how peoples of your world regard each other, as well as themselves. Chances are slim that in a fantasy realm, there won’t be any “African-Americans” or “Asians”, and probably won’t be “blacks” or “whites” either. There’d likely be slurs and less-than-flattering descriptors of peoples from and among different races (just as there might be beautifying terms) but that’s yet another part where the writer must get creative. Heck, they could be downright fun, such as “knife-ears” from Dragon Age, a derogatory term for elves.
Personally, I think that calling out the skin tone of a character is lazy writing. A large portion of Nora K. Jemisen’s posts deal with skin-tone labeling, and offers imaginative alternatives. However, there were a number of points I wanted to outline in addition.
First (in Part 2), is the concept of “Defaulting to White.” This is when a character lacks any description in regards to their race/skin color, and the reader assumes them to simply be white on account of … well, the reader being white, and the writer (also white) assuming that they have only white readers. As far as I’m concerned, if a character is kept vague enough that we can’t picture them in our heads, it generally means that their race really doesn’t matter, at least in terms of plot. It’s normal behavior for humans to project likeness to ourselves, but there’s a bit more to it than that.
Oh yes, there always is, whenever it comes to race. To shamelessly copy (but lovingly attribute it to) Nora K. Jemisen:
- “Having seen American writers (white and PoC) go through agonies trying to figure out how to describe kinky hair, or the various shades of brown skin, I’m reminded of this discussion on the unmarked state in anime/manga and how Americans habitually resort to exaggerations of PoC physical features in their art — exaggerations which people from other cultures don’t see or employ themselves. I’m beginning to wonder if the emphasis American writers place on black hair texture and skin shade is another example of such exaggeration. Or maybe this emphasis is simply necessary in a multiracial society, and not in monoracial societies.”
You really ought to check out the discussion she linked.
Another bit, for good measure, is Jemisen’s thoughts on the use of “coffee” as a descriptor for skin color as per another author’s example:
- “I do have an issue with her use of “coffee” here; I get really tired of seeing African-descended characters described in terms of the goods that drove, and still drive, the slave trade — coffee, chocolate, brown sugar. There’s some weird psychosocial baggage attached to that.“
She goes on to say that that particular author gets a pass on account of the character in question receiving several other descriptions; it’s not just “…with skin was the color of roast coffee…” and that’s it.
I think that these are all things to ponder when writing any character, not just PoC’s. And again, if anything, you’re better off reading it there, there’s much more than I could fit.
Happy writing, dear readers!