This week my characters are coming to life, I’ve written another 1,000 words and the reader is getting first introductions to my MC (main character) and surrounding supporting cast. As I began to describe one character in particular the stumbling of being a new writer became obvious.
When we meet people in person how they look is automatically sketched into our brains. The picture is clear, but when writing new introductions you must describe how they look, sound, walk, mannerisms etc. The reader desires this information so the picture in their heads is drawn out for them. I can fully describe a room, the lighting, layout, items in the room, or even the feel of “a dark eerie chill in the room” it just flows of my fingertips. But why all of a sudden did I come to a screeching halt when the description of a character needed to be a black man?
I decided of course to do a little research and found a few other writers suggestions on how best to describe. It seems there are several takes on how best to describe; use color descriptive words like brown, mocha, or chocolate. However then there are those who feel that it is offensive to use words of food type colors as it can conjure up association to slaves working in those crops. Then there are those writers who skip skin color all together and feel its best to let the reader assume, and then there are those who say only describe skin color when it is important to the story. The topic appears to be controversial and still open for debate.
In my novel skin color is important to the story which is set in the historical southern city of Savannah Georgia. Race and culture differences are important to tone and feel of the story and my character has overcome those differences which speaks to his perseverance and drive. So I needed a solution however I wasn’t any closer post-research-mortem. I remembered reading Suzanne Collins The Hunger Games and that she describes Rue a young black girl from District 11 which is the area that farms the crops. I ran a search for “Rue” to find how Collins describes her skin color:
“Up close she looks about ten. She has bright, dark eyes and satiny brown skin and stands tilted up on her toes…”
Collins also describes another boy that is from Rue’s District:
“The boy tribute from District 11, Thresh, has the same dark skin as Rue, but the resemblance stops there.”
The reason I chose to review this particular writers description was because I remembered missing that Rue was black. Totally pictured her differently, maybe thinking she was tan or of European descent. I think since my skin color is dark or some would say olive, I associated Collins description in my head as just that “satiny brown”. Now why was it important to me as a reader that my picture in my head was not what Collins had wanted me to think? Well when she later described the MC Katniss visiting District 11 and all the people there were black, it hit me. I paused, thought back to the first introduction of Rue and had really messed this up. I hated having to go back and re-build the picture in my head of Rue. Not because she was back, but because I had pictured her wrong and didn’t really understand the character. It was frustrating.
I realize that as a society our senses and emotions are heightened on the matter of skin color but we always say it doesn’t matter and we are all created equal. But after all my research of varied opinions, and thoughtful consideration on this issue, I’ve come to the conclusion that it does in fact matter. It is a part of who we are, where our ancestors came from, and that we do really care. We are all created differently with different cultural backgrounds, thoughts, feelings and skin color. These differences makes us individuals and sometimes we need to recognize what make us special by just stating the obvious; my character is an individual who is black.