Yes, this is important! – About character depictions, skin tone and political correctness

I lately witnessed a debate on one of my writer’s forums which was pretty much the following: If describing a person’s skin-tone, don’t resort to food. I have seen this done before. I have seen it done in a way that I would deem okay. I also have seen it in a way that was horrible and objectifying (and I am not in the least surprised that the latter example came from a New Adult romance/erotica novel – there’s a reason why I don’t read that genre unless you hold a gun to my head or threaten me with life-long cookie-withdrawal).

Now, some POCs seem to be completely fine with their skin-tone being depicted as “caramel coloured skin” whilst others feel massively offended. I am white and caucasian, so I like to err on the safe side of political correctness. While editing “Prodigy” I came across a passage that looked problematic. I had referred to one of my side characters, Joaquin, as having “dark honey coloured skin”. What I had in my head was the colour you get when you have bees who only collect honey in the forest and then you spread that out evenly about half a centimeter thick and this is exactly the colour I imagine this character’s skin to have. Joaquin is mixed race as are several others in the book. I realized I couldn’t go with the honey-thing and asked for other words and descriptions for exactly that colour.

Entrance politically correct writer number 1 (WPCW#1) – who is just as white and caucasian as me – and asks whether I have to go out of my way to describe the skin-tone and whether I am doing it for all characters.

Firstly, this doesn’t answer my question.

Secondly, I actually gave this question some thought.

I have to say that, yes, I need to describe their looks. I am not going out of my way to do it, but I actually have face-casts for my characters (I have a file with photos I stole from the internet and use as references) and I also believe that it is necessary for my reader to know what they look like. Not only does it create a better picture of the character, but it also tells you something about the world that the story is set in. With “Prodigy” I am writing a near future world which has undergone massive changes due to the Climate Catastrophe. The setting of City 5 is in the middle of Europe, in what used to be Berlin.

So if I give this to a caucasian reader who has a mostly white circle of friends and I don’t give them descriptions that hint at a character’s ethnicity, they will – by default – think everyone in this story is white and probably also central European. I have somebody from Spain though, a few Scandinavians, my mixed-race Africam/European boy with the problematic skin-tone, someone with a Native American background and one of my protagonists is half-Japanese. A well-versed person can guess their ethnicity from their names in most cases, but I know that I have whitewashed characters in my head before, if their ethnicity wasn’t clearly stated. It might be the easiest way to just not write about a character’s skin-tone and hair-structure in order to be super politically correct, but it doesn’t suffice. In my opinion, diversity is not the default in all reader’s heads so if you want a diverse cast, you will have to write them as diverse.

As to the issue I had with the “dark honey coloured” skin, I got some helpful feedback from people. One POC person told me, honey-coloured was a great description (not helpful, but thank you anyways). Someone else suggested “old gold” as a solution. I had an epiphany in the end and have used “dark amber coloured” now, which I believe is pretty perfect for Joaquin.

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