In modern times, we are more aware than ever of the impact that our words can have – be them written down on the page, or spoken freely out in the world.
With issues pertaining to race and skin color, it can often be easy to fall into the traps of the past – ones that were marred with ignorance and exclusivity that no longer have a part in the contemporary discourse.
But what exactly is the best way to describe skin color in writing, and what things should be avoided?
Does Skin Color Need Describing?
Before we properly get started, it is first best to pose this question: does the skin color of our characters actually need describing in the first place?
There are obviously different contexts for this question, and the answers could vary depending on the nature of the work you are writing, the landscape of the narrative world, or indeed the subject matter that is being explored.
If the themes of the novel are associated with race, racism, or other serious issues, then the idea of skin color, heritage, and race are probably going to be frequent and important elements of the story.
However, if you are writing a novel that has no basis in race, and you want to include people of different races within the novel, you have to question whether it is actually necessary for you to describe any of them in that way, and whether the descriptions themselves actually add depth to the story of the character, or whether they could instead be seen as a way to ‘other’ characters of different races or cultural backgrounds.
How To Properly Describe Skin Color?
When it comes to describing skin color within your novel or piece of literature, it is important to get it right – something that can sometimes feel like a difficult task, particularly within such an important time of social change as we are seeing at present.
Express Skin Color Equally
The first thing that is important to note is that, if you are describing people of color within your work, then you need to add the same levels of description to ALL people of color.
This means that, even though the person is white, you should also donate the same amount of time describing their own skin color in the same way as you would a person of color.
One of the major criticisms within the current culture is that people of color, or those from different ethnicities, are treated as something ‘other’ – as if having white skin and western attitudes are somehow the ‘default’ state of being.
As such, you either need to establish a state of equality, wherein all characters are described in the same manner – in coherence with the story – or you find other ways to define them that are not based on skin color.
Do Your Homework
Race can be a complicated issue, and even when we think we are doing the right thing, we can often wade into territory that we have little to no understanding of.
This is the same with creative writing, particularly in the way that we describe someone’s heritage, race, or skin color.
It can often be easy to fall into the trap of describing someone as ‘European’, ‘African’, or ‘Asian’, but each of these descriptors encompass an entire continent of people, all of which come from different countries with often drastically different cultures.
As such, it is important to do your research when writing a character from a different culture to your own, as this is the only way to do the characters themselves, and their culture, the justice they deserve.
Things To Avoid
Of course, there are also many things you want to avoid doing when you are writing about skin color.
Even when we are trying to show reverie for another race or culture, it can often be easy to fall into the trap of ‘othering’ the character instead of portraying them as a living, breathing member of your literary world.
This can either be by describing them to a much greater degree than your white characters, not showing them the same level of care when describing them, or essentially fetishising their skin color as something ‘different’ or ‘exotic’.
All of these things are neither conducive to good fiction, nor appropriate within our modern culture of inclusivity and oneness, and as such should be avoided.
Don’t Avoid Race
While it can be daunting to do justice to characters that come from other cultures, it is also important not to avoid the issue purely because it makes you scared or uncomfortable.
This is especially true if you are writing stories based in other countries, where the presence of these characters is not only appropriate, but required.
The trick is to do some research, show compassion, be truthful, and treat the characters within your world as living, breathing people who have their own nuances, virtues, and flaws.
This is how we begin to fight racism, encourage inclusivity, and create powerful, well-rounded, better-written characters in the process.
And there we have it, everything you need to know about creative writing, and the best ways to properly describe skin color within your work.
It is certainly true that, in modern times, we are more aware than ever of the effect that our words can have on people – be them written or spoken – and there are more efforts being made than ever before to ensure that the world we live in is as inclusive and tolerant as possible.
Luckily, there have also never been so many resources to help keep your writing on the right track.
So if you want to know how to properly describe skin color in your work, then be sure to refer to this handy guide!