Characters’ Physical Descriptions in Fiction: An Argument in Favour

I’m often of two minds about things when it comes to writing.

Case in point: in my previous post, I argued that physical descriptions of characters of the sort that itemize their hair colour, eye colour, height, and hair style are largely irrelevant to the plot and point of most stories.

That is to say, descriptions that focus less on the look of a character’s body and more on how they use it do more to portray a character as a complex analogue to a real person.

And yet I disagree with my own position in recognizing that in the absence of visual character descriptions, many readers will imagine that all the characters in a given novel are white.

Much of this has to do with the preponderance of whiteness in mainstream media in general, especially visual media, to the point that both canonical non-white characters and those without any assigned race are often whitewashed in TV and movie adaptations of books.

Also responsible is the way people of colour’s physical appearance is commonly described in novels.

Readers are given their hair colour, eye colour, any other notable features (height, scars, etc.), as well as racial information.  On the surface this seems like an obvious thing to do, for how else would we know that the character is a POC unless the writer says so in some way?

In contemporary genres, it’s usually acceptable and expedient to just name the character’s race or racially-coded ethnicity, for example, a Jamaican man.

In speculative genres that are divorced from the history, geography, and culture of the real world, i.e. a world where Jamaica, Jamaicans, and blackness as we understand it don’t exist as such, racial information might instead be conveyed through description, such as dark brown skin like the trunk of an oak tree.

Unequal treatment

The problem with describing a person of colour in either of these ways, though, is that white characters tend not to receive identical treatment.  White characters will have their hair and eye colour given, but not the colour of their skin.

Often, their whiteness might seem to be implied through features such as red hair and blue eyes, which generally only occur naturally in white people.  Or whiteness might be implied through the story taking place in a setting known to be predominantly white, or through the use of a white character on the cover of the book.

(Although whitewashed book covers, the presence of a white character—presumed to be the main character—on the cover when the book’s main character is in fact non-white, is a common and egregious practice in the publishing world.)

In general, characters’ whiteness is not remarked upon because mainstream society unjustly views white as the default human racial condition, and non-white as “the other”.

With this sort of thinking, the burden of a full description is thus imposed upon characters of colour in order to make their non-whiteness known.  Even in story settings that are ostensibly diverse, we all too often see a white main character indicated as just a man, while a man of colour is specified as a black/Chinese/etc. man.

In full colour

Diverse representation is an important consideration in mainstream media, an issue I’ve written about numerous times in the past.

It’s important not only because readers of colour both want and deserve to see themselves reflected in popular fiction the way white readers perpetually have, but also because we live in a diverse world wherein the absence of such from mainstream media is usually an unrealistic erasure.

Mental casting—using abstract character descriptions so that readers can visualize characters as they wish—can be a useful strategy for combating this erasure, especially for readers of colour.

However, not even POC readers are immune to the constant normalization of whiteness, and might also automatically assume the characters are white.

Meanwhile, when books that describe characters abstractly are adapted for the screen or stage, intolerant white readers often put up a public racist outcry against the casting of non-white actors for characters, whether major or minor, whose race is not canonically defined in the text (e.g. when black actress Noma Dumezweni was cast as Hermione in the Harry Potter and the Cursed Child play).

In this way, the only way to ensure non-white book characters are seen in their true colours is to describe them visually and explicitly, whether their race has any overt bearing on the plot or not.

(And also to avoid vague descriptors like “olive” and “tan”, which could be perceived as a white character who’d gotten some sun.)

As well, the only way to combat the normalization of whiteness in fiction—whether one visually describes all their characters or not—is to explicitly describe the skin colour of canonically white characters as well as for characters of colour.

~

(Image #1 and #2)

7 thoughts on “Characters’ Physical Descriptions in Fiction: An Argument in Favour

  1. No argument – there’s a lot of lazy description or lack of it out there.

    I’d just argue for subtlety and craft – lots of it – instead of laundry lists every time a new character pops up. Have a mind for the stereotypes you need to head off (or come readers will feel you’ve switched something about a character they’d already decided, based on the evidence so far).

    But the last thing I need when reading is to be brought to a full stop by an info dump of unimportant physical characteristics. It doesn’t have to be that way, but it takes time and space to write a transparent description.

    Liked by 1 person

      • I like doing it from other characters’ viewpoint – noticing details as they might in real life. Those thoughts and dialogue bits are held to the same standards as everything else: no info dumps. Because we don’t describe people we meet to ourselves – we notice a few things which stick when we meet someone, more as we get to know them.

        Like

      • ‘Only an inch or so shorter than his six-feet-two.’ Have used that myself. Works VERY well for skin tones, too – you get both characters at the same time.

        All just a tiny bit more of invention that the grocery list, and far more transparent.

        Craft.

        Like

  2. You make a good point. I hadn’t thought about it quite like that, but I think you’re correct. We tend to assume characters in a book are white. Since I have black and white characters in my novel in progress, I need to take a look back and see if I have or have not made a distinction without giving a driver’s license description of anyone. Thank you for bringing this to my attention today.

    Like

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