Writing with Color has received several asks on this topic.
Everything from “how do I describe my character’s skin tone without being offensive?” and “what’s the problem with comparing my character to chocolate and coffee?”
I’m hoping to address all these and likewise questions in this guide on describing POC skin color, from light, dark and all that’s in between.
The Food Thing: So what’s the big deal?
So exactly what is the problem with comparing POC skin tone to cocoa, coffee, caramel, brown sugar and other sweets and goods? Well, there’s several potential problems you come across when you pull out the old Hershey’s bar comparison for your dark-skinned character, even if offense is not your intention.
Anonymous asked: Hey there! In the story I am writing it takes place on a different planet. However I really want a certain race of people to have African accents. How do I describe accents that don’t necessarily exist? I hope that made sense!
There’s a wealth of ways to encapsulate an accent, what with all the words available to you. It’s a matter of how straight-forward or creative you want to go. Maybe some of the methods below will help.
- She had a fragile accent.
- The people had throaty voices, sawing out words in blunt grumbles.
- His voice was splinters and broken glass.
- Her accent had a song-like quality that reminded her of swaying tides.
- He had a French accent.
- "I have to go," she said, though from her accent, French, the words sounded more like "I hive tego."
Straight-forward & ‘Technical’:
- He had a French accent, perhaps Northern, his voice lilting the edges of his vowels and dragging out others.
Some methods work better in combination with others, such as straight-forward combined with technical (as shown). It truly shouldn’t take many sentences to give readers enough info to imagine how someone’s voice or accent sounds. Therefore I wouldn’t overdue the clues, as it can stir into offensive.
- Describing Voices
- 55 Words to Describe Someone’s Voice
- Online Thesaurus
- Describing Qualities of the Human Voice
Writers know that creating interesting characters is an important part of writing fiction. Adding some conflict, however, creates fireworks and can change an okay story into a great one.
With tough-love characters, it’s difficult for those at the receiving end of their treatment to see that their way of doing things might stem from affection. Here are some tips on how to show their more caring side:
We’re not all the type to openly show affection, but you’d be hard-pressed to find somebody incapable of showing any at all.
For some characters, it’s much more discreet. They may only give into their more affectionate side when they believe they’re alone or away from those who might judge them for their softer qualities.
Things like stroking a child’s hair once - and only when - its asleep, singing to a baby if they think they’re the only ones who can hear, petting or spoiling animals/pets in secret, or being unable to leave someone in need, no matter how much of a struggle it is for them to swallow their pride and show that glimmer of emotion that they perceive as weakness.
Taking the Fall
Some characters struggle under difficult circumstances for specific reasons and, as such, are unable to allow the main character to see anything but their cruelest side.
Or maybe they’re just unable to hide years of pain and hardship, and take it all out on the wrong people.
One thing is for sure though: your character can commit at least one totally unselfish act, proving that their heart was in the right place after all.
When you’ve been through a difficult situation, it can be hard to watch somebody else go through exactly the same thing. If they’re in a position to control it, your character might try to actively bend the fate of those they care about, to prevent them from making similar mistakes.
Of course, it all comes out one way or another, and we see all along that they were merely trying to help and weren’t controlling for the fun of it.
Your character holds a lot of responsibility and they may have had to learn the hard way that leadership is not always sunshine and rainbows. Sometimes you have to say no every once in a while and crack down on the discipline, or everything falls apart.
It doesn’t mean they’re always strict, however. Maybe on a rare occasion, your character loosens up and either explains (verbally, or through a gesture/flashback) their tough-love approach, or shows a side in secret to just one or two others, that they usually keep well under wraps.
For the record, it’s perfectly okay for your main character to misjudge another’s character only to later amend their view. It’s good character development for everything to unravel. If everything is clear from the beginning, then there’s not much for us to learn, so don’t be afraid to show your leader’s harsher side and share all of the good at a later date.
I hope this helps, Anon.
Writers often spend a great deal of time developing their protagonists only to neglect their villains. However, a well-developed villain is just as important as the protagonist to a story’s success.
A villain who is too evil or not evil enough, a villain who is one-dimensional or a villain lacking clear motivation are some of the problems you might run into while trying to develop a character who will oppose your protagonist. A great villain can sometimes be the difference between a novel that is good and a novel that is great. Here are some questions you can ask yourself in creating that great villain.
Anonymous asked writing-questions-answered:
How does character development work with characters who have lived long lives and have already gone through many experiences? What are some ways to further develop them when they’re over 100 years old?
I think that no matter how old you are, no matter how wise and experienced, there is always going to be room for things to effect you so profoundly that it changes you somehow. Even someone who is over a hundred can learn to see things from a new perspective, change an opinion, confront a fear, or stand up for something they believe in. Also, new things pop-up in the world every day, whether it be some sort of new technology, a shocking world event, or just a new spin on something that’s been around for awhile. Things that younger generations may take for granted, like iPads, special effects in movies, and skyping—can be mind-blowing for someone who has been around since before telephones and cars were commonplace. So, you can develop the character by exposing them to things like this, which gives them the opportunity to talk about old experiences while comparing them to the new experiences, which can be quite profound for both the character and any younger characters they are sharing with.
Horrible fact of writing: you are going to know a lot more about your character than will ever be put on the page. This also drags writers down, because often they’re so exciting about their characters, that they want to share everything. Instead of conveying that excitement, it drags the story down, and loses the reader.
So, backstory. Backstory is essential. It is also a pain, figuring out what goes where. Your character worksheets are going to have some backstory, maybe a lot, so for this part, we’re going to focus on the essentials.
- Pick out the major events. That test your character failed in third grade is not going to impact them the same way their parents’ divorce did (unless the character connects the two). Pick out the really important things, whether or not your characters are aware of them. What caused a great internal change? What external issue brings them to the plot now? These things are going to be what your reader will need to know.
- Backstory Timeline: Your character didn’t spring to life the second their story starts on the page. Take that starting point and move backward: how did they get there? When did they move to _____ town, what did they get their degree in? This is going to be more mundane details than your major points, but they’re important too. You might stumble upon a great location, or a new plot idea you didn’t think of before. This can also be an ongoing list; you don’t have to go it in one go.
Both your main characters, supporting characters, and antagonists (we’ll get to them later) need backstory. Like I mentioned earlier, you don’t need it all right now, and some of it will probably change while plotting, but now’s a good time to get started.
Having a protagonist as a middle child could be an interesting idea because they’re both an older sibling and a younger sibling. They may know what it’s like to be taken care of and they may ALSO know what it’s like to take care of another sibling. They might sometimes try to stick out or feel inadequate because of an older sibling’s success of the attention a younger sibling gets. All these things, however, are not true for every middle child.
There’s a term called “the middle child syndrome” for middle children who lack proper attention or feel jealous of their siblings. This is often used in movies, television, and novels—even if it isn’t necessarily true. The older sibling is seen as reliable and confident and the younger sibling is “the baby” and can do no wrong. These are all stereotypes, but a lot of characters are written this way.
The middle child is often portrayed as the “rebel” or “black sheep” because they might not feel like they fit in. They might openly disobey their parents or do things that are not seen as responsible. In novels, the middle child has the potential of becoming witty or a “smart-ass” as a way to cope and stick out. They are often one extreme or another.
The truth is that most kids will act out if they’re not getting enough attention from their parents OR if they feel overshadowed by their siblings—it doesn’t have to be because they’re a middle child. An older sibling might act out when a younger sibling is born and a younger sibling might feel overshadowed by his older brother or sister. You can shape your characters to give them the experiences you think they should have (maybe they feel left out OR overshadowed by siblings), but remember these things aren’t necessarily true to real life.
Hey Writing Habits, do you have any tips or links for writing side characters? Keeping the little guys as interesting as the big ones, as it were?
Your side characters have their own backgrounds. Fleshing those out will help you a lot in figuring out what they can do and when. Even if you end up with thirty pages of notes that will never see the light of day - or more! - getting to know them will help you a lot in making them interesting.
Your side characters are not aware they are side characters. Everybody else is starring in their story. They’re not going to drop everything just to be there in time to provide a key plot point or helpful hint. They have to behave naturally, and within their own interests.
What we don’t know can be just as interesting as what we do. Having some mysteries remain about your side characters can make them just as memorable as the main ones. Why didn’t Shelly cry at her mom’s funeral? Why was the secretary willing to risk her job to help the detective? Hinting at their motives - or leaving characters wondering at them - can help make them more real.
That said, giving them motives is super important. Shortcuts and stock characters leave much to be desired. As a writer, you can do better than that. The girl who gets with the guy at the end is just that, a stock character. The girl who gets with the guy at the end because they really like each other or because of Some Other Reason just got more interesting.
Hope these help!