Writing and Self-Publishing: Colour, race and names of characters in books

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!

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7 comments

  1. It’s true that names do create a big part in our visual image of characters. I did imagine Daniel to be white, actually. An interesting point also about the challenge of writing for audiences of various countriies. I bet you’d have to edit some of the vocabulary according to where it was being published

  2. Although so far I’ve written only nonfiction, last year I wrote a story about an incident that happened in an Atlanta hospital waiting room. An African American man in his late 50’s or early 60’s came into our little sitting area, pulled a bag of M & M’s out of his shirt pocket and proceeded to eat them one by one. He didn’t look at any of us or acknowledge our presence, not because he was snobbish but because he was apparently overwhelmed with deep sadness. Within a few seconds, tears began coursing down his cheeks. The reason I remember the scene so well is because we (four grandparents) were all awaiting the birth of a grandchild, and our moods were in stark contrast to his.

    So…..I submitted the story to my writing group for critiquing, and they all pointed out that I needed to show, not tell. “Make us see his skin color and age without actually pointing it out.” I did that and brought it back the next month. This time, a young African American member of the group said I shouldn’t have said anything about his physical appearance without describing everyone else there. WAs she right? I don’t know. I only mention the story to let you know that I understand completely what you’re describing here.

    • I’m not sure what the answer is. I think I will stick to describing all the main characters as much as possible. “Show, not tell” is the problem I have with the first chapter of The Book of Thoth. It’s hard to bring in the characters without telling! But I’m working on it 🙂 Thanks for your comments – I will check out your blog at the weekend 🙂


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