DISCUSSION: Writing Minority Characters

The acest of trainers
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I settled on describing my main character's skin colour as 'cocoa coloured', but one person I got to beta it didn't feel comfortable with the relation to food. Yet I can't think of many non-food objects that are of a similar colour, and I very rarely describe skin colour purely as "white" or what not, either 'white as ...' or use a word like pale. I have found differing opinions online about using food as a descriptor (some people tend not to mind, some are strongly against it) and was wondering how anyone here felt about it.
 
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People being described with food words is far from uncommon. Cherry-red lips, skin as pale as milk, hair like golden corn, etc etc. I think it might just be a knee-jerk reaction based on the fact that it's a minority being described.
 
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Based on what I've read about this subject, it's pretty common for people to get uncomfortable with food descriptions. (Relevant article!)

TL;DR: There's a kind of fetishizing element to it (like "wanting a bite of that caramel/chocolate/vanilla,") implications that a person can be/is to be consumed and the history linked to said implications... It's apparently rather cliche as well. They provide some ideas in the follow-up article that (at least mostly) lack the same historical baggage: complex colors/specific shades, minerals, metals, flowers, and more.

Oh, and the blog I linked has a whole lotta resources relevant to this thread.
 
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The acest of trainers
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@Serverus Snope I did find that article myself when having a google and it got me quite worried, but then I looked through some of the ones underneath and there does seem to b a lot of people who feel the opposite way. The person behind that blog definitely seems to be the most vocal, and there doesn't seem to be a clear consensus, which is one of the reasons this can be quite tricky: one thing that is fine for some can be offensive to others.

The second blog did provide some good ideas though.
 
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@Serverus Snope I did find that article myself when having a google and it got me quite worried, but then I looked through some of the ones underneath and there does seem to b a lot of people who feel the opposite way. The person behind that blog definitely seems to be the most vocal, and there doesn't seem to be a clear consensus, which is one of the reasons this can be quite tricky: one thing that is fine for some can be offensive to others.

The second blog did provide some good ideas though.
Mahogony and teak are common descriptors of skin color. But since it's a Pokémon setting, why not describe their skin tone using pokémon? Like someone "whose skin was the earthy-brown of a well-groomed Rockruff".
 
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Mahogony and teak are common descriptors of skin color. But since it's a Pokémon setting, why not describe their skin tone using pokémon? Like someone "whose skin was the earthy-brown of a well-groomed Rockruff".
This works even if you use alternate color variants of species in your story, though you'd have to go the extra step to clarify the alternate color variant. :p
 
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Mahogony and teak are common descriptors of skin color. But since it's a Pokémon setting, why not describe their skin tone using pokémon? Like someone "whose skin was the earthy-brown of a well-groomed Rockruff".
If we're trying to have respectful representations of non-white people, describing them visually by evoking comparisons to non-human creatures doesn't have an especially attractive history attached to it, and it pretty much coincides with the idea of white people as being the "default" human beings and everyone else being some sort of variant of that.

It's really not super complicated though, in terms of physical description just be true to your vision of the character, and be respectful.
 
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Idk, I've never heard of cocoa before it; i like it! Chocolate probably would have been too much lol but cocoa has a nice sound to it, and also makes me think they have really nice, soft skin aha.

I say the best part of writing is having the creative liberties to describe things as you see fit; if saying their skin is "cocoa colored" best describes your character, then I don't think there's anything wrong with that. also yeah, it is skin so it's hard to describe than just being blunt and saying something like "pale, tan, black," etc.
 
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I ran into a question today. I assume darker skinned people get paler when frightened/anemic just like lighter skinned people, but I live in a country with very few darker skinned people (and I spend as little time as possible in public anyway) so I've never actually seen what it looks like. How does the skin color change exactly? Does it just become grayer or is there some hue it goes towards? I tried Googling some reference, but I can't seem to get the right results.

I know I can probably just say "pale" in the story, but this actually got me curious beyond just writing research.
 
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Generally, their paleness is more obvious in the lips and fingernail beds as well as inside their mouth due to the lowered amounts .

Apparently, that's due them having less melanin in those areas so it's more obvious.
 
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This has already been said, but I think the most important thing is writing minority characters as characters in their own right, rather than being defined by their race/ethnicity/orientation/religion. Make them a character first, and then find out how these differing traits affect them both internally and interpersonally within their society. In my Digimon stories, I have some gay and bisexual characters, as well as characters who face speciesism, and their orientation and species is an important part of their stories, but it doesn't define them. They're complex characters beyond just these characteristics. In the real world, you won't find somebody who is "just gay" or "just black" - they'll have interests, personalities, and histories beyond just these characteristics or the adversity they face for being so. I also think it's really important to make minority characters have flaws as well, like any complex character would have.
 
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To be fair, it's easy to say that the best way to go about writing a minority character is to make them a character first, but as it's been stated here before you can't underestimate the context in which this fits in. It's true that for something like Pokemon there will be different rules and norms, but regardless of how you try to explain it the reader will still associate what they read with real life, and regardless of how much you try to mask it your own subconscious will still create things with a base on real life. This is why I like stories that play with what we see in our world but still keep a lot of ideas and issues from our world.

It's because you have to take the context of the issue into account that you also have to consider what you're tackling. Making a world where all these prejudices aren't a thing makes sense but, to the reader it'd feel like tonal whiplash, especially if they're a part of that minority group you're mentioning. This is even truer in the case of flipped race conflicts like with Earthsea (which was mentioned in the last page), making a story where white characters are the ones being prejudiced is possible but you run the risk of making anyone who isn't white feel weird cause it's like...not what they're used to seeing. Not just that but it can reinforce some very bad ideas in people's heads about racism and persecution, because again, people will always tie things back up to their life, if they see a white character being persecuted they might get the idea but they might also feel that this is what it is in their life even when it's not.

Completely ignoring their heritage is also a no-no as it removes the relateability that comes with it, it's true that people aren't defined by their race, gender or orientation, but that does act as a pretty big factor for the way in which people live their lives so divorcing the character from it completely would also do a disservice and reduce the amount of writing potential that you can apply to the story. Also skin isn't the only important thing when describing minorities but culture too. Speaking as a Venezuelan (which makes me latinx for anyone that doesn't know where that is) I'm only slightly tanner than a white person but my culture can be pretty jarring for some (even in South America itself) and the way I was raised and experiences I've had because of where I was born and what my heritage is has also affected me, it's not what solely defines me but it is a big factor in that. That's why it bothers me a bit when characters are made hispanic but authors treat them as if they were just like everyone else.

So there's definitely a balance to it between researching what those experiences are like and taking the reader's own POV into account. Also as for skin description in general, I've always described my character's skin color in my fics even though some people say I shouldn't, but that's mostly cause I always like to give readers a good image of what the character looks like and it helps me craft a solid image for myself as well.
 
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Writing "minority" characters is a pretty broad issue, actually. I've seen plenty of entire blogs about just writing characters of colour. It seems the emphasis in this thread is most heavily on the task of descriptive narration when it comes to a character's racial phenotype, so I'll talk a little about that in a moment. Also, disclaimer: I am super white, like, so white.

I'd just like to talk about the difficulty of language for a second, though! "Minority" is a weird word, because it's dependent on the national context. Black people aren't a minority in Senegal, and white people are a minority in Bangladesh. "Diverse" is weird because it only applies to groups, not individuals, and a movie like Black Panther is actually not diverse because the racial makeup of the cast is relatively homogenous. "Exotic" or "Oriental" shouldn't need explaining. "Marginalised" touches on the reason this is such a contentious issue, but it has the same problems as "minority" while also conferring victimhood. "Non-white" defines people in relation to a white norm. "Person of colour" is the widely advocated favourite, but as a Brit it sounds like "coloured person" which is what my racist goddamn grandfather calls people, so that feels super weird to me. Honestly, I think it's acceptable to refer to your characters as being of their race. In my experience, the only people uncomfortable with mentioning what race they are are shifty white people who just wish everybody would be "colourblind" and stop talking about uncomfortable things like race. Caveat: "Asian" could mean anything from Lebanese to Kamchatkan to Uyghur to Filipino to Tibetan to Ainu. There's never an easy answer.

As for the task of describing racial features, it really is best to be safe than sorry, so don't use food words or comparisons to animals. Ever. It's not worth it, man. Try googling around to get some specificity in the colours you use, but also talk about things other than skin colour such as nose shape and hair. Remember that dark skin comes in thousands of shades, that individuals can have bluer or yellower hues to their flesh than other people of the same ethnicity, and that it's possible for people of mixed race to be mistaken for someone of a single race. This stuff is, like most important real world issues, complex and nuanced and vexing.

As for writing about race in the pokémon world, the setting of pokémon seems broadly utopian and absent of distressing social ills such as poverty, discrimination and warfare, but it's not like such things are never alluded to or present in the franchise. (Warfare is shown in M08, there are no openly gay characters, there's a faint sexism in much of the games' writing, it's sometimes a plot element that people are struggling to survive.) So you could get away with having a post-racial world, I suppose. If you prefer to write a more true-to-life setting, then you may as well treat it like our world. This is what I do in my personal canon.

Good luck everybody.
 
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"Minority" is a weird word, because it's dependent on the national context, etc
It's a good point, and one that doesn't suffer from being emphasised. I remember reading a book about the cultural differences between the USA and Britain, and one of the comparisons that I found most apt was that the British obsession with class is matched by the American obsession with race. You can see this a lot in discussions about race in fiction, and it often becomes clear that a lot of people only know how to talk about it in an American context.

In my experience, the only people uncomfortable with mentioning what race they are are shifty white people who just wish everybody would be "colourblind" and stop talking about uncomfortable things like race.
I'd like to offer another perspective on that - which is that in my own experience it's invariably white British who are the least comfortable asking about my ethnicity. It is in itself pertinent to note that most people can't tell just by looking at me. And I honestly think it's nearly always because those people are so scared of being seen as racist that they don't dare say anything at all. I wonder whether it's a similar feeling that leads fanfiction authors to be so wary of talking about it.

A less comfortable question would be to ask how this relates to the idea of death of the author. The temptation in any discussion like this is to declare what your own ethnicity is, to validate your own opinions or sometimes pre-emptively apologise for them. How does this all relate to Death of the Author? Should the author's ethnicity make any difference to how you react to their story? And why?
 
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Too preoccupied for a long response but I very much like your post just now @Beth Pavell and I want to say the following before I forget:

Absolutely it's true that Americans on the internet think the American cultural context is pertinent to the societies of other nations! It's mad. Probably true of most people honestly. It's also definitely true that a lot of white Brits and Americans just daren't mention race because they're worried about saying the wrong thing. It's unfortunate, to be sure. In particular, I've noticed a lot of southwest English white people in older generations be unwilling to describe someone as "black." They stumble and try to think of a PC way to say a perfectly PC thing. Oh dear.

As for death of the author, I think the issue is that when it comes to race, different perspectives are very difficult to consciously discern truth from, considering the extent to which different experiences between humans of different ethnicities/races are subjective and non-obvious to people with different life experiences. Therefore people have to resort to saying, "no, listen - you aren't able to perceive what it's like for me, please understand me as I explain" and with that comes the necessity of openly identifying as the race you're discussing in order to facilitate that communication. I usually believe that relative truth should not be propped up by appeals to authority, but in the context of a discussion about race, there's good reason this is so often the case.
 
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