Updated May 23rd, 2012
I’m going for NaNoWriMo (Nation Novel Writing Month) this year and I’ve been spending far too much time in the forums over there when I should be working. (It’s the weekend; I’m cutting my tired brain some slack!) The point being, a discussion about how to describe skin tones in writing came up.
I love these discussions because I don’t think there’s enough variation in skin tone in fantasy and science fiction. Often, characters either aren't described at all, or are some variation of 'white.' Characters of color are often invisible in secondary world fiction. In fiction based in our world, writers often feel more comfortable identifying a character as "African-American," or "Latin@," or "Native American," or "Asian," but in secondary worlds--in which those words are out of place--a writer has to rely on description. Otherwise, characters of color don't seem to appear at all. You, as the author, may know they're there, but if you don't describe them the reader can't know it. However, I also get that some writers are worried about accidentally coming off as racist or offending people with their choice of description and because of this they avoid the topic all together, but that just perpetuates the problem. In addition, if you only describe characters of color, you risk creating the notion that 'white' is the default for people and skin tone only needs to be mentioned when the character is "non-white," which is utterly ridiculous. So, describing all your characters is important.
What helps, or at least, what I think helps, is realizing that people are just people. You’re going to offend someone with something, and someone else is going to love it, and it all depends on who they are as people and how you handled the situation. If you made a mistake, if you failed, having it pointed out to you means that you can do better in the future. Just as with any other aspect of your story. While it's not great, it isn't the end of the world. Use it to do better. Learn and grow and move forward. As long as you are self-aware in your writing and you’re working within the confines of your novel, there’s no reason to be worried.
What also helps is discussion and ideas about how description can be done and different ways to work these things into your story. I like to use comparisons. I think comparisons let me say more than just skin tone, they let me allude to the environment of the characters (“She had skin the color of wet sand”), to special circumstances that are present (“The flashing police lights and the blue of the portal-glow made his skin seem even darker”), or highlight a character’s mental or social state (“The red in her brown hair and the warm amber of her skin set her apart from the rest of her family”). But you can also use general terms of color (red-brown, golden, warm brown, red-orange, brown with yellow undertones, grey) or descriptive terms of color (alabaster, ebony, rosy, ashen, saffron, sienna). The important thing is to choose a method which fits with your setting, your overall style of description, and your novel. The point of view character can also play a huge role in how other characters are described. For instance, an artist may use the specific names of their paints when describing people and the world.
Also, remember that skin tone is not a defining characteristic of a given character (even if other characters may see it that way). While it's important to note it, dwelling on it can become fetishizing or can make it seem as if it's the only thing that matters about them. Take the whole character into consideration when you describe them, and if you find that you can't see past their skin tone, you need to think more about the character. Who are they as a person? Their size may be more relevant and reflective of their personality, so you could mention their skin tone in passing, but highlight details of their height. Or their eye color could be an important clue later, and so while you'd mention their skin tone to give a complete picture, you’d make the description of their eyes especially memorable.
And this doesn’t just matter for characters of color. Just because Earth cultures too often have default assumptions, doesn’t me that we as writers should, or that the cultures in our novel do (or that their default assumptions are the same). This is all the more important when we’re dealing with characters that aren’t human. Not only can the addition of another species make humans rethink their definitions of “race” and “ethnicity,” but new species require more in depth description. Trying to describe a people of which the reader has only a minimal understanding means that you often have to describe their skin tones no matter if they’re dark or light or blue or green.
We all have some sort of color, even our world isn't as simplistic as 'white' and 'not-white,' and a complete picture of a character may include a mention of how pale they are, or how they look artificially tanned, or how they fit into the racial structure around them, or how they have undertones of a given color mixed with their general skin tone. It’s important that you make your characters memorable and give a picture of them, whether that picture is more focused on their features or their hair or their skin. Spend your time on the details that are important to the story, to the characters, to the setting and to the themes and sketch in the rest.
For more thoughts and discussion on this topic, here are my favorite links. Have fun!
Describing Characters of Color in Writing
Describing Characters of Color, pt 2
Whatever You're Doing, You're Probably Wrong