Describing people of colour

Katie Johnstone  
Giving rich visual descriptions of characters can help bring your story to life! Here are some helpful tips I found for describing people of colour.

I recently did a bit of research on describing people of colour in fiction, and I wanted to share what I learned. First off I should say that I'm a white writer, but the information in this post comes from writers of colour. It's important for me to give credit to my sources, and I highly recommend you check them out:

- 'Writing tip: POC characters', by Ninja Dust Publishing

- 'Describing POC Skin Color in Fiction | Easy Writing Tutorial To Improve Your Writing People of Color', by Free Writing Resources

- And I found two posts on helpful:



Here are the tips I picked up:

- If a character is white, say they are white. Don't expect the reader to assume all characters are white by default. Some writers will say that such and such a character is Black and such and such a character is Latina, but they don't mention the race of (assumed) white characters. This can come across as a bit racist.

Of course, you can find subtle ways to show race rather than stating it outright. For instance, if a character has an afro the reader will know she's Black, while if a character has red hair, the reader will know she's white.

- Giving a character's ethnicity is not the same as describing what they look like. If you say a character is Black, the reader has no clue about their physical appearance, because there are a lot of different ways Black people can look. Beyonce, Lupita Nyong'o and Megan Markle are all Black, but they don't look anything alike. If you want the reader to picture the character a certain way, you need to provide a physical description.

- Using food to describe the appearance of people of colour is seen as cliched and maybe a bit racist. It's best to avoid saying someone's skin is like coffee or chocolate, or their eyes are almond-shaped.

- Give POC characters the same level of description you give white characters. Some writers write long, detailed descriptions of white characters, but when it comes to POC characters they just say 'she was Asian' or 'he was Black'.

- The Tumblr links above provide examples of interesting adjectives you can use (like 'ocher' and 'mahogany') and some examples of beautiful descriptions of different skin tones. For example: "His skin was an ochre color, much like the mellow-brown light that bathed the forest." I highly recommend checking out that Tumblr for more tips!

As an English writer I'd like to add a tip of my own: the word 'Asian' has different meanings depending where you are in the world. Believe it or not, here in the UK when we say someone is Asian we mean their ancestors might come from India, Pakistan, Iraq, Egypt, Morocco, Afghanistan, or Syria. On the other hand, when Americans or Canadians say someone is Asian they mean someone whose family background might lie in China, Japan, or Korea. It's worth keeping in mind that the word 'Asian' might cause confusion for some readers. When possible, I think it's better to mention a specific country rather than just saying someone is Asian.

And that's all I've got for now. Happy writing!

Image attribution: Photo by Clarke Sanders ,



- Using food to describe the appearance of people of colour is seen as cliched and maybe a bit racist. It’s best to avoid saying someone’s skin is like coffee or chocolate, or their eyes are almond-shaped.

As a person of color, I find this precious, and not in a good way. Skin color descriptions have to reference familiar items, not designer paint-chip names. As a general rule, the items referenced have positive connotations- coffee, tea, mocha. I have described a person as having skin ‘the color of yesterday’s oatmeal’ and nobody took offense, including white people, why would coffee be a problem? I’m not describing the reader, after all. White people are often described, in their presence, in conversation with terms like ‘fish belly white’ (not flattering) or ‘milky white’ (flattering), but both referring to the same basic color (because white people aren’t exactly the same color as either of those, in my experience).

Personally, I find it very racist to be fussy about these things. Use whatever descriptors create the image and tone that you want. The only people I’ve ever seen complain about these things are white people on-line. Perhaps your links have some exceptions, but really, I can’t be bothered.

May-13 at 00:31


What I think is more important that selecting a palate for how you are going to use non-white people, is read the freaking works that show you who this people are. Want African, read Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, want American Black, read Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Ralf Ellison, Maya Angelou. If you want Caribbean black, read Junot Diaz, V.S Naipul. Want Asian, my god, read Salman Rushdie, Juhmpa Lahiri and the list goes on.
That way you will know when to throw a sanitized, I am all white and don’t understand shit, type of descriptor, or understand.

One of my stories got published in a really hip New York Pup called The Seventh Wave to great acclaim. The name of the story “Chocolate Man.” In another story one of my secondary characters was an African American elderly woman, her son that went to Morehouse and medical school (where eventually I ended up working), and her daughter. That story, the house next door, dealt with the good, the bad and the ugly that many people have to go through.

So my advice. Learn the narrative. Do not reduce people to stereotype, regardless of where they are from, learn what demeaning in one culture or the other, but also learn how they talk and express themselves.

May-13 at 00:43


As an English writer I’d like to add a tip of my own: the word ‘Asian’ has different meanings depending where you are in the world. Believe it or not, here in the UK when we say someone is Asian we mean their ancestors might come from India, Pakistan, Iraq, Egypt, Morocco, Afghanistan, or Syria. On the other hand, when Americans or Canadians say someone is Asian they mean someone whose family background might lie in China, Japan, or Korea.

Huh. Learn something new every day. I knew about people from that area using “Asian” for those in the US might call “people of Middle Eastern descent”/Middle Eastern, but thought that was in addition to. (Looks like (British) East and Southeast Asian is the current “proper” term)
I guess that makes sense since, I believe, we cut up the world’s landmasses differently as well

May-13 at 01:15


Not sure why that was addressed to me. Did I advocate reducing people to stereotypes?

May-13 at 01:23


Dude, no. I thought I was responding to the article, not you. I like what you had to say.

May-13 at 01:37


Amen to that.

While we’re on the topic, can we stop with the references to ‘Black’ and ‘white’? Black is a color, not an ethnicity deserving a Proper Noun name, but if anyone still feels a need to capitalize Black (since it’s referring to ‘a people’, I can sort of get that respectful capitalization, even though I still disagree) then White is similarly deserving.

May-13 at 03:39


I describe them through the lens of the POV character, mainly using one identifying physical trait that highlights a key personality trait. In literature, personality is more important than appearance or race.

Is every character politically correct in their viewpoint? Nope, so why would the descriptions be. It would be odd to have an old school London crime boss speaking so correctly. A hormone driven teen age boy must not describe women in salacious terms because it is offensive to women. Yeah, right? TEENAGE BOYS ARE IDIOTS, mostly. A homophobic dude must not use derogatory language towards gay people because it is offensive. Yet what if the story is about the MC’s journey towards acceptance that he is gay or a journey through his own fears that he is gay? Fears that wouldnt exist if there was no such thing as homophobia. I believe a lot of males experience this at some point in life. Not usually spoken about, admittedly. Men don’t talk about such things so easily. But highlighting this through literature can open a dialogue about such issues. The TV show, The Mist, highlights this quite well.
The movie Gran Torino depicts an overt racist who finds greater comfort with the Koreans he is belittling than his own family. It is brilliant, but couldnt have been made if everyone was pandering to delicate sensibilities.
We don’t live in a homogenous world where everyone holds the same morally correct viewpoints.

I could not adequately write an Irish childhood scene set in the 1980s without someone being called a spa (spastic). Not Pc, but those were the times. I also could not write that time without characters using overtly racist and homophobic terminology. Ask my cousin, the only black girl in my town at the time, or my gay next door neighbour from back then what they would think about my depiction of 80s Ireland if I wrote it with modern PC views. It simply wouldnt ring true, nor highlight the difficulties those people faced.
In fact, it would be downright insulting.

To offer a glimpse at how niave and ignorant the people were at the time, my grandfather never even realised my cousin was mixed race and would refer to her gorgeous tan even in winter. He had never seen a black person before she was born.
Different times need writing as they were for authenticity. I also dont think it is a bad thing to describe these times as they were because it shows how far we have come since then.

Beyond that there are also situational reasons why descriptions of people of colour might not be favourable. I had a friend who would often call South asians paki cunts. But when delved into the reason behind it, it turned out he had been jumped by six south asians and had the shit kicked out of him and still held onto residual anger from the experience. And when that was dealt with, he wasnt actually racist at all. Experience coloured his view, as it does with us all. So if I were to write his story, for the first half of the book he wouldn’t be being very p.c. about South Asians.
Far too easy to sling the mud in the form of the racist tag. Even more worrying is that some readers cannot seem to distinguish between author and character. Fuck knows why.

If the MC is white, he will likely describe a black person or Asian as black or Asian yet not refer to a white person’s ethnicity. This is not imho racist when the setting is a predominantly white country.
If it was an Asian setting then I would expect white and black ethnicity to be highlighted, but not Asian.

Bottom line. Emotions run high around such issues and the modern world is to quick to jump on people’s heads and lay tags on them. We weren’t born to walk on eggshells, nor write on them. So I do what I stated in my opening line. Write the descriptions through the lens of the POV character, taking into account the character’s life experiences. People are complex, and hold biases against a whole range of things. None of us are perfect and it feels like that is what the world is driving us towards becoming - perfect, with the same views beliefs and philosophies. But that simply isn’t realistic, cos the world isnt simply black and white and we are flawed as fuck. And our characters should be too.

May-13 at 07:58


I’m not a big fan of very detailed physical descriptions. I like when they are more impressionistic and reveal more about the character as a person than merely describe them physically. Like this, from So Long And Thanks For All The Fish:

She was tallish with dark hair which fell in waves around a pale and serious face. Standing still, alone, she seemed almost somber, like a statue to some important but unpopular virtue in a formal garden. She seemed to be looking at something other than what she looked as if she was looking at.

This description does more to tell us about Fenchurch’s character than her body. I rarely really remember physical descriptions anyway.

But one thing that has affected how i go about giving descriptions of people of colour is the “controversy” over Rue from The Hunger Games being portrayed by a black actor in the film. For reference, you might read this from the New Yorker in 2012. Despite being described explicitly as black in the novel, many readers seem to have been shocked and offended to see her as black in the film. They had surely all read that physical description, and then forgot it and read the novel with a picture of her as white in their heads.

What I got from that episode was that if something is an important part of a character’s identity, it needs to be there all the time, not just in one forgettable descriptive paragraph.

Since I try to do things other people don’t do in their writing, I’ve written half of a novel where almost no one ever has an explicit racial label or much of a skin color description (one briefly present character is described as a “tall white woman” by police), but one character is a Nigerian immigrant with a very Yoruban name, one is child of Indian parents and talks about speaking Urdu and Telugu and eating daal, and the main character often speaks Spanish and gives a self-description of “vaguely olive” skin, while their father once talks about “people like us with a built-in tan.”

The part of the experiment that isn’t working and I need to rethink it is a black American character who regularly uses AAVE (a.k.a. “Black English”). My plan was to never say he’s black, but almost every time he speaks to make sure the reader knows full well he’s black. I figured I understood the underlying linguistics enough to get away with it, but it’s hard to do it so it doesn’t sound dumb. Since this character is the best educated, most intellectual, most socially integrated, stable, and economically successful person in the story, I wanted to make a point that’s missing a lot: He talks black because why shouldn’t he? Making it work on the page has proven difficult.

But my main motivation is to avoid readers doing what they did to Rue. If something isn’t going to matter in the story, it’s better to leave it out. Maybe the audience will assume everyone is white unless explicitly stated, but you also leave open the possibility for the reader of color to project themselves into the character freely, without you contradicting them.

May-13 at 09:52


Thats the solution to descriptions of characters.

I like your solution to use where the characters come from, how they speak etc to denote race without ever mentioning race. Pretty much what I have planned for my next book.

May-13 at 09:53


“If a character is white, say they are white. Don’t expect the reader to assume all characters are white by default.”

A recipe for inauthentic and stilted sounded writing. Chinua Achebe didn’t say every character in his writing was black skinned, because this would be the norm in Nigeria. Arundhati Roy doesn’t point out that every character in her writing is Indian. So if I’m writing about a small village in rural 1800s England, why should I point out that every character is white?

May-13 at 10:55


The good part of not living in a colour-conscious country is I don’t give a fuck. Indians are various shades of brown, and it isn’t uncommon to find them all in one family. I write characters and deal with their attributes however I wish. I have no comment on the current state of the world or its prejudices. I make up my own for the 25th century, thank you very much.

My blackest character is black. As in properly black, with a bluish tinge that varies because of her symbionts, not race black (which is actually brown). I described her like this from a PoV that admired her:

The 184 year-old global icon remained healthy and productive, unlike humans without symbionts. Her deep black skin glistened with wispy blue overtones in the morning light. It was unknown why symbionts altered her skin colour. The phenonemon had not been observed in others. Her own daughter had wheatish skin, though these days, it was distinctly sun-baked.

At another time from a PoV who began curious, but felt misunderstood and rejected by her:

The skeletal ancient sitting motionless at the table resembled a dark spectre more than the charismatic icon from archival records. Fragile, haunted. Still, she looked more alert than when they’d rescued her.
It was difficult to reconcile this… person with the legendary charm AricNova was known for. Her skin, altered by her symbionts into a glossy black with a shimmering bluish sheen, now looked dull and flaky. It was said she inspired every person who met her and all who knew her loved her. Countless people had left behind their homes to follow her example into a life of relief work during the Enduring War.
Aaxyl wanted to flee.

No clue what AricNova’s race was.

May-13 at 11:49


Don’t expect people to know how environment effects evolution.
Sarcasm aside you raise a good point. Fantasy is the worst offender of this considering writers just assume they can just spawn out of nothing a diverse society.
They generally forget how things like climate, diseases and years of breeding hasn’t erased any minority groups.

May-13 at 11:53


What point are you trying to make ?

May-13 at 11:59


Write character. Everything flows from there.

These things are often taken on as crusades. Determinedly writing a specific skin colour to make a point. For/against is irrelevant. It is the author’s reaction to reality beyond the book. The traits of the characters must interact with the worldbuilding of the story.

May-13 at 12:00


Thumbs up

May-13 at 12:06


There’s your problem right there.

There are, certainly, all kinds of individual differences here, but in my experience American blacks who are well educated, intellectual and socially integrated (in ‘white’ world, as I think you meant) are generally from similar backgrounds in the previous generations, and they turn ‘black English’ on and off at will. When it’s ‘on,’ it’s usually for a reason: to make a point of being black, either as connection to other blacks and avoid being seen as a Tom or similar, or as a reminder to white people around them that yes, they are black, and yes, they know the white people are always conscious of that.

Not all of them have a natural grasp of black English- sometimes it sounds, especially to other black people, like a caricature.

Back in the 1960s in Los Angeles, nobody talked ghetto. When I worked in Compton in the 80s, bangers and wannabes talked ghetto. It’s practically an invention of Rap, and hence of the CIA. There were certainly differences, but they were subtle. The rural southern/poor Anglo patterns that seem very prominent now existed, but blacks whose speech was heavy with such elements tended to be looked down on by urban blacks who spoke standard English- which was most of them, in my experience.

If you want to be authentic with these issues, you have to have some experience, some direct observation, to base your work on. And some readers without that experience, especially when ideological issues are forefront in their minds, simply will not get it.

May-13 at 13:08


Yes, I know. This character is someone who can whip out standard American English (and three other languages) any time he wants to. And does in a number of places. But speaking with friends, he doesn’t. It’s a science fiction story so I can make things not exactly as they are right now, but essentially his friends don’t have trouble understanding him and he doesn’t have trouble understanding them, so why shouldn’t he speak the kind of English most natural to him?

He’s based vaguely on a guy I used to work with who spoke mixed-code Jamaican English with Anglos like me and Canadian street French with everyone else, but worked the telephone order desk with me at Pizza Hut Montreal. When someone called in and asked for a pizza in English, he spoke the whitest Canadian English you’ve ever heard. You would never for a moment have imagined he was black on the phone.

Not exactly. This is science fiction, set in Chicago in the late 2060s. This is not all that white a place, or even all that white a world. It’s not “post-racial” it’s just there aren’t that many people around identifying as white.

I’ve been known to shock people by saying that Iggy Azalea speaks more authentic AAVE than Drake does.

I used to teach a class where we walked through the differences between North American French and Standard French for half a semester, and then the differences between American Standard English and AAVE, teaching the students how to express those differences in conventional linguistic theory terms and using recordings as examples to give them concrete experience connecting what they can hear to what specific linguistics concepts mean.

AAVE is a language, or in more neutral linguistics terms, a “variant”. It has distinctive features that differentiate it from more standard forms of English. It’s not slang, or a recent invention. There are lengthy books documenting those features, written in sterile scientific language by guys with tenured professorships.

Languages don’t have a natural “race” and nothing biological compels black people to speak AAVE or even prevents white people from doing so. Politics might, but that’s a different problem.

That’s the problem. Reading it on the page doesn’t create the sound in people’s heads that I want it to have. It’s a neat idea but I can’t find a way to execute it. If I was a regular AAVE speaker or surrounded by them, maybe I could pull it off, but from my apartment in Berlin it’s just not going to happen. So I need to rethink this character, but I haven’t come up with a way to yet.

May-13 at 13:32


First time blog poster Katie Johnstone describes a short list of helpful tips for white writers, and as expected, the purists pounce: “Don’t tell me how to write!” No wonder CC is having difficulties keeping the blog going. When will some members finally realize that “tips” are not commandments, and that what one author finds helpful doesn’t mean she’s dissing your style? If the tip doesn’t apply to you, then ignore it and move on. Critique Circle is a place to discover your weaknesses and improve your writing skills. Be kind!

May-13 at 23:57
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