A question asked in the Legendfire Writing Critique Forum I help moderate focused on clothing aspects of character descriptions. My reply on the thread expanded that to the wider viewpoint of how clothing and the overall outward presentation of a character can differ based on culture and ethnicity and/or race and influence how the character is perceived and treated. I thought I’d post this discussion here as well. (Caveat: I live in America, so this mostly discusses readers within America or Europe.)
There is a lot of diversity in outward appearance (including clothing, make-up, tattoos, and other outward presentations). How people choose to present themselves outwardly is based on their personality, their upbringing, their culture and/or religion, and their racial or ethnicity identity. When writing a protagonist who interacts with folks from varied cultures and ethnicities, the descriptions of outward appearance and/or how the protagonist reacts to other people’s outward appearances is a huge indicator of how biased or accepting the protagonist is toward that person or the person’s particular culture or religion.
As a caveat, I personally love the details for such things because it broadens the world-building, diversifies the characters, and makes them distinct. Without these details, characters tend to feel generic, like a blank slate, and the attempts at diversity falls short. These generic “let the reader imagine the character!” types of approaches fails to show the diversity with outward appearance and how this may affect the person’s movement (or freely or oppressed) within various cultures. Outward appearance also gives insight into the mental likes and dislikes, socioeconomic status, cultural norms, and even the person’s thought patterns and actions.
For example, the socioeconomic status of a person often differs in clothing — a rich business man can afford expense suits and may hold himself with a confidence that makes him stand out in the crowd. So, when writing about one, having a few details about the expensive suit and posture in context to others is more than enough to make it clear this dude is rich. On the other end, a poor person cannot afford such a suit, so they may have an outfit that is put together to look as nice as possible, but none of different components of the outfit are the same brand and some parts may be older and more worn. The poor person may not feel as confident and their posture or other gestures may give that away — that description reveals they are poorer than the businessman and gives insight into their internal sense of self.
This is just me being generic with social class alone. Think of all the other identities a person has outside of their socioeconomic class: gender identity, sexual orientation, ethnicity, religion, cultural heritage — all of these affect what people wear and how they present themselves and how they navigate society within the character’s plot and character arc.
Also, there is the problem that if you don’t describe an individual who isn’t a white person, then readers will default to imagining a white person. It’s a fairly well documented phenomenon.
Here’s a few links where folks discuss this frustration and provides evidence for this:
- Nnedi Okorafor Twitter Discussion on This.
- White until proven Black in Hunger Games.
- Neil Gaiman’s discussion of it.
- Perception of Race in Literature.
- Unmasking white default by Kirkus reviews.
- About the idea of defaulting to whiteness <– interesting perspective.
Neil Gaiman in particular brings up a great point. He described in Anasazi Boys a dinner characters had that was what Black people in the Caribbean would have eaten, and he did indeed describe race — as these were folks whose ethnicity was from the Caribbean. But he still got angry emails from folks angry that he got his research wrong and white southern folks actually eat this other food. The problem? These readers had imagined the characters as white and ignored their ethnicity entirely, and thus what the characters ate differed from what they imagined white people would eat in that same situation.
Yes, even if the writer did their research, folks still have a tendency to white-wash the characters despite details in the text proving otherwise. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t ever describe such details. We can’t change this socialized aspect of society unless we make it more prevalent in our fiction. The more these descriptors make diversified people distinct, the more we challenge the white as default notion, the more likely we can alter how folks are socialized to see characters in literature.
In all honesty, if there are diverse characters in your stories, and you don’t describe a few details in a sentence or two to make the who they are clear — then often folks default to what is socialized as the default setting for humanity: white and white people traditions (traditions dependent on region). Sure, this is often unconscious judgement calls on the part of readers, but without slipping in these details in a seamless fashion, this unconscious bias never gets challenged, and a part of the story is lost.
Details about a character isn’t just outward appearance or personality clues either.
Culture is made up of lots of different elements that hugely influence folks lives: food, dialects, ways of greeting others, what behaviors are allowed to be seen in public without arising ire and retaliation (often called ‘norms’), rules of friendship (as in how intimate friendships can be without being considered a romantic relationship), specific restrictions on the gender or racial roles in a society, and other cultural/religious norms that influence how we act, often without our realizing it.
A lot of these cultural and/or religious norms/roles are socialized into us from a very young age, and we may not be fully aware of the bias these norms may create. It can take a lot of self-reflection and growth to undo these biases. As much as it affects all of us, it will definitely affect the character and how the character navigates through situations and various societies.
Common opposition to character descriptions is that too much description of a character’s outward appearance or cultural/religious heritage bogs down the story, and this is also simply not true. This isn’t an either/or conundrum. There are some books that do overdescribe, but there are other books that do it seamlessly, where the reader takes in the description and visualizes that character and doesn’t recognize it as “character description.”
It is essential for writers to understand that there are ways to slip in description seamlessly without it burdening down the story. Without these seamless descriptions of characters (as I have described above), the characters can run the danger of feeling barebones or just a placeholder. The world may not feel as vivid or as intimate. It can be a difficult balance when it comes to character descriptions, but it is possible to learn and practice this technique in a writer’s toolkit.
To see examples of how description of characters is woven seamlessly into stories, I highly, highly suggest reading anything by:
- Nnedi Okorafor,
- Neil Gaiman,
- Julie Czerneda,
- N.K. Jemisim,
- Tamora Pierce,
- Frank Herbert
- Gabriel García Márquez
- J.R.R. Tolkien
- Nalo Hopkinsin
This is just to get you started as there are plenty more great writers out there that do seamless descriptions of characters. The one on the above list are writers who write either science fiction and/or fantasy. I suggested them because their use of character descriptions — outward and inward — are seamless and paints the character, scene movement, and character’s place in the world vividly.
Read with the eyes of a writer and take in how other writers handle these issues. See how it can be applied to your own writing, and be willing to read beyond your comfort zone and comfort your own possible biases. I provided a list of authors from a wide variety of backgrounds on purpose to assist in this process. And to be honest, this is something I do often when I read, because it is through this process I can learn more techniques for my writer’s toolkit and better hone my own unique style.
What are other writer’s thoughts?