At least 3 science fiction and fantasy writers have asked me over the past couple of weeks, “How do I describe skin color without using either stereotypes or describing people as food (olive, chocolate, mocha)?”
First, I’m flattered that everyone is asking me this, that people think I have something useful to say that will help them in their storytelling. That’s very kind.
Second, it’s really striking to me that people only ever ask this about skin color. That’s our modern obsession: skin color as the first thing we notice about someone, the first marker of difference. For writers who are writing on other worlds, or in settings in the past or the future, and who want to deal with issues of difference in their novels with nuance and complexity, I would offer this:
Really work with the “play of differences.” What I mean by that is: write within your narrator or character’s cultural perspective (and then challenge their perspective). Skin color may not be the first thing they notice; if it is, that’s a bit of a cop-out, because what you’re doing is playing to the default assumptions of the modern reader, and missing an opportunity to invite us more fully into your character’s world and its social issues (likely a mirror in many ways of our own, but we won’t know that unless you scrap the defaults and make us see things differently).
If I am writing from a Roman’s perspective in the first century BC, and they encounter a German, that Roman won’t notice the German’s golden hair or his blue eyes or his hulking muscles or any other such modern stereotype. No, he’s going to notice the height. He’s going to look up, and up, and UP, and the disparity in height might freak him out. (Because humans freak out rather easily.)
If I’m writing from the point of view of a member of the Japanese nobility in the 1600s, and some Portuguese or French or English mariners show up, I’m not going to notice that they have white skin. Won’t cross my mind. What I’m going to notice is that those mariners are filthy. Look at the dirt under their nails. Look at their teeth. Look at that scraggly, tangled hair. Is that a WART?? Don’t they know there is such a thing as bathing, and cleanliness? Are they animals?
If I’m a European in the eleventh century and I see a medieval Arab traveler, what I’m going to notice isn’t his skin tone but his mode of dress and even more than that, the slowness of his movements. He moves slower and more deliberately than I do; he doesn’t like to generate a lot of body heat quickly. There is a fluidity and grace to his movements that I, as an eleventh-century European, will find a bit unsettling.
And so on.
The question isn’t “How do I avoid describing my character as olive, mocha, pineapple, or kumquat?” No, the question is, “What differences strike my characters as important or divisive, and what does this reveal about them and their world? How do they treat each other? How will that change over the course of this story? How can I show the reader that?”
In other words, rather than relying on what we today are obsessed with as markers of racial or cultural difference, use markers of difference that reveal something about your narrator’s own culture and attitudes. Mention skin color later, incidentally. Because it, too, is a part of your character’s physical appearance and uniqueness. But why let it be the first detail you give the reader? Why distract your reader with details that our own modern people are obsessed with, when you could use this as an opportunity to reveal the cultures of your characters and challenge how they respond to difference? As a storyteller working in a fantastical past or a fantastical future, you have a rare and unusual opportunity to get us to see our own foibles and our own destructive tendencies toward prejudice and fear (and, for that matter, our own capacity for empathy, compassion, listening, and heroism) through the looking-glass: by recognizing them first (maybe even for the first time) in a situation that we don’t *think* is our own situation. That’s an incredible opportunity for a storyteller, one often denied (or not as readily available) to writers of more ‘realistic’ fiction. Don’t squander it!
P.S. Also, please don’t use this as an excuse to write only white people. Unless done with a specific intent in mind, that’s playing to the default, too. For me, a huge part of the fun of SF/F (and a huge part of what my own characters have to teach me, as I write them) is to challenge our default assumptions about what “difference” means and our expectations about how different cultures react to each other (and explore new possibilities for how they COULD react to each other).
P.P.S. A counterpoint to this may be that unless you do it really well, your readers may actually assume all of your human/humanoid characters are white even if they’re not. I think mentioning the skin color in later scenes will not only allay this but will allow you to do it with such timing that the mention of it startles the reader into recognizing that they’ve made a silly default assumption. That is to say, the timing of the detail can force your reader to think.
But I am not sure. I am still learning, book after book. Hopefully wiser writers than I will have advice for you, too.
P.P.P.S. It turns out that N.K. Jemisin, who is far more knowledgeable than I, has indeed offered some perspectives and examples, and you can find those here.
P.P.P.P.S. Shameless plug: If my own advice is useful, I do have an entire book of it, worth checking out: Write Characters Your Readers Won’t Forget. I hope you will go get it and give it a read; I’ve been told it’s very helpful.