Skin Tone: Describing Your Characters

When you write about character's of different races, how do you describe their skin tone? If you've never thought about this, then consider this question: How do the authors you read described persons of color?
A few months ago, I attended a webinar about writing diverse characters. The guest was Eliana West of Writers for Diversity. The information she shared felt fresh and valuable, especially related to describing a character's skin tone.

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.    --N. K. Jemisin

As this quote from author, N. K.Jemisin, indicates, historically, writers have described people of color using food-related descriptors. Many people of color find this offensive. This surprised me, at first, but she has a point, especially when you view it through the quote above.

My first thought was, what do I need to change in my novels and how do I do it? 

The world of my upcoming fantasy trilogy occurs in a land similar to Africa. It's not Africa, but the majority of the characters do not have peaches and cream complexions (hmm, we even describe white women with food). Except for an occasional reference, I hadn't referred to skin tone, but I knew of at least one description that needed an update.

As any instructor knows, you don't share a Do Not guideline without providing options. West gladly shared several color palettes with the group. I've added two of the most useful at the end of this post. The N. K. Jemisin quote comes from the first palette, and Writers for Diversity compiled the second one.

Yes, the first list includes some food-related terms. It's almost impossible to find a list without a few. Skip the food references and choose something else.  Olive is the one exception to the rule, according to Writers for Diversity--check the side note for an explanation.

As writers, we seek to find unique ways to describe a person or scene. I look at this skin tone advice as a new opportunity to stretch our writing skills and find different ways to describe characters, no matter what color they may be. Many options exist for your creative muse to find and apply. 

You might surprise yourself and realize you don't need to mention skin tone, at all. 

(If you click the link on Jemisin's name above you'll go to a blog post she wrote several years ago demonstrating how some authors have managed to do this with great success.)


Stobby said…
Interesting and useful! Thanks for the post!
Glad you found it helpful. Thanks for stopping by!
Anonymous said…
what about black and white?
You can use black and white, but sometimes a writer is looking for something a bit more nuanced. It's up to you. The main thing is that writers for years defaulted to skin color descriptors that suggested foods. Some people find this offensive, so I shared this info that I received elsewhere.

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