Re: An Overthinker's Question About Conveying Ethnicity

#1
I have found myself in an odd sort of pickle. Where I have actually renamed cities and places in my world, so my story has a real world equivalent, but I felt the way they would have divided and the way they would have named their Globe would have been different. I have a mutliracial cast and where I find myself struggling is, how do I convey ethnicity specifically while not throwing a bunch of new terms at the reader where they don't know the real world equivalent? For example, Aoi Island is our real world equivalent of Japan, but;

"Having Aoi features," wouldn't make sense to the reader because how do they interpret that as our real world equivalent of Japanese? Or Europe is known as the Celestial Crest, so how do you say?

"He looks from the Celestial Crest" and understand what it means is "he looks European" 

Re: An Overthinker's Question About Conveying Ethnicity

#2
Do you want the reader to associate "Celestial Crest" and "Europe"?  Do you want them to import their own ideas of what it means to be European?  Is it important they visualize exactly what you want them to visualize?

Additionally, are you trying to avoid describing ethnic characteristics?  Would it be offensive if you described their characteristics yourself, instead of relying on the reader's own stereotypical image of a person from an area?  Why?  Mind, I'm not actually asking why, I'm suggesting you examine what information you want to convey, and why you want to convey that information.  If an accurate description of an ethnicity isn't relevant, maybe it doesn't actually matter whether or not the reader "knows" what real-world ethnicity somebody is.

Note that what people notice, and observe, is relative to their cultural norm; in Brandon Sanderson's Stormlight Archive series, most characters come from a culture with epicanthal folds, so nobody comments on this, and it never shows up in a character description which is taken from the perspective of one of those characters; instead, they comment on how childlike/innocent/wide-eyed the characters lacking this characteristic appear.  You don't see what is normal to you, only what is different.

Re: An Overthinker's Question About Conveying Ethnicity

#3

AdirianSoan Wrote: Do you want the reader to associate "Celestial Crest" and "Europe"?  Do you want them to import their own ideas of what it means to be European?  Is it important they visualize exactly what you want them to visualize?

Additionally, are you trying to avoid describing ethnic characteristics?  Would it be offensive if you described their characteristics yourself, instead of relying on the reader's own stereotypical image of a person from an area?  Why?  Mind, I'm not actually asking why, I'm suggesting you examine what information you want to convey, and why you want to convey that information.  If an accurate description of an ethnicity isn't relevant, maybe it doesn't actually matter whether or not the reader "knows" what real-world ethnicity somebody is.

Note that what people notice, and observe, is relative to their cultural norm; in Brandon Sanderson's Stormlight Archive series, most characters come from a culture with epicanthal folds, so nobody comments on this, and it never shows up in a character description which is taken from the perspective of one of those characters; instead, they comment on how childlike/innocent/wide-eyed the characters lacking this characteristic appear.  You don't see what is normal to you, only what is different.



First off, the reason the ethnicity mattered, was simply because speaking with other POC writers - most readers, not all, if the character is not specifically said this character is this. Most readers, growing up in ethnically homogeneous groups, assume the character is light skin [specifically white]. It's why this matters. However, you are correct, that I could describe the characters in detail.

The issue is that, there is two conflicts I am dealing with. I want to be as specific as I can so there is no interpretation to white wash these characters, and also at the same time I recognize readers hate detailed descriptions. The funniest thing is I can describe creatures and monsters in as little detail and make it very detailed and clear, but when it comes to people, I can't. 

That's where saying this is Japanese comes in, was my shorthand of being ale to do this, because I know readers roll their eyes when you describe characters at length. I am not even considering at length, "his long, narrow nose, her short nose, with wide nostrils, his wide, oval eyes, her narrow almond half monolid eyes." I mean I prefer hyper detail, but readers don't like it. So it's where I am attempting to strike a balance using shorthands, and descriptions. 

But - I can scratch that and just write out their descriptions. Thank you. 

Re: An Overthinker's Question About Conveying Ethnicity

#4

JeneClyde Wrote: "Having Aoi features," wouldn't make sense to the reader because how do they interpret that as our real world equivalent of Japanese? Or Europe is known as the Celestial Crest, so how do you say?

"He looks from the Celestial Crest" and understand what it means is "he looks European"

Well, Europeans are white skinned. Japanese have a darker skin if they go in the sun and of course the canted eyes. But there's a whole lot more to race than simple skin tone, such as body build, language, mannerism, etc.

I write with a lot of Japanese themes, and I describe my Japanese characters the way Japanese look, act, and I throw in Japanese words. For instance, Japanese use katana swords wkazashi blades. They wear tabi slippers or waraji sandals and sashed kimonos.

I have a black character in The Black Cobra of Mar'a Thul, and I simply describe my character as being black. In fact, I've directed some mild racism towards him from the locals, who are Persian-like because that's the setting.

There is a large variety of ways you can convey a character to the reader. But you don't necessarily have to be dead on the money. You can leave a little room for interpretation.

Re: An Overthinker's Question About Conveying Ethnicity

#6

parkertallan Wrote: As opposed to using the shortcut of say someone has Aoi features, provide a brief description as you introduce the character. I think readers will pick up on the fact that characters from different regions look different. Also highlight any other differences such as speech or clothing to differentiate the different cutures.



Thank you, I changed the sentence, and ended up somehow describing three characters at once with it and it was pretty neat. 

Re: An Overthinker's Question About Conveying Ethnicity

#7
I describe my characters briefly. Just a couple of sentences here and there dispersed throughout the paragraphs as to not infodump. I describe skin tone, hair, if the clothing is special, eye color/shape if it matters. The good thing about not labeling your characters with races from our world is that you can be creative. I have characters with white hair and canted eyes, characters with brown skin and golden hair, etc. It gives one enormous freedom. 

Re: An Overthinker's Question About Conveying Ethnicity

#8

Quote:First off, the reason the ethnicity mattered, was simply because speaking with other POC writers - most readers, not all, if the character is not specifically said this character is this. Most readers, growing up in ethnically homogeneous groups, assume the character is light skin [specifically white]. It's why this matters. However, you are correct, that I could describe the characters in detail.



This is, of course, up to you, but I think that the relationship between the character and the society they exist in is more relevant to the story than the relationship between the character and the society the reader is in.  If a character is the same ethnicity as most other people, then it is basically fine for people living in a majority white society to assume that character is white, people living in a majority Chinese society to assume that character is Chinese, and people living on Mars to assume that character is a Martian - because that is the most accurate lens for the reader to interpret the character's interactions with the world around them; that person's relationship with the society they live in is one of belonging, of being part of the majority.

A white person in a predominantly black setting has more in common with a black person in a predominantly white setting than they would with a white person in a predominantly white setting; they have the experience of being in the minority, of looking different from the image people conjure when they're told to imagine a person, possibly even looking different from what they themselves picture when they try to imagine the default person.  They're going to be comparing themselves to an image they just don't match up with; we often call that a beauty standard, but I think that's somewhat misleading, because beauty is only a small part of it.

Like, you're describing an experience, but you're trying to change that experience, instead of trying to use it.  Instead of making sure the reader is aware of exactly what ethnicity a character is supposed to be, have the character have the experience of reading books, and imagining that the protagonist is different from them.  Write about how it makes you feel, channel it into the writing.  Don't try to stop the reader from whitewashing; have the reader experience whitewashing.  For some readers, it will be illuminating.  For others, it will be a moment where they feel the character is like themselves, far more than a couple lines about what shape of nose the character has.

Re: An Overthinker's Question About Conveying Ethnicity

#11

minime Wrote: That was a bit confusing but I think what they meant was that don't make your characters vague or empty that will make people naturally assume a character is white, but let them see and understand the character enough that it becomes obvious that they are "white". Essentially what they are saying to express characters not just through physical appearance but through other stuff so the reader has no chance to "whitewash" any character. They will know if a character is white, and they will know if the character is from any other ethnicity/culture by the skill of the author. They made a point in their post that sometimes the society or environment a character lives in influences them more than physical features. 

That was a weird way of putting it tho, when I read it I was kinda like "?"



See here is the issue, most writers, let alone most readers don't understand others ethnicity or culture. Especially when stereotypes are involved and most media still has not addressed. Orientalism for example is the fetishization of Asian and Middle Eastern cultures and most writers still actively write from Orientalist perspective. Vague language doesn't help anyone and it's actually a scapegoat, imo, to have your cake eat it too, where you can say off screen the character is this, but not show it. This sort of comes back to the whole Hermoine was actually black argument, if she were meant to be black, then the vague language didn't help anyone to recognize she was black. And if she were black, then there had to be some research done in the way that black skin actually looks when scared, or even dead. 

Re: An Overthinker's Question About Conveying Ethnicity

#12

Brendoleenee Wrote:
AdirianSoan Wrote: Don't try to stop the reader from whitewashing; have the reader experience whitewashing.

So are you saying whitewashing is okay?



I don't think what other people imagine characters in stories they're reading to look like is something that can be "okay" or "not okay".

What's more important to making people feel represented is to give them characters they can relate to, can feel "This person is like me" about.  If the only thing holding you back from enjoying a story is that you imagine the protagonist is the wrong whatever - feel free to imagine the protagonist as whatever whatever makes you happy, you don't need anybody's permission for that.  If your ethnicity is represented, and you don't relate to them because you assumed they were white, and you can't imagine them any other way - well, theoretically there's an easy fix for that, but somehow I don't think adding stickers to Pride and Prejudice to change the ethnicity of the characters would actually make it any more relatable to somebody who didn't relate to the characters in the first place, and I don't think we should make anybody feel guilty for not being happy with that kind of "representation".

Because what's missing is a kind of shared context and experience; a gap, between the world as the author experiences it, and the world as the reader experiences it.  And this experience is an example of what can be used to bridge that gap.

Re: An Overthinker's Question About Conveying Ethnicity

#15
I realized that I literally never mention ethnicities in stories after reading this post. While I do imagine some of my characters as black and some as half-Asian, I only describe the bare minimum to describe them, mostly using examples and the vibes they give off so people can imagine them as they wish, in either ethnicity.

He was middle-aged, if he could be called that. He looked a bit on the younger side, closer to Oliver in age, wearing a white shirt not tucked into his pants and messy hair that made him look probably far better than he would with a near haircut. That was exactly what Sean would imagine a haggard office worker to look like after a fight.

It was a woman that seemed to be on the older side, standing almost at the very front. Maybe in her late forties or early fifties, wearing old-fashioned clothes that only teachers or old people wore. The fact that her hairstyle was a bob cut didn’t help her case of not seeming like a Karen, showing plenty gray hair. There were glasses with red frames placed on her nose, its shape pointy toward one side and slightly tinted toward the top. That was what Sean would expect an old professor to sound like —stern and strict, somewhat pissed off at the world. Not that he’d studied anything other than a mandatory Math course with an old professor in a university, and that one was a sweet one.

From up close, Sean could see that the priest had rapidly graying hair mixed with the faint traces of black or he hadn’t had his hair colored black for months if that was what he did. There was a large black mole on his right cheek with a hair on it. His hair made him look like he was past sixty but his skin and complexion made him look in his late forties. The hands he kept behind his back made him feel like one of those people who thought they were a bigger deal than they were.

So my suggestion is to just describe them as well as possible the first time around. Explain what they look like, their posture, a bit of their culture and follow it up with something along the lines of "what the poster child of the Celestial Crest / of Aoi should look like." That way, they can associate real-life ethnicities with your original ethnicities the first time around. After that, you could just refer to them as your original ones.