Characters in Black and White

Close-up and out-of-focus white chess pieces frame in-focus black chess pieces.

Chess by frankblacknoir / CC BY 2.0

From time to time, I struggle with my character descriptions. I usually don’t resolve it and so shove the questions away until later. After thinking about it on a recent train ride home, I came across an article in the New York Times that discussed black writer’s conferences.

The article discusses why there is still a need for black authors’ to have their own conferences and the additional struggles they face in the publishing industry.

Reading it helped me focus on one of my stumbling blocks when it comes to character descriptions: race.

I tend not to describe my characters unless the trait is important to the story (say a lightening bolt scar on the forehead). But I just focus on one trait and it’s generally hair color – which, from my description of blonde or red or light brown, pegs my characters as white. Also, my non-reference to their skin color apparently pegs them as white. I’m uncomfortable with this.

I brought up my misgivings one writer’s group, a long time ago, and one of the senior members of the group (an ex-English teacher who loved to lecture the group rather than accept comments on his stories) said something to the effect of “of course you don’t have to describe them. Everyone will assume your characters are white. You only have to describe them if they’re not.” The assumption being that my readers would assume the characters looked like them…which also assumed that all my readers would be white.

Some writer’s strongly believe that you should describe your characters in detail to give your readers a clear view of what those characters look like. I would rather my reader imagine what the characters look like and, hopefully, put themselves in the characters’ shoes.

That’s why I describe characters so little. That and the fact that I don’t clearly see my characters. They are almost always average height and weight. I can “see” if they are in their 20s or their 50s, but I can’t see their faces, those are fuzzy. If I ever describe a character as having a pointy chin or bulbous nose it’s not because that’s the way they appear to me, it’s because I need filler or that trait seems like it would fit with that character. Oddly, I generally do see hair color…and it’s usually brown (guess what color mine is). And the character is usually white.

And when they aren’t, I’m not sure how to describe them. Do I mention skin color, even though no one else in the book is described that way? Do I describe everyone else’s skin color, too? Do I ignore skin color and focus on describing hair…as I seem to do with all my other characters? Or do I ignore it completely, not describe anyone and hope that my readers have ESP…or does it matter at all, as I professed when I said I just want people to imagine themselves in my characters?

More recently, I took a small piece to writer’s group that included Julia’s boss Davita. In my mind she’s black, but I didn’t describe her skin color, only her hair as black and grey and wiry. Admittedly, a bad description. I described her clothes and her mannerisms. And everyone in group said they could see her perfectly. I wondered who they were picturing, but didn’t ask.


One thought on “Characters in Black and White

  1. I don’t like describing characters too much either. Granted, my only long piece was that NANO, and I found myself changing people’s traits or names halfway through the month.

    Besides, if you describe things in too much detail, it takes away half the fun for the reader!

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