Sunday, July 10, 2011

Colorblind Writing

Every now and then a character decides to blindside me with a piece of the truth that I was oblivious to. I am not a big one for endless character description - I generally give a few sparse details and rely on the imagination of the reader to create the visual.

Partially, this is because I find too much description tedious to read, but mostly because I don't look at people as a collection of physical characteristics, but rather, as a dynamic bundle of changing expressions and moods. My kids used to accuse my husband of becoming Jaffar when he got mad, and it is true, he does turn red and grow VERY large when he is angry. It is this alchemy of the human appearance that interests me, and that cannot be captured by a simple catalog of physical attributes.

Occasionally, I am caught out by this lack of focus on specific appearance. For example, in my WIP, The Arc Riders, Trouble with Mexicans, I describe a secondary character as having black hair and eyes and very smooth skin. I had it in my head that he came from a troubled background, but as he only occupies half a dozen pages and most of those are action scenes, his background and specific lineage/history were not all that important.

Until today: I have decided to write a short story about this character for an anthology my writing group is putting together and in the process of beginning that story I discovered that he is black. Of course my subconscious brain said, "Well, DUH!" and promptly supplied the complete visual. I felt like an idiot. If anyone had asked me exactly what this character looked like, I would have told them he was 6'1", black, with close-cropped hair, sporting razored knot-work lines at the nape, full-lips and dramatically high cheekbones. He comes from South-Central LA and was in foster-care and suffered terrible abuse in his childhood. All of that information was there, just waiting for me to bring it to the surface. No one asked, and worse - I hadn't asked myself.

On the one hand, I am pleased that a black character didn't stand out to me as remarkable - I would love to live in a world where the color of someone's skin didn't matter. On the other hand, I might need to learn to put just a bit more information into the physical descriptions of my characters so that my readers don't feel blindsided. He's black?!?! What do you meant, he's black?!

What do you think? Is colorblindness as an author a good thing, or a bad thing?


vp chandler said...

That's an interesting question and I'm not sure how to answer. On the one hand, I think the character's personality is the most important part but we are a very visual society. We want to know if he/she is 6 feet tall, etc. I think that skin color is no more important than eye color unless it has made the character who he/she is today or is extremely relevant to how others in the story relate to him/her.

Pamela Toler said...

Unfortunately, until we live in a world where color is irrelevant, color helps shape a character's experience. If we're colorblind, we're missing layers about characters.

Eddie Louise said...

Pamela - you do have a point - no matter how much it galls me! And I do LOVE layers!

vp - my grandson said "G'Ma, the outsides are important because they hold the insides." Out of the mouths of babes!

Stefan Ellery said...

There is something to be said about being sparse with your characters description. I tend to fill in my character description bit by bit, I really don't want to give all the details upfront. Saying a list specifics can be boring to the reader.

Eddie Louise said...

Stefan - I agree, few things are more boring than a laundry list of characteristics!

Doug Hagler said...

Belated, but it seems to me that color-blindness is necessary for an author, but that the point of view character makes a big difference. I think that a white POV character would notice black people and note that, but might describe other white people without noticing race. Vice versa for a black character. It seems like an author needs to consider the world of the POV, the assumptions, how race functions for them. As much as that can be known, anyway.

This reminds me of a discussion about images of the "default human being" - brought up while discussing why Japanese animation characters often appear "white". The point was that for the Japanese, a Japanese person is a "default human being", and so they don't necessarily see "white" characters when we do.

vaughnroycroft said...

I've thought about this a lot. But a bif part of my historical fantasy story is based on the clashes between the Romans and the Goths. Throughout my research, the racial differences were noted by the writers of the day time and again. I incorporated the racism into my story. In the series I interject the Huns to the plot, and used almost verbatim descriptions of contemporary Romans for my POV characters reactions to their first exposure to a new race. The Huns wreaked havoc on Europe when they arrived, and Roman writers like Jordanes and Ammianus found the racial differences abhorent.

I recently participated in a re-read of LoTR on Tor,com. The moderator, Kate Nepveu, a Korean-American, pointed out Tolkien's use of racial sterotypes for his antagonists (dark, swarthy, sallow, slant-eyed, etc.).
I had never noticed.

Ms. Nepveu's view of how offensive such racial treatment can be to certain readers has stayed with me. I worry that some readers will see my characters' racism as my own, or will be turned off from the story, or at the least distracted. I've yet to have anyone of Asian heritage read, so I'm still unsure about it.

I guess I have sort of the opposite problem you had, but still a very intersting topic, Eddie.

Eddie Louise said...

Vaughn - I agree the worry might be that any prejudice is ascribed to you - although with an historical approach, a good author's note can help mitigate that.

So much to think about!!!

vaughnroycroft said...

Brilliant idea on the author's note, Eddie. At the very least I think it would make me feel better, having my views clarified. Thanks so much!