Ashana Lian's Blog is now Archived!

Thank you to everyone who supported this blog.
You will be redirected to the new and official Ashana Lian's FANTASY LAB in a moment.


Ashana Lian's Fantasy Lab

Fantasy and Fantasy Writing from every angle: fantasy and sci-fi novels, films, artwork, superhero cartoons, children's and YA books, manga, anime, video games and comics. Put the microscope on 'Geek Culture'.

Tuesday, 25 November 2014

Describing Skin Colours and Ethnicities (For Characters Of Colour, I Guess)

Mini Update
So, how's NaNoWriMo going?! Only four days left! Those on schedule have written 43,342 words already. =D (I forgot to mention, but I fell off the NaNo bandwagon AAAGES ago. I don't even remember when I stopped writing daily; it's just the epicest of all fails.)

I don't really write on this topic, dunno why. I guess it feels like purposefully putting my foot into a bowl of high-risk shit. But for the sake of fantasy writing, here goes. Duty calls.

Why Describing Skin Tones Is Challenging in Fantasy

Describing skin colours is tricky. Not in ACTUALLY DESCRIBING IT, but in having to remember the politics of cultural sensitivity. Plus, things you might be able to get away with in literary fiction, for example describing a character as Black British or African American, won't be possible in fantasy where Britain, Africa and America don't exist.

In a world where the fastest way to travel to another country is by ship (no Eurostar, no aeroplane), this means that exposure to other places is limited. This is often the excuse for only portraying only one culture in a fantasy. However, this shouldn't be a problem if the reader can see many sides of this fantasy world (A Song Of Ice And Fire) or if that fantasy location imports goods from other places and trades with foreigners. So we should just get right on to describing skin tones. Yes?

But wait, let's backtrack.

My Bg

I am black british, which already indicates what I would call a 'complicated cultural background' ie. not really knowing what the correct term to apply to myself is, as that seems to keep changing. My heritage is Jamaican, but I was born and raised in London. My perception of the world has always included a vast range of ethnicities and cultural experiences (like Hyper Japan or the London Mela!).

My experience reading books, though, is that the main character is almost always white. If it isn't specified, it's assumed they are white. Now that I've decided I want to portray my own culture in a culturally diverse fantasy world I have created, I realise that I don't actually know how to go about that. And there seem to be a lot of little unspoken rules to remember.

How Should Skin Colours and Ethnicities be described?

Even in literary fiction, I rarely see a character described as 'British Asian' or whatever the correct term for a character's cultural status may be, because usually it doesn't matter. What is described is how they physically look, which counts a lot more. The colour or shape of their eyes; the structure of their nose; and the set of their mouth provides better imagery and gives away more about the character than simply saying they are Middle Eastern or Native American.

Also describing what they are doing, or what they believe, or how they act, coupled with where the story or scene is set often makes it obvious what that character's background is. Observant readers will just pick it up. I really like the following quote about J.K. Rowling's technique;
Personally, I prefer Rowling’s method of dealing with it. She didn’t label the white characters white, or the black characters black, or the Asian characters Asian, etc. She drops broad hints about all of them, from culturally-distinct surnames like Patil and Chang and Granger, to culturally-associated styles and foods (braids, sari, Harry’s love of the quintessentially-British treacle tarts), to more subtle cues like Dean’s football preferences. But she does this equally for the white characters and the characters of color. No group is treated as “normal,” or by exclusion/emphasis “abnormal”. 
from Describing Characters Of Color, pt. 2 by The Magic District blog.
Many times, I've come across posts about whether J.K. Rowling tackled this issue well or not. Apparently (from what I picked up) the US publisher of Harry Potter explicitly stated that Dean Thomas was black, where the UK version only hinted at it with cultural references that British readers would pick up. But I agree with the quote above - it's better to describe how a person physically looks. That way you're making no assumptions and the reader gets a better grasp on the character.

Method: Descriptions and Synonyms

PLAIN: describe what you see. 'Pale skin.' 'Brown skin.' No illusions.
HINT: if a character has blonde hair and blue eyes, they're unlikely to be black. -_-
METAPHOR: be careful of stumbling into a danger zone. I would probably say describing a character as having a 'chocolate face' is doing just that.
SYNONYM: 'Her skin was like a sheet of ivory satin.' Okay, that one was pretty crap, but you get the gist.
HYPERBOLE: ... I really would not recommend this for skin colour descriptions.

Here is an example of PLAIN:
eg. 'My arms were so painfully white I could see the veins criss-crossing down them; next to me, her tanned arms were positively brown. Her hair was a thick, lustrous ebony. It kinda wasn't fair that she was born to be a supermodel.'
My only problem with what I just wrote is what's being insinuating with pale skin (appearance of illness) and tanned skin (desirable, even artificially). I know many beautiful girls with naturally pale skin who appear in great health (even without rosy cheeks, their eyes have a sort of perkiness.)

Image: from are so many things wrong with this I don't even know where to begin - the fact that every sim has a pupil that covers their entire eye...? Or the fact that there is a tone actually labelled 'normal' (ridiculous in itself) which is exactly the tone you'd expect it to be; that 'exotic' fuels misguided stereotypes (the concept of Latino/as being 'sexy' is one I've heard before - why? Every nation has sexy peoples. O_O); that 'native', which should invoke homeliness and belonging, feels like a synonym for 'alien' here. It also appears to be lighter than 'dark', which kinda defeats the point of the chart.

Mistakes not to make...?

Do not use foundation make-up labels as a guide for skin colours, EVER.

Second, adding a black person to a group of white people isn't exactly 'diverse'. That is called a 'token'. There's such a wide range of cultures in the world - obviously, I'm not saying you have to 'sample them all' in one novel, but come on. We live in the world. We know what diversity looks like.

The article about 7 Offensive Mistakes Well-Intentioned Writers Make on condemns "food-coloured skin". That was profound for me as I realised, for black characters, it was the only type of description I'd seen in books. What springhole points out is that food-coloured skin is only used for dark-skinned characters ('chocolate', 'coffee') to hold them apart from what is considered normal. Interesting point. Lighter colours are often described as 'fair', pale', or not described at all, (even though there's a range of edibles for lighter skinned characters like 'peach', 'milky', 'honey', 'creamy'...) er, but I think it's a good rule to stay away from the yummies. So, you see the image to the left? Those are all barred.

My Problem

My particular problem is that because my protagonist's father was an orphan, Karalan isn't really sure where she is from. She knows where her mother is from and where she was born; for her that's enough. But when she starts climbing through the ranks and is scrutinised by the Divine Court and the Lords Of Spirihil, she begins to care about her heritage. In addition to this, each member of the Kaia Gang have a different background. They look different to each other, and to the people they meet on their journey, so for this novel I feel that it's important to tackle describing them correctly. The reader needs to already have that mental image solidified before they meet the auran races in the story, like Druids, Disirs and Valkyries.

Karalan and Aura Earth
Before I even do that I have to describe her. To the left is the closest image I could find to what Karalan looks like, though her hair is shorter and her face sterner. I'm having trouble describing her skin. She, technically speaking, has brown skin. But so do I, and I'm a lot darker than her. So what then? LIGHT brown skin?

This first fantasy novel OOTD, I adore because the way the world is set up means cultures can mix very easily. Most people in the world speak at least two languages and are rarely surprised or fearful of foreigners. There are cultures that are tucked away, but this tale doesn't deal with them. However, writing about this world... what a pain in the ass! (I did mean to say 'ass'.) And what a shame. I'm a little at a loss as to how to describe my own culture in fiction, and I need to describe a dozen other real and fictional cultures decides. I must say though, writing this post has really got me thinking. I'm gonna go back to sleep, and wake up and tackle another chapter of my novel.

Advice From Around The Web
I found most of the above from Write World.

Image: I think Google...?

Upcoming NaNo Help Posts
THURSDAY 27 NOVEMBER - The Practicalities: Dressing Your Characters << posted

Previous NaNo Help Posts
For Inspiration - It Begins - (Fake) Nanowrimo
For Plot - Writerly Image: The Story Circle
For Narration and Dialogue - The Narrator's Voice Is Your Voice

Click for more about my first novel.

I hope you found this useful! How do you deal with writing a diverse cast? Is it an issue that's been swept under the rug? Tell me what you think in the comments beeeeloooooow =]

Ashana Lian .


  1. I'm so happy I read this because I'm always thinking of how to describe my characters. I usually have a pretty diverse cast, but sometimes it's hard to describe POC's in fantasy because you have to keep in mind that their perception of skin color is different than ours. I especially have a hard time with Asian characters in fantasy. I've been doing a lot of research, and I still haven't found a blog that lists helpful tips. They all list what not to do (almond eyes, skin color, oriental), but none of them offer a solution. So I'm just really confused on how to tactfully describe my Asian character. Hopefully I do an okay job and people get that he's of Asian descent without it being stereotypical. There's nothing I can't stand more than when fantasy authors use "Oriental" as a way to describe them, as well as stereotypical bad English accents. .__.

    I have no words for that Dermalicious photo. What the heck does "Native" even mean?

    As for the rest of my cast, it's actually pretty easy, because almost everyone has light brown to dark brown skin. People who are white or pale skinned are the minority in the country it's set in (somewhere in a post-apocalyptic South America) and it's fun to work with. I did have a friend, though, who complained that there was a lack of white people, and that I'd alienate her and other. . . .____.

    Great post!

    1. Hi Anah! I'm so pleased this article was helpful. Skin descriptions are something I've been thinking deeply about because of this particular novel I am writing. My other work has other focusses; in fact usually I don't have to worry about it as those are modern fantasy novels.

      Those from a white background will portray their own culture, and that's cool with me. I don't believe in the: EVERY SINGLE book has to have THESE EXACT ethnic characters in proportion! It would just be nice to see diversity once in a while. Sometimes I don't see it at all.

      Very good point! In Chapter 6 of my novel (if you're interested I put a link.) there is an Indian girl who goes to my protagonist's school, and she stands out because A. she's the only one of that background and B. she's richer than everybody else at the school. But India doesn't exist in my novel, so instead I just described how she physically look. I debated on whether or not she would wear a bindi (as Hinduism also doesn't exist) and although I've written it in, I'm still not 100% sure I'll stick with it. Without it, she could be from anywhere. With it, it feels like an Arrow Of Obvious.

      Yeah, I don't get that... 'Oriental' can mean a lottt of things. (Haha 'native' made me laugh, it as just soo ridiculous. XD) Hm, see that's the thing. I personally didn't have a huge problem with George R. R. Martin's lack of diversity in Westeros because of where and when it's set, and he does include other cultures. I know other people think there should've been WAY more diversity in Game Of Thrones. If your story justifies having few white people, I think that is okay up to a point but it has to be a strong and believable reason. The diversity rule should be, as much as possible, unbiased.

      Thanks again for your wonderful comment (sorry for my long one. :3). I've learnt something new today! OH and don't you let me forget about BB#3, I am hooked on your novel idea. Good luck writing.

  2. Replies
    1. Heheh. Compared to my really long comment above, seeing this was quite funny.
      Thankin' ya!

  3. Great post! It would be nice if there was more like these. Even I don't really consider myself a writer, I do try my hand at writing (does that make sense?). There's a character I'd really like to write about. By our standard, she's a black girl. She's also a vampire However, in her world, human are considered as one race and not by their ethnicities, because there are non human races. For exemple there are elves, vampires, wereworlves, goblin ..etc.

    The thing is that my elves aren't all white, In the world I created, there are three different race of elves, one ressemble black people as we know them, except that they have long, pointy ears (obviously), they can have golden eyes, and their hair can be from kinky, curly to straight. The other look like white people. And the last race are called "dark elves" by other elves but there aren't dark at all. They are the least human looking. They have silver or grey skin, their eye color varies from a gray so light it looks almost white, to yellow, or some light purple.

    I'm especially have diffilculty with my vampire race. In the world I created, there's two vampire race, wayan and hyvan. Members of each can look either white, black or asian. Among hyvan, there's the ruling class. There are the pure blooded, some pure blood family are white, other back, and some asian. I don't know how I'm gonna work it out yet, but I found your post really helpful.

    By the way, I think since it's fantasy, you can describe your Indian character in any way you feel fit.

    1. Hm, I like your idea!! It's very interesting. It reminds me of Avatar: The Legend of Aang, with the feuds between different elemental benders - and then in Korra it shifts and there's a feud between benders and non-benders.

      The setup of my novel is a little similar: In Aura Earth there are Human Beings and Auran beings, which are considered a class above them. Both types of beings have sub-groups; for humans it is the races we know and understand, only with the Aura Earth name instead of the names we know. For Aurans it is (technically speaking) the fantasy races, such as Druids, Fairis, Valkyries and so on.

      For your concept, it sounds to me like physically describing them is the way to go. If at some point you need to talk about class systems, then you might have to change your strategy a bit and find the best way to compare them so readers will know what you're talking about (or alluding to, if you're trying to make a point). Good luck, I hope you figure it out!

      And thanks, I think I will take your advice on that. After all, I can only write the best way I know how.

  4. I like how this is written, and I admit, I know this is something I struggle with. Living in a community that isn't really ethnically diverse (or it doesn't feel that way, anyway) means that there's a lot of rules I don't pick up on about what you can or can't say. Like, sometimes it's okay to say "black" as a skin color and other times it isn't, but it's always okay to call someone "white." If you're part of a certain ethnic group then there could be four or five ways to describe their ethnic heritage but SOMEONE will get offended if you use one or the other or say you're totally disrespecting everybody ever. Can't say this, can't say that—but you give help on what IS appropriate and what makes writing about people more natural, and I appreciate that. :)

    Definitely saving this post for later.

    1. That's such a good point!! Some terms that you can use in one context but not another. I remember reading an article once about a girl who didn't like being called 'black', and preferred to be called 'African American.' I was like =/ "This is too much, to remember a different rule for every person on earth." That's when I made up my mind about the best way to approach describing cultures, and I'll probably stick by that unless I find a better way.

      Yeah, you just can't please everyone, although I can't help but try. >.< Also the other articles I linked to have various opinions on this, so they'll help give a bit more perspective. Thanks for commenting!

  5. Great article. I came to it because I am looking for an Elf race color. I have 3 races and each have a different look. One race, for example, I've described as having Soft acorn corn colored skin, Long wavy chestnut hair, and Vibrant green eyes. The Second race: Soft white skin, Long straight blonde hair, and Vibrant Blue Eyes. So far, the third race looks like: Dark Brown skin, Long straight White hair, and Vibrant gold eyes.

    But my hangup is on the third races color. Not that it won't work, I'm just thinking of different skin colors to go with white hair and golden eyes.

    Of course I will be more descriptive in my writing of these races, as these are just my notes, but you've given me a lot to think about.

    Thank you!


Thanks for dropping by! Ashana Lian always replies to comments and if you leave a link, she'll visit your blog or website. Don't be shy!

Popular Posts