In preparation for the WisCon panel on “How To Describe Nonwhite Characters Sans Fail”, I’m looking up descriptions of characters in my favorite books to analyze what I like about them and why they work. I’m hoping to bring some concrete examples of literary awesomeness so we can keep the panel balanced between “this is why describing people this way is a problem” and “here are non-faily descriptions, learn from the best.”
I have a few already, but I’d love to hear about your favorite character descriptions as well. Not just of characters of color — though good examples of such are very much welcome — but phrases or passages that stuck out for you, that created clear or powerful pictures in your mind. No need to limit yourself to SF; show me your romance, your mystery, even your poetry! (Be sure to include the author and origin.)
7 thoughts on “Your Favorite Descriptions”
Thank you for posting this and to nojojo for the links. Because my world and my family is multi-racial and bi-racial…my characters tend to be as well. But I don’t always pull off the descriptors.
In a story that I hope will be published soon(on hold *fingers crossed*), I wrote that the main character pushed a black curl behind her tiny brown ear…and the friend who does my pre-submission editing read her as a white child who was outside a lot. : (
My settings are almost always completely imaginary, so that’s limiting as well…though it probably helps me work past lazy descriptors.
I am currently working on a YA novel and 2 of the main characters are psysically based upon my oldest sons, one of whom is Asian. I struggled to describe that character in a way that made clear he was Asian (should the book ever be published, this is incredibly important to me – there are NOT enough primary Asian characters).
I finally decided that the characters were going to get last names JUST so I could give that one a common Korean surname.
I am still struggling with how to describe one of the 2 primary female characters. She is biracial and I can see her in my mind – she has freckles and kinky orangey-brown hair. I have family members this could describe but I know *know* that for too many people, freckles and orange hair = white. I am not happy that I may have to re-imagine her to get across to readers that this child isn’t white. Not sure what to do with that…
Neil Gaiman’s Anasazi Boys did an amazing job of this, especially for a sometimes wrong non-POC author. The white people are described by race/skin color whereas it’s not mentioned at all regarding the POC main characters.
I don’t know if this is what you have in mind, since it’s the lack of description that made it stand out for me, but … Peter Straub’s _Mr. X_.
Straub doesn’t explicitly mention race until you’re, oh, two or three hundred pages in, but once he does, various small key hints – the protagonist debating race while hitching, his mom’s career and history as a blues singer, the menu served at his welcome-home dinner – all come together to make any reader who assumed a default white identity for that character (for any character!) think, “Oh!” and go back to double-check the rest of their assumptions.
I always think of this in the context of hearing one of my favorite writers talk about how it felt like a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t situation to have to detail ethnicity for a character-of-color, and thereby Other them, or risk having them whitewashed (“the African-American detective walked into the room” vs. “the detective walked into the room”). I dunno how many of Straub’s readers pick up on it, but I’d like to think most ….
Did you ever see my series of posts on this? The third one collected descriptions that (per their recommenders) worked or mostly-worked. Though there’s some discussion along the way of what doesn’t work. Part 1 is here, then Part 2, and Part 3.
Thanks! I had read part 1 when you first posted it but not parts 2 and 3. I shall mine these for discussion.
I can’t think of anything off-hand — though if I remember any I’ll be sure to drop by here — but I just wanted to say how much I’m wishing I were attending WisCon this year, solely so I could visit this panel and the cultural appropriation ones. They seem super interesting!
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