Anonymous asked: How would you describe a Chinese girl’s physical appearance, specifically eyes and skin tone? I have heard describing her eyes as almond is offensive and leads to the belief that is prevalent in some Asian countries that their eyes are not good enough or beautiful, but I also don’t want to exotic-ise them. I also have poor colour perception but know my readers probably won’t, otherwise would have looked at colour swatches. Thank you
I’d start looking for Chinese people from the region of your story’s setting who would be willing to help you out with your research. Once you’ve found a few takers, politely ask them how they would describe themselves.
If you’re writing from an outsider’s perspective—that is, you’re writing not as the Chinese girl character but from the viewpoint of a non-Chinese or perhaps non-East Asian character—you might do research on how people of your viewpoint character’s culture and time period describe(d) Chinese people who look like your Chinese girl character.
And another thing: “almond-shaped” can be offensive to some, but keep in mind that not everyone takes offense to the same things. My issue with “almond-shaped” as a descriptor for what has also been termed “Asian eyes” (also a super vague and inadequate descriptor, in my opinion) is that an almond shape to the eye is one of the most common eye shapes across all races in the whole world. In my opinion, my eyes are almond-shaped, and I’m not Chinese or even East Asian.
And this descriptor has only become even more ineffectual as it has grown into a cliche. It’s just not all that helpful term. If you feel you must describe the shape of your Chinese character’s eyes, I suggest you find another way. As with everywhere else in the world, there is a wide spectrum of diversity in eye shape among Chinese people. Luckily, there are lots of resources online with listed terms for describing eye shape and plenty of people with these eye shapes whose opinions you could ask. Google and enjoy!
The comments section of this NPR article offer up an interesting discussion on the topic of East Asian eye shape. Have a look.
As far as skin color goes—again, this characteristic can vary widely. You would need to research time period, region, and social class at the very least to help pinpoint the most likely skin colors of your Chinese girl character.
The viewpoint character is also important here. If the viewpoint character is a white guy, for example, he might describe your Chinese girl character’s skin as darker or browner (or perhaps not, depending) or smoother or less freckled than his own. If the Chinese girl herself is the viewpoint character, then others would be darker or lighter or tanner or browner or pinker or milkier or fairer or whiter or more wrinkled or less blemished or whatever-er compared to her. Do you see what I mean?
Skin color is not as simple as brown or not brown and then a variance of darker to lighter. Skin has tones. It has many colors, blemishes, and scars. It can be hairy or smooth or cracked and dry or shiny or beaded with sweat or lined or tired-looking or freckled or colored with a blush or drained of color or sallow or firm or supple.
Countries and cultures are not made up of clones. People are distinct, and that distinction is worth noting. There is nuance in all things, and it’s your job as a writer to capture it.
Thanks for your question! If any of our followers have suggestions for the anon, feel free to comment on this post or send us a message!
Thank you! I want to reiterate that the use of “almond-shaped” to describe people with certain eye shapes is a matter of preference. Some people take offense to it, others don’t care. I find it to be as cliched as it is ineffectual in its ambiguity. Ah well.
I don’t like to use words like “generally” when speaking of populations as large as China’s (over 1.3 billion in 2013), but I appreciate the benefit of your opinion. “Single-lidded” eyes are certainly common in China and throughout East Asia, as are “double-lidded” eyes and eyes that fall somewhere in between (yes, there is a spectrum to be found here as well).
"Food" descriptions, or the use of words like "chocolate" or "honey" to describe skin tone, can be offensive to some, similarly to the use of "almond"—also a food—to describe eye shape. Whatever words you use, anon, be sure that you are describing your character as you wish her to be represented after careful research and consideration on your part of both your style and your audience. That’s the most anyone can hope for from a writer: thoughtfulness.
Anyway, thank you to metaphoricaluniverse for their reply!
Again, I’m uncomfortable with using that word “generally” to describe over 1.3 billion people, but thank you so much for taking the time to provide your point of view! I am sure the anon will find your perspective helpful!
A quick little thing that ended up being neither quick nor little, for an anon who asked how I do skin colors.
As usual, I’m not a professional, this is just how I do things. Hope I answered your question!
PoC means “people of color” or “person of color”. It basically describes any person or group of people that is non-white.
Thanks for your question!
Anonymous asked: There are two things I care deeply about: accuracy and representation. I’m currently writing a story that takes place in a small town in California. While fictional, I really want the town to seem as real as possible, which is why I spent a long time looking up demographics of other small towns in california. Almost all of them have a good 88% of white people, which makes me worry my story will be lacking in POC. Any advice?
You’re in luck, Anon! While I didn’t grow up in small town California, I did grow up in a small town, so I can understand your concern. In my high school, all but 15 of the 1000 students were white. So let’s talk demographics, shall we?
demographics (n): the quantifiable statistics of a given population.
Sounds rather dull, doesn’t it? That’s because it usually is. Few people living in rural areas would be able to tell you the statistics concerning their towns, and rarely do you see authors slap percentages on their characters. The makeup of the entire town is irrelevant, unless you’re writing a summary of a census. The important part is the makeup of your cast. But let’s see if we can fulfill your desire for accuracy and representation.
Writing accurately isn’t about hitting a quota — it’s about capturing a picture of the world. Don’t get caught up in numbers and figures and lose sight of the reason why you want to write this story. Throw out the calculator and the pie charts and concentrate on the characters in your story. Make them varied, realistic human beings, and the accuracy will follow.
Thank you for your question! If you have any suggestions or concerns about this article, please hit up our ask box!
So, O posted a reaction piece a few days ago in response to the overwhelming number of questions we receive on “Writing the Other” (for more on Writing the Other, see this post), and now I’m going to have my say.
While standing by O’s right to his opinion and with deference to his authority as a WriteWorld admin, I respectfully disagree with the post—at least with the incompleteness of it. I believe that it was written while he was frustrated, and that because of this, he didn’t round out his argument as completely has he could have. And I’d like to propose a possible solution that has been brought up in the writing community many times.
We’re going about this inclusiveness in writing thing all wrong.
Instead of asking yourself why a character should be something other than a skinny, cishet (cisgender and heterosexual) person of able body and sound mind, ask yourself why a character shouldn’t be Korean-American or queer or in a wheelchair or overweight. If you can’t come up with a good reason, and I mean a good reason, something that comes from some solid research or a realistic explanation that is covered in the story, then you have an opportunity for variety, and I implore you to seize this opportunity and run with it.
For the sake of clarity, an example of a good reason might be something like “there are no physically disabled characters in The Giver by Lois Lowry because they are all ‘released’/killed by a dystopian society.” This example addresses not only the horror of how disabled people in the story are condemned by society because they don’t meet a certain utopian standard, it also addresses the absolute (definite, one hundred percent) improbability of a no-disabled-people-in-my-story’s-society-nope-not-a-one scenario. Because, let’s face it, disability exists (shocker!). Physical and mental disabilities are in our families, our schools, our work environments, our social circles. We have human imperfection all around us, and ain’t it grand?
This does not make disability or skin color or sexuality or gender a character flaw. To me, a character flaw is, for example, a character’s inability to finish what she starts or a character’s tendency to blab every secret he’s told. Pyromania is not a character flaw. Dyslexia is not a character flaw. Paralysis is not a character flaw. Physical and mental imperfections are not character flaws, and who’s to say what an imperfection is anyway?
Trans* is not a flaw. Bisexuality is not a flaw. Gender and sexuality are unique to every individual, and they are certainly character traits and an important part of characterization, but they are not—cannot be—flaws. Weight and height and skin color are not flaws, they are physical descriptions. A character flaw directly relates to action; a character does this or doesn’t do that and these actions are flawed.
Look for the ness. Words ending in ness tend to make good flaws (or good positive traits, depending on the word). Pridefulness, wordiness, hatefulness. (I will concede that there are also many words which behave like ness words—indolence, willful ignorance, gluttony, and cynicism, to name a few—but for the sake of clarity, lets stick to ness words for now.) While these ness words are not always good for flaws, there is a way to test and strengthen your ness: look for the verb. Give your character’s ness a specific example with a verb. This will endow your character’s ness with a unique flavor and help you understand what exactly about this ness you think is a flaw. A few examples:
If there’s no ness, it’s probably not really a flaw. If there’s no verb or verbs associated with that ness, it could probably be improved by thoughtfulness and specificity.
I just encourage you to think. Think about why your characters are the way they are, why your story’s world is the way it is. Think about if that is actually realistic, or if you are imposing your own personal or cultural bias on the facts of your story. Think about being respectful. Arm yourself with research that combats your bias and think. I promise the extra effort will benefit you in the long run.
But I digress. Political correctness is not a “write the rainbow” scenario, just as inclusiveness is not politically correct. Inclusiveness is about taking physical, mental, emotional, and cultural traits besides your own into consideration when writing. It’s about treating others, both individually and collectively, with dignity, which means doing lots of research and rewriting to be sure that your work reflects the nuances of complex people, places, and cultures with the highest degree of accuracy possible. Inclusiveness is common sense. It is respect. It is, I believe, a responsibility of the writer, and it should not be scorned because of laziness or fear.
Human variation is normal. Regardless of time period and location, a story with a cast of one hundred (or even ten) wherein every character is cishet, free of disorder or disability, perfectly-toned and white is not normal. A writer would need to explain that kind of anomaly to me. If they can, then more power to them.
Of course, they don’t have to explain a damn thing. It is an artist’s privilege to present work that is unexplained or under-researched or grandiosely offensive, but then they have to stand next to that work and absorb the criticism of their audience. If a writer doesn’t want to do the research to write inclusively, or doesn’t explain why they’ve refrained from writing realistically about a place or people or culture within the narrative, or complains about inclusiveness and how inconvenient it is for them to write a realistic cast of characters with respect, then I get to call that writer on their bullshit. Simple as that.
Writing is art. Art uses colors. Art doesn’t always have straight lines. Art is inclusive. Art is life, and life is complicated.
Anonymous asked: Hi, I went looking through your entire skintone toolbox, and I have a question- my story includes a group of people who have almost exclusively lived on this island for generations. They are not of a race as we define them, as they are a completely separate group so I’m having difficulty on describing their skin color (not white). I don’t want to be offensive to anyone, but it’s also not a race that we in society recognize as they exist exclusively in my story. Help? Does this make sense at all?
Immediately, we can think of a few things:
Things to think about when deciding how to describe your new race if the viewpoint character is a member of the new race/culture:
Things to think about when deciding how to describe your new race if the viewpoint character is a member of one of the “known” races/cultures (and by “known” I mean known to the world prior to the appearance of this new race):
Those are our suggestions. Check out “Describing Skin Tone" for more awesome resources on describing the color of skin, and make sure to have a look at "Race Building Guide & Resources" by Yeah Write! for more on exactly this subject.
Thank you for your question! If you have any comments on this post or other questions about writing, you can message us here!
-C & Q
Followers, any ideas?
On this issue of using food words to describe skin color, has anyone read The Colors of Us by Karen Katz? The back of the book promises a “tasty tale that showcases the many shades of the skin we’re in,” and GoodReads says it gives children a “positive and affirming look at skin color, from an artist’s perspective.”
Here’s the Amazon page for it. Check out the “Look Inside!” feature to read the similes the author uses for skin color. They include many references to food, a practice usually vehemently rejected by writers on Tumblr. What do you think?
Anonymous asked: Can I ask -without being stoned on the public place- why so much hatred for the food words to describe a skin tone? I mean… I don’t really understand it. It’s a description like any other. In Avengers fanfiction, I won’t call a Jötun’s skin ‘blueberry blue’ because I have other words like ‘cobalt’ or something. But when you talk or a white or black or asian person? I don’t see a lot of alternative. It’s not offensive, it’s just, you know… A description like any others? No?
Here, read this and check out the links at the bottom of the post:
Message(s) we’ve gotten on this topic:
Anonymous asked: Hi! So I was wondering, it’s very frowned upon to use food to describe a poc’s skin color, but what about using “milky” or “creamy” to describe a white person’s skin? Not to be rude or anything, I just got confused. Thanks!
Me? I hate it. I hate being described as “milk white” or having my skin described as “creamy.” Ugh. It gives me the creeps. I don’t like being associated with diary, with things that curdle and smell like year-old yogurt. “Pale,” “pasty,” “alabaster,” “porcelain”? I’m fine with those. But I’d rather not be compared to dairy. Ew.
Will I put down a book because the writer describes a character’s skin as “creamy”? No way! It’ll give me the heebie-jeebies, but I wouldn’t judge a whole book as awful based on a choice of words that I dislike, especially when those words were not meant to be offensive.
It’s just my opinion, though. I’m one person and my preferences aren’t all that important to anyone but me. Using “milky” to describe skin color isn’t evil, it’s just icky to me.
What do you guys think of “milky” and “creamy”?
Uploading this here so I can save it on my computer.
But this is useful.