Character Descriptions: A Perspective on “Coloring” to Your Fictional World

Neon Sign

There is a pancake house in my area that has the brightest sign on the street. Electric blues, yellows and pinks flash across the screen advertising specials and hours of operation. Among all the other businesses, this restaurant is impossible to miss. It’s as visually loud as those Starship Enterprise klaxons warning everyone aboard of danger. It nearly blinds me when I drive past it day or night. If the purpose of the bright, annoying sign is to bring attention to the business, mission accomplished.

That’s what I think of when I read character descriptions like this: “Joe, an African-American man in his fifties, enters the room and…”

Drives me nuts. Why? Because I’d been reading the story at a nice clip, immersed in characters that are identified by name, some character trait or speech pattern and then I get a lazy ethnic description like the one above. For me, it reads like that glaring pancake house sign. It’s is as if being black, or Hispanic or Asian is an anomaly in a world where only white characters are supposed to exist.

My first question is always, “Why do I need to know this?” I mean, is it necessary that this character be so blatantly identified? Is their ethnic identity relevant to the plot or relationship to other characters? To me, it’s jarring, especially if none of the other characters are described in this fashion. We may know that Suzy is a drunk, or Mike is a chain smoker, or maybe “Jack had the bluest eyes I’d ever seen.” We always know that someone is Asian or Hispanic or African-American because that is usually how they are identified. But how many times have you read “the Italian-American banker” or “the German-Irish actress?”

I had this discussion with a couple of writers. Opinions ranged from just wanting to add color to their fictional world, to “I’m a writer, I should be able to write what I want.” That’s fine. But I go back to my original questions: Why do I need to know this? Is it necessary?

I’ve always heard in craft sessions that every word in a story, whether it’s short fiction or a novel, must count. It must serve a purpose. It should move the story along, provide information about a character that is relevant to their arc, and/or help paint a picture in my mind. If removal of the ethnic tag does nothing to alter your story, then ask yourself, “Why is it there?” Does it matter if one reader perceives the character as black and another reader sees the same character as white? As the author, you might imagine that particular character a certain way. But as the reader, do I have to?

Sometimes the distinction is necessary. For example, the book-length manuscripts I’ve written take place in my hometown of Gary, Indiana during a time when there were no or very few black residents. As a black woman, some of my main characters tend to look like me and the plot deals with their interactions and perceptions within this very specific setting and time period. Ethnicity serves a purpose in the story, yet I try– TRY– to let the readers know this without resorting to lazy labels (unless it needs to come from the character’s point-of-view.) These are some of the ones I’ve used:

(He) sat before the Skinner pipe organ, flexing fingers almost as long and colorless as the ivory keys.

Her skin, a smidge darker than the Lake Michigan shoreline on a rain-soaked afternoon, melded with the simple earth-tone frock she wore.

He lifted his arms and watched his natural skin tone, a polished bronze, seep beneath his guise down to the fingertips of his right hand.

Another writer friend of mine, Ron Trigg, author of The Alluring Temptress, asked our group to critique a short memoir he’d written. He’d visited the hometown of Harper Lee and had observed how racial relations had changed since the time period set in the book. Not once did he use an ethnic label. In his usual melodic prose, he wrote about adults in traditional African garb, students practicing for a black history program and citizens clad in NASCAR t-shirts. No stereotypical names or speech patterns. No glaring neon signs in a piece with an obvious racial theme.

I thanked him.

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About Michelle McGill-Vargas

Michelle hails from Gary, Indiana where she enjoys writing historical fiction, flash fiction, and short stories. Her writings have appeared in "Lutheran Witness", "Splickety Magazine", "The Copperfield Review", and "Typehouse Literary Magazine." She served as vice-president of the Indiana Writers' Consortium. Until the day her historical fiction manuscripts get published, she pays the bills as a special education administrator with a background in deaf education. In October 2018, she will be a contributor to Concordia Publishing House's quarterly devotional series "Portals of Prayer." Visit her blog at www.michellemcgillvargas.wordpress.com
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4 Responses to Character Descriptions: A Perspective on “Coloring” to Your Fictional World

  1. Krystal Jane says:

    It’s difficult. People do assume the character is white in most cases unless we say otherwise or use an obvious last name like Sanchez or some other obvious, almost stereotypical trait. There is a way to do it, of course, without beating people over the head with it, but it matters to me that my characters come across the way I see them. It doesn’t seem fair that it’s easier to describe white Americans, but that’s the way it is so I work with it. But yeah, I agree it shouldn’t be a giant, flashing neon sign. That’s funny. 🙂

    • I just think that, as writers, we should be able to use our talent with words to make better descriptions of people. As diverse as people of color are, you think it’d be easier to describe us. We’re more than just “the African-American woman who…”

  2. Rachael says:

    Jewish American, Mexican American, African American, and Canadian American are what I have heard, otherwise one figures a white person is being spoken about. I am from the region, been here for all of my 60 years. Grew up in the Brunswick area of Gary, where my parents (who were from the east side) married and bought a house in 1952. Are you a published author? Your stories of long ago in the region sound interesting!

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