Racial and cultural expression in fictional characters

Brian G Turner

Fantasist & Futurist
Staff member
Nov 23, 2002
I make a specific point in my writing of - for the most part - not assigning any kind of skin colour to any of my characters.

I want my characters to be as accessible as possible to my readership, and that means not drawing out much by way of description at all. Where some sense of culture and racial division has to be drawn, I try to make it as diverse as I can, either through plain ambiguity, or through balancing character expression - for example, if I find too many secondary characters are going to come across as Anglo-Saxon, then I'll play with the option of dressing the next important secondary character with a far removed cultural identity.

Partly it's about being Politically Correct, partly it's about appealing to a wider audience - and partly, it;s because when you sit down and challenge your own prejudices and accepted perceptions, it can lead to the creation of more interesting character.

There is also another element: when reading a book, I usually have my own image of what a particular character looks like. If the author then insists later on in dumping extra descriptive info that contradicts my mental image, it grates.

So I make sure my descriptions are firstly only used for major characters, only in the very first few lines we meet them, and that as much room for ambiguity can be left so that the reader can form their own comfortable mental image. Where no sense of cultural or racial identity is particularly pressing, then no note is made of it.

Of course, strong character description can help introduce a character with most impact for a reader. Looking in the mirror is an old cliche and never advised, but the way that a character enters a story can work as an expression of the character's personality - or, sense of presence.

Either way, this topic is opened up primarily for the discussion of race and culture in our writing and stories, with a particular angle of exploring our contemporary human diversity, and how that is expressed - or not - in our stories, and the reasons why we make those choices. The secondary part of the discussion is the nature of character description itself: why we use it, and how we use it to achieve certain effects.
I have not taken a particular stand point on this subject, though racial difference plays an important part in my own novel (stretching the term to its limits), however not in the classic sense, the feelings remain largely the same from all parties.

That is primarily a plot device, however, and the majority of the divides in the book come from cultural differences, not racial. One might argue these are much of the same, obviously, but it enables me to forego the annoying habit some writer's have of over-describing their characters. The reader knows perfectly well what a character looks like, even with only the aid of a few well-placed adjectives.

Therefore, as you said, it does grate on me sometimes when the author brings up a physical description which has hardly been hinted at before and goes completely against what the reader has in mind.

When it comes to political correctness, as you probably know, I never cared much for it, and like Peter, I do get a kick out of provoking someone. Because provocation leads either to violence, or thought. I tend to aim for the latter. Of course, no reason to be deliberately offensive simply for the sake of it, but if you, as the author can't make a person think, then who can?

I suppose, as an author, I am too idealistic still.
I have to say that I have often been annoyed with the endless string of Anglo-Saxon protagonists in classic SF, not that Niven's token Asiatic hero Louis Wu was much better.

I doubt too many of our current racial types will survive unchanged millenia into the future. I suspect the way ahead will see an unprecedented mixing of the colours, so to speak. So when I write an SF tale, I keep this notion in mind and try to give my characters names that are evolved from different cultures more or less at random. I keep the actual physical description to a minimum, usually, to let the reader flesh out the details as they see fit.

To address the secondary part of this topic, I prefer to see my characters as conscious variations on certain character archetypes - the competent person, the pawn of prophecy, the young visionary and so on, and leave race out of it altogether.
I must admit that I like to blend race in. Political correctness has its uses, especially against discrimination, but I'm one of those people who loves racial and cultural diversity and differences. I like putting a distinctive flair on certain characters and experimenting with stereotypes, particularly breaking them, archetypes and cultural differences.
I hate too much description, it just gets way too heavy, especially if something you say at the begginning doesn't conform with elements you later write into your characters. But to me that's just a mark of clumsy writing. On the other hand, I don't like too much abiguity about characters, you need to have something to work with, especially if you want later character development. Sometimes it can be so frustrating, and also can result in clumsy writing as you may give different impressions at different times -if you have no fixed point to work from.
I havn't written in a long time, and these were merely the things that I would aim for, I don't know if I was ever successful or not (as most of my work hasn't been read by many people :))
But as a reader, I find that that is what I like best in characters. Sure it's boring having a predominance of anglo-saxon characters in anglo-saxon writings, but that doesn't mean you should go to the opposite extreme. After all, differences in appearance and culture exist, they are part of who we are and should no be shunned for the sake of being PC. I hate that sometimes, it's almost like another form of discrimination. Avoiding saying that someone is black or white emphasises that point as much as saying outright that they are, it can even have the same negative feel. Why should people be ashamed for what they look like? Why can't differences be represented and celebrated? I personally have no problems with characters being painted as Medditerranean, Scandinavian, Middle Easten, Asian or whatever. Maybe thats because of my upbrining, but still, I like the diversity. It makes life and stories interesting.
I think my take on this is that your reasoning for not specifying the skin color of characters is valid, Brian. It irritates me, as well, when my picture of a character is contradicted by a detail in a story. For example, when it became clear that Neville, in Matheson's "I Am Legend" had blond hair, it bothered me, as I had already cast Billy Bob Thornton in my own personal mind-movie of that book.

However, especially here in the States, and I would imagine probably in most Western European countries, a lack of ethnic designation for a character turns into the de facto assumption that the character is "white" for most readers. So that is why I have developed a habit, when writing fiction, of perhaps not specifically designating skin color but of using names for characters that imply differing cultural/ethnic backgrounds. It isn't the perfect solution, but it is at least a partial solution to a very real problem. I loathe being PC, but I don't, either, want to limit my readership (should I every get one;) ) by appearing to exclude some cultural groups. That may be a cop out; I don't know. All I know is that I've grown up in fairly multicultural communities, and I like to give some impression of a diversity of backgrounds in my characters when such diversity is appropriate.

Here's one question, though - how would one characterize an individual in a story who is a modern H. sapiens, but old enough (thousands of years) that there might possibly be some slight differences in physical appearance? What color hair would this individual have (had blond hair evolved by, say, fifteen thousand years ago)? How tall would this individual be? Here we have a good case for the reading of physical anthropology by science fiction and fantasy writers.:D
There's a joke around here.
How do you recognize you're reading an american sci-fi novel ? No matter what is the situation and the place in space and time he lives in, the hero will start the day by a shower and an orange juice. And all coffee of the universe just taste like boiled brown water.
As long as the plot and the characterization is good, I won't care about racial background. Although on a creative point of view, the more is the better (and please don't limit to current earth ethnies).

Littlemissattitude, to answer your question read "Son of a man" by Robert Sliverberg.
I do examine issues of race, religion, ethnicity, etc. in my work, but my main human characters tend to be pretty much white western-European types because I don't feel I have the perspective to write about black people or Asian people without them coming across as Caucasians in black-face or Oriental makeup. And frankly, I'm not interested in doing the kind of research that would allow me to do it up to the standard I would set myself. I'm still busy learning more and more about the things that really do fascinate me.

Of course, I don't really know what it's like to be non-human either, but I figure that nobody reading one of my books is going to know that from personal experience either.

I did live for several years in a neighborhood where mine was practically the only white family, so I do know what it feels like to be in the minority, and that does come up in my writing fairly often, but that's usually through the interactions of various different sentient species, not different races of homo-sapiens. I suppose you could say that I handle it metaphorically.
In my novel, EVE, one of my characters is addicted to retroviral gene implants (the future equivalent of cosmetic surgery) so every time she shows up, she's a different ethnotype. It was a fun way to remind everyone how truly superficial all that stuff really is. But this was pretty broad satire, more along the lines of Michael Jackson making himself look like an albino gargoyle. :eek:

In my current book, my main character is an African American woman, and I have to say that I am taking great care with her portrayal. Racial issues are a very prickly topic here in the States, and the last thing I want to do is offend, especially when writing a character based on women I admire. She's an amalgam of a few different people I've known, so that has been a big help. It's tougher with this book too, because it is set present day, in the normal world, and EVE was so wacky I could get away with a lot more.

I do believe in the old adage, "variety is the spice of life" so I like mixing it up. Also, being born and raised in CA, we're pretty ethincally mixed out here, even within my own family, so it is "writing what I know." I think Littlemissattitude said it best for me:

"... especially here in the States, and I would imagine probably in most Western European countries, a lack of ethnic designation for a character turns into the de facto assumption that the character is "white" for most readers."

"I loathe being PC, but I don't, either, want to limit my readership (should I every get one ) by appearing to exclude some cultural groups. That may be a cop out; I don't know. All I know is that I've grown up in fairly multicultural communities, and I like to give some impression of a diversity of backgrounds in my characters when such diversity is appropriate."
Having grown up in an ethnically-diverse area, I am conscious of the racial mix of my characters. Though I'm an ardent Anglophile -- weaned on BBC TV, Monty Python, and had Sean Connery and James Doohan as heroes -- I don't make all my characters anglos,, nor even Caucasian, and certainly not Protestant.

Surely, you'll probably find a Scot lurking somewhere in the story. But I like variety. Exotic ethnic mixes are good to keep things interesting. Like I had a character once who was a Russian Jew. I had another protagonist who was Japanese, and his superior was a Spanish/Native American.

There's no need for everything to be so VANILLA!

However, when writing with regard to race, it's a delicate balance. If you try to get equal representation of all ethnicities and/or genders, then it starts to look like a CONSCIOUS and CONTRIVED effort to do so. Not like you're really concentrating on the story.

'Political correctness'? WTF is that?:confused:

Nope. Sorry. In writing crime dramas, there's no such thing. Criminals don't walk, talk, or act PC. Ethnically, organized criminal syndicates are mostly homogeneous. Mafia-type groups, whether it's the Irish mob, the Yakuza, the Chinese Triads, or La Cosa Nostra, they all have rules about recruiting out side their own ethnic circles.

So it's bloody difficult to write 'politically correct' in that scenario. The subject matter prohibits it. Sex, drugs, murder...how can you fit anything PC into that?

And religion? The people in my current SF epic are mostly neo-pagans, and pay homage to the Greco-Roman pantheon in a revised form of the old faith.

In short, be sensitive to 'political correctness', but don't let it paralyze you with indecision and apprehension. Write what you want to read, and do the best you can.
Political Correctness is rubbish. I accept that you can't simply go out and insult people for race or disability or what not, but that is simply being polite. When they keep banning one expression or word after another I simply ignore it. The general public doesn't care anyway.

Moving on, in my writing most people are white north-west Europeans. Why? Because I am, and thats what people are like in my minds eye. Other ethnic groups only come in when they are needed for the character. For example, my warrior god takes the form and character of a stereotypical samurai, and thus needs to be Japanese to fit the role.
I've spent most of my life around culturally diverse people, and I am not afraid to write characters like that into my stories. I simply make sure I don't fall back on stereotype when I write them... easy for me, since I don't tend to stereotype people in the first place. (And that includes use of gender in my stories.)

My general guideline is this: Don't be afraid to suggest a certain ethnicity if that ethnicity helps define a character's attitudes or actions. It's an ethnic world, you might as well reflect that (unless your story takes place in an ethnically-limited setting). It's not a crime to have a "poor black street punk" in your story. Just make sure that character is not a stereotype, and belongs in your story.

Finally, don't overdo... but only because a group that's a true "rainbow club" tends to strain believability... unless, again, there's a good reason for it in your story.
I have three main POV's in my book, and one of those is dark skinned. But this plays into the story a lot, into his role within the army. It gives him a different perspective and attitude towards things than if he were the same race as the rest of the officers in the army.

Also, one of the settings is exlusively white, but there's a good reason for that.
I find it quite hard to imagine not assigning skin colour or any other indicator of race (name, hair colour, etc) to characters. I can understand the thinking behind it but wouldn't it just result in 2d characters?
Think it is a difficult one to be hard and fast about.

Simply listening to news interviews I can usually place where an interviewee is from, their race, colour and often basic character. So if you are good with characters, especially in handling speech patterns and dialect, you should never have to mention colour, race or much else at all, it will shout it straight from the page. While this may be seen as stereotyping, it must be remembered stereotypes evolve because there are a lot of real people who are really like that!

Story subject can make it imperitive to highlight race. You can not have a conflict story because of colour/race/aliens/religion without explaining at least one sides perspective. Which is where Sci/Fi and Fantasy writing is much easier; You can go dwarf bashing as much as you like, there is no Dwarf Relations Board to come banging on the door?
It all depends on exactly how much race or color defines their character. Think about it this way: If your character is European-American (i.e. "a white guy"), do you specify whether his ancestry is French or German? Only if it has a distinct bearing on his character, such as, whether he has certain habits or characteristics common to a particular European native. If his characteristics are essentially average American characteristics, or if his characteristics do not correspond to French or German cultural traits, race is not important.

In the same way, color is not important. If you spoke to me over the phone, and could not assign a racial characteristic to me based on our conversation... what does my color matter? You only need to specify it if you want to give a complete physical description of the person, and depending on the story or your writing style, that might not be important.
What you have to be careful of when writing ethnicity is common knowledge. Readers of your book are more likely to be as unaware of perhaps the family values of an Indian character as you are confident.

For example, I included an Indian character in one of my stories on another site and whilst she was one of the main protagonists (cross-dressing lesbian) there was very little feedback about her compared to the other two main characters with one exception. One person asked what the hell was I talking about when I had this character describe herself as a cow, literally.
I've come to realise that this character that I knew and was more lifelike than any other was, I suspect due to her reality, largely ignored or misunderstood and therefore had little impact because the readers had no handle for her other than that she was Indian.

I'd like very much to know how ethically different people view characters that have no description. (assuming similar cultures) Do afro-americans see only black folk when they read Lord of the Rings? Is everybody on the Discworld yellow to the chinese?
Of course. If you are to picture a person you don't know anything about that would suggest one appearance, then you would immediately assume they are similar to you. So chinese imagine other chinese, mongolians other mongolians, whites more whites and blacks more blacks.

Just like how humans assume aliens as things with two legs, two arms and a head. No reason why we should, its just familiar, so we do.
Did you ever see The Wiz?

The Wiz presents a perfect example of how preconceptions can impact your mind's eye... given a complete lack of visual descriptions, it's quite easy for a child, born and raised in the big city, to read The Wizard of Oz and imagine Dorothy as a girl from the projects, the Lion perched on a pedestal at the Public Library, the evil Witch as a sweat shop owner, the Flying Monkeys as a biker gang, and the Wizard as a corrupt politician. And if the only girls from the projects, sweat shop owners and corrupt politicians you've ever known are black, you tend to picture such characters as black... something familiar to you. Preconceptions will impact how you see certain characters... if you've only seen Asian people working in laundromats, then you are likely to initially imagine a "laundromat worker" as Asian in your mind.

Things are a bit different with Sci-Fi and Fantasy, though: A creature that is wholly unfamiliar to you, such as a Hobbit, will probably not trigger a racial image of any kind, unless some characteristic of Hobbits happened to fit a racial trait or stereotype you were familiar with... hence, if it was stated that all Hobbits were particularly good at washing clothes, using the earlier preconception, you might imagine that they looked like Asians.

As it so happens, Hobbits are known to enjoy relaxing in plush furniture in their cozy living rooms, drinking fermented beverages, smoking pipes, gathering with friends to chat, and generally avoiding excitement or adventure... a description that, to me, calls to mind the European country life (more specifically, the life of a gentleman in the English countryside), and therefore, causes me to picture a Hobbit as a European racial type. So, although I am African, I picture Hobbits based on the preconceptions I have, which happen to correspond to perceived European traits.

Often, these described traits are so subtle (the writer themselves may not be aware of the preconceptions they paint) that you may not realize how it is impacting your perceptions. Even an innocent turn of a phrase can suggest a trait, no?
I come from not only a culturally diverse nation but a RECENT and conscious cultural diversity.

See, I am an Aussie and up until about the 60's we had what is known as "The White Australia Policy" - it did not stop the waves of European migration (there are some areas in some cities today were you can cross about 5 European countries by going to 5 different suburbs.

Since then we have been busy mixing everyone into the one cultural stew of Australia (most impact of course has been on cuisine - ours is the most diverse in the world!) It is an exciting an fascinating time to live in my country - love different cultures and they are now coming to ME!

So, how would I go about it?

Answer:- Don't sweat the small stuff. There is not one of us who, especially in today's global networking, are culturally "pure".

Yes do some research because you HAVE to know that if your character is a Sikh she/he must wear the "five K's" (which, I recently found out, includes special undies). But I would not sweat too much on making all facial expressions Indian because India itself is incorporating many Western cultural norms (although nearly every Indian I have ever worked with does that head wobble signifying maybe/maybe not)

A painless and sometimes quite fun way of absorbing another culture is through film. Get your hands on some typical Bollywood, Tollywood, Lollywood or Nollywood films and prepare to be transported into a totally different cultural world!

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