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How do you avoid having the reader assuming your character is a conventionally white person?

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by Ewolf20, Feb 7, 2021.

  1. Ewolf20

    Ewolf20 Minstrel

    I’m all for leeway on how you envision a character but I wanna ask how I can avoid the white is the default mindset when describing characters in written mediums.
    S.T. Ockenner likes this.
  2. jacksimmons

    jacksimmons Scribe

    I don't think you can. If you are a white writer I think it is assumed that a character in your story is white unless stated otherwise. And vice versa. And I would imagine that if left ambiguous a reader is most likely to project their background on to a character ie a white person imagines a white character.

    I have noticed a peculiar new double-edged sword when it comes to identity in fiction. White writers who do not have representation for other ethnic backgrounds come under fire. Similarly, white people that write black characters often come under fire also for misrepresentation. I don't know the solution to this conundrum.

    EDIT: I didn't mean double edged sword but can't think of the correct expression. But it doesn't matter anyway haha
    Last edited: Feb 7, 2021
    Son of the Roman likes this.
  3. Ewolf20

    Ewolf20 Minstrel

    I forgot to mention i'm nigerian american who has several nigerian american characters under their belt. I the only issue i could run into is when writing just plain black american characters as i only got glimpse as to what life is like in their perspective.
    buster13h and S.T. Ockenner like this.
  4. ascanius

    ascanius Inkling

    As apposed to unconventionally white..... I know there is a joke somewhere in there but can't find it.

    Why not just describe what they look like? It doesn't have to be info dump, maybe little tidbits here and there?

    Usually when I read it's the setting that will determine skin color and other physical attributes of characters I'm reading about, if no discription is given. One book i read my mind gave everyone grey skin because the setting was in a slummy city, weird now that I think back on it. Very little character discription.

    I think it's funny you would have trouble write "plain black american" characters. Too many people now think skin color is a monolith that makes everyone the same.

    Hope that is useful. Good luck.
    S.T. Ockenner likes this.
  5. Vaporo

    Vaporo Inkling

    Just mention their dark skin in their character description. Or even just don't mention their skin color at all if it doesn't matter to the story. Some people get so hung up on skin color nowadays, but remember that the overwhelming majority of normal people don't care what color a character's skin is.
    Nighty_Knight and S.T. Ockenner like this.
  6. WooHooMan

    WooHooMan Auror

    I imagine their names would be the quickest way.
    If I was reading a story about Jose Lopez or Wang Wei Li, I’d probably won’t default to them being white.
  7. Svrtnsse

    Svrtnsse Staff Article Team

    I've been trying to make a habit of including the skin colour of all characters that are important enough to warrant a description, regardless of the colour.
    Often in my earlier books, I either forgot or didn't think about it, but in more recent ones, I've gotten better at it.

    My thinking is that even if the colour matches the default colour of the reader, the mention of it reminds them that not everyone comes in that colour, and it contributes to make the world just a tiny bit more alive.

    I also try to include, whenever possible, that people are human, as opposed to elves or anfylk. So instead of "three men" I'd go with something like "three brown-skinned human men."
    S.T. Ockenner likes this.
  8. Toby Johnson

    Toby Johnson Minstrel

    just describe your character as being another race other than white, or just pop the character on the book cover and you'll find that poeple will now read it with that in their minds, but at the end of the day, you cannot change how people think.
    S.T. Ockenner likes this.
  9. ladyander

    ladyander Scribe

    I mean, if it matters that much to you, then describe how your character look. I mean, that generally what I do if a character has a specific skin color that is different from other characters. Then it only gets mentioned when relevant after that point.

    Truth is, often times when I'm reading, I don't keep a firm image of a character in mind.

    When people talk about visualizing characters in their mind and how some make characters a certain default or default into a movie star or something, I really don't understand. That isn't something I do when I'm reading. At best the default character in my mind is faceless and gray. That's the best thing I mean, reading isn't a visual thing for me, it's just words. I can't visualize words a great deal of the time. I just read works and read what the words are saying.

    I have no issue with seeing my own characters though, describing them is an issue, most of the time, I keep it minimal. I figure this is just another dyslexic quirk.

    Just words for thought.
  10. A. E. Lowan

    A. E. Lowan Forum Mom Leadership

    As Svrt said, you describe your characters early and often. Collins had this issue with The Hunger Games where, when the movie came out, audiences freaked out because they didn't know Rue was black. The author had clearly described both Rue and her entire district as being persons of color in the book... once or twice. That's not enough for most readers, for whom the default really is white. It made feel a bit repetitive, but it's better, in my opinion, to over-describe a bit than to erase a character's identity by under-describing them.
  11. Mad Swede

    Mad Swede Inkling

    In my view you can either describe your characters appearance in sufficient detail and, possibly, often or you can not describe them at all and let the readers make their own minds up. I'd probably be awkward and challenge you to think about how you see characters in books. Do you assume they're all white if no description is given and if so, why?
  12. Penpilot

    Penpilot Staff Article Team

    If you don't indicate directly or indirectly what race a character is, the reader will simply overlay whatever they want for whatever reason. It's like that for any character trait. For me, the image in my head gets formed by the feel of the character as I read. That feel gets generated by word choices. Sometimes, it's in direct contradiction to what's on the page, which can be fine. If something isn't important to the story, there's little point in pounding it into the reader's head.

    But IMHO, if you don't want the reader to assume a character is white, the simplest and most straight forward way to push the reader away from this is name choice. The name John Smith compared to Felix Chan will definitely push the reader onto different roads without ever having to mention a single thing about their backgrounds.
  13. Ned Marcus

    Ned Marcus Inkling

    I avoid having readers assume my characters are conventionally white by making them unconventional in some way. The white part is hard to control. I can't really control what readers assume. Description and naming go a long way to make things clear (if you want to make them clear). But despite descriptions, many readers will just assume what they want.
  14. Devor

    Devor Fiery Keeper of the Hat Moderator

    Go with an unreliable narrator - mess with your readers a bit and let them assume wrong, drop the skin colors halfway through the book and teach them to stop assuming things.
    joshua mcdermott likes this.
  15. Queshire

    Queshire Auror

    Personally the ones that stick out the most to me are cultural connections.

    One story I read has the MC argue with her brother during the first act. She ends up taking him to task for acting like a wannabe gangster when their family is actually pretty well off.

    In another story the MC is initially presented as basically a Standard American Kid(tm), but a couple life changing events later and we see her basically trying to replicate Japanese tea customs while at the local superhero school. She explains it as a way to connect with her mother's culture if I remember correctly. It's a pretty effective way of communicating that, hey, she's half-Japanese.
  16. Patrick-Leigh

    Patrick-Leigh Inkling

    I think this issue is further complicated for sci-fi / fantasy writers who have protagonists that aren’t Human, actually. It’s hard enough making sure readers don’t assume a character is the same race as they are. Getting it into their heads that a character is not Human and has a Non-Human way of looking at things (not necessarily alien, just very different) can be even harder. But repeated references to their appearance, or at least parts of it, and making sure the characterization is solid will go a long way in getting the audience over that hurtle.
  17. eartshala

    eartshala Dreamer

    Who cares what the reader assumes. You know the truth and that's all that matters.
  18. EMoon

    EMoon Dreamer

    In what way does the character's color matter *to the character in that story*? How does the character's color matter to others in the story? (Esp. any other POV characters, but also consider the culture of your story...how important IS color in that culture?) If you're writing in "this world" as a setting, then you still have variables, but mostly color has some significance, not always the same amount or in the same way, because we see colors.

    In general, if you're writing in a this-world setting, be specific about which non-white origin and culture you want readers to pick up on. (Not all will, because they may not know the one or ones you know, but they should have a good idea within the first paragraph or two whether your character is indigenous from or in Australia, indigenous from or in South America, or Africa or India. I recommend using a non-white character specific to a culture you already know well, and show the character first in their own cultural matrix. (You can use a memory for this: Character-name remembers something specific--place, person, cultural location--and everyone there speaking the same language as the character, being so clearly "us" and not "them." If the character sees, or thinks of, a white person, and clearly thinks of that as "other" that's clue one.) You do need to trickle-feed those clues in for a white readership, because yes, we do assume a white character if it isn't made clear, and some will read right over it. But equally, too much description without behavior is boring, and constantly saying "By the way, Fidor is black/brown/green skinned, remember" counts as infodump, even if it will work to get the most thick-skulled white reader to see a different skin color.

    BTW, publishers still worry about putting a dark-skinned character on covers but are more likely to do it for writers of color than for white writers. I started muttering about the skin color of my protagonist on the first book about her...nope, nope, nope. In the second series (six and seven books in) I was finally able to get a cover based on the right genestock but still way too light. I kept saying "darker" and they kept saying "Might lose some readers." You can get a tanned blond easier than a tanned brunette, let alone someone brown by nature. This may be changing but it's been that way awhile. So yeah it has to be in words.
  19. Miles Lacey

    Miles Lacey Maester

    The things that prevent readers from making assumptions about the skin colour of a character include setting, the character's name, culture, descriptions used by the writer to describe their character and the experiences of the character. Also, the race of the author can also influence whether or not the readers will assume the characters are white.

    I prefer to let the setting, the character's name and some of their cultural practices do the talking rather than tell the readers that the character is a particular ethnicity or skin colour.
    artsyChica and Queshire like this.
  20. In my earlier work I had to deal with this, but it was first person, so there is a moment when the character simply states who she is and how she identifies. Not sure it was super effective and still looking at it for improvement. There was no mention of skin color but clear connection to heritage and history that could infer such. I think that skirting the issue may make it larger than it needs to be. the characters know who they are and often will let you know how they identify, so take them at their word.

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