What skin tone do you picture in a character? The writer knows the race and colour of their characters, but in many books the author doesn’t actually state whether a character is “white”, “brown”, “pink” or “black”. Most people picture a skin tone depending on the name of the character. Don’t get me wrong, sometimes the ‘race’ of the character is subtly described, sometimes very well, so immediately an image is formed in your mind. But I’m guessing that most people picture a character as ‘white’ unless the text suggests otherwise. There are so many shades of skin colour that I doubt we all picture the same image, no matter what is implied in the text.
Does it even matter? Probably not, because there is more to building a strong character than describing their physical appearance. However, I find this a fascinating subject because I am of Indian origin, and due to the wonder of genetics, I have two beautiful “white” children as well one beautiful “brown” child, but all three of my children would describe themselves as Indian. In fact my “white” children will be very unhappy that I am describing them as “white”! (In the UK, if you describe yourself as “of Indian origin”, then it means your family were originally from India). The physical appearance of the two main, male characters in my children’s book, The Book of Thoth, are based on my boys. Daniel is described as having auburn hair, freckles and hazel brown eyes and Yakub is described as being olive-skinned with black hair and shiny brown eyes. It’s odd how we feel the need to add description to imply that a character is non-white and I wonder whether it is because we have been indoctrinated in this way; because we are assuming that all other characters are “white”?
What colour and race is a tall, dark and handsome John Smith?
What colour and race is a tall, dark and handsome Imran Khan?
Are you making assumptions based on the name? Or are you waiting for further description? Both of them have frizzy, black hair and brown eyes?
Still not sure?
They both have chocolate brown skin.
John speaks Hindi and lives in India. Imran speaks French and lives in France.
You still need further description, don’t you? Because it’s hard to be stereotypical these days!
I don’t see my protagonist as “white”, but I suspect anyone that reads my book will, especially because I named him Daniel. I chose the name Daniel because it’s one of my all time favourite names. It is a name used in many countries and in many cultures and religions, but the only reason I chose the name was because I knew it would suit my character.
I am fortunate enough to live and work alongside many different races and religions, and it follows that my characters will come from many different backgrounds. I want to describe my characters as I imagine them. I find this difficult because what is considered offensive in one country, may not be in another. Some people may find “chocolate brown” offensive as skin colouring; however this is perfectly acceptable when describing hair colour. Others may find the use of the words “white” or “black” offensive. “Asians” are not pictured in the UK in same way as “Asians” are pictured in America. And so on… (Incidentally, I love the Russell Peters sketch on the difference between Indian and Chinese “Asians”).
If you are published via the traditional route, then there will be country-specific changes to your book, and the published book may vary from country to country (e.g. mum versus mom). However, where political correctness is concerned, sometimes it’s debatable whether they get it right or wrong (e.g. Dean Thomas being described as “black” in the American Harry Potter books, but not in the UK books).
But if you are self-publishing, then you are most likely to have only one published book available, so you have to hope you are subtle enough to get the tone right for all countries. And it’s not only skin tone I’m referring to!