6

I'm trying to describe a character in a story and I'm having issues describing her appearance. She is a black woman with specific (vitiligo like) markings and I don't know how to write that.

I don't plan on saying black women or anything like that, I just want to specify here black because shes more of African decent(so if I said woman of color I don't want her to be mistaken as Asian,Indian etc.) I like describe my characters in detail so the reader can get a good image of what they look like. She's a main character and is to be portrayed beautiful yet unique. it's a fairytale styled story.

Ex for other random charters off the top of my head. (A more "romantic feel for a woman) "There she stood with her shimmering copper hair blowing in the wind. She was tall and slender with smooth olive skin rich brown eyes that captivated any who looked her way." (gloomy creepy guy) "glaring Calli's way with his cold blue eyes she froze. He had a bold nose and high cheek bones, His pale colorless flesh made him appear as if he were a corps recently risen from the grave"

  • 2
    What's wrong with describing her as you just have? – Thomo Oct 19 '16 at 1:20
  • 1
    Your description above is fine. Just be sure to use positive language in your story when describing racial characteristics. – Tim Oct 19 '16 at 1:48
  • 2
    I had to google "vitiligo". If you are not writing to an audience of dermatologists you might want to use a description instead of, or in addition to, the term. – user5645 Oct 19 '16 at 4:59
  • It sounds like you're talking specifically about describing skin colour with sensitivity to race and racism. If you are, I wonder whether you could help the question help others by editing it slightly to make that explicit? – Cakebox Oct 19 '16 at 9:55
  • @Thomo or any shade of brown?--my question exactly. – Lew Oct 19 '16 at 20:38
9

If you want to describe a dark-skinned person with vitiligo, just say that her skin is dark with light spots. Which words you use exactly, and how much detail your description has, will depend on how the narrator feels about that character's skin and what effect you want your description to have on the reader. Here are some examples:

Heather stared at Paula's mud-colored skin with its ugly pink spots in disgust.

or:

When they were kids, Heather liked to outline the light patches on Paula's dark skin, imagining her friend to be a human-shaped planet, and the tiny people that might live on that map.

Personally I find vitiligo incredibly sexy and always wanted a girlfriend who had it. Now I even know what it's called :-)

  • My goodness-- brilliant answer! – Numi Oct 20 '16 at 11:00
2

I can see where your issues might come from.

Firstly, try not to use the word vitiligo. It is a medical term, and as @what said, you're obviously not writing for an audience of dermatologists.

Often, we don't say black woman we say woman of colour instead, as this has a better connotation (to certain people). If I were you, instead of saying vitiligo markings you could just say skin speckled with white.

Standing boldly was a woman of colour, her skin speckled with white markings.

That would be an example sentence based off the things I just said.

Conclusion:

  • Say woman of colour not black woman

  • Check if a word is used in science/medicine, if so, try not to use it in fiction. But, of course that is only if the word is really complex and no one will understand it (like vitiligo which even the computer underlines)

Don't worry, I bet it'll come out totally fine :)

  • yea its a fairy tale fiction story and she doesn't even really have vitiligo but states that here so people would know what I'm talking about because saying pale spots sounds kinda corny ^^'.... and thank you! – Kali Oct 19 '16 at 10:56
  • 1
    @Lythric "White markings" suggests painted skin to me. – user5645 Oct 19 '16 at 21:02
  • The problem with "woman of colour" is that it describes almost every Asian Indian woman, besides all the non-white African women. – RonJohn Apr 1 at 21:46
1

I've upvoted Lythric's answer. I think both points could stand elaborating, and it turned out too long for comments, so:

  • Check if a word is used in science/medicine, if so, try not to use it in fiction. But, of course that is only if the word is really complex and no one will understand it (like vitiligo which even the computer underlines)

I disagree — it's good to use the appropriate technical language, if your narrator would know and use it.

You need to be clever and contextualise the language so we understand what it means, but when you do it right, it builds your credibility as an author and the plausibility of the story. Plus, learning new stuff is cool.

Your narrator might or might not be someone who uses the technical term. But use what they would use. And understand that lots of people do — women with endometriosis, for example, don't call it 'mysterious stomach pain', they mostly call it 'endometriosis' or 'endo'.


  • Say woman of colour not black woman

This is good advice because woman of colour is the wording that's modern and respectful. Use it if (a) your narrator is both of those things; or (b) you are making a conscious decision to make his/her language both of those things.

What I'm saying is be conscious of the decisions you're making about language.

What I'm categorically not saying is you must embrace offensive or upsetting language in the bloody-minded pursuit of historical accuracy. Historical accuracy is only one of the things you need to balance in your writing, and perfect historical accuracy is impossible anyway.

There are many good reasons you would choose option B above. For example, you might want your story to make people happy, or find a wide audience, and have guessed that many people of colour don't want to read a story containing yet another reminder of how recently people like them could be lynched. It's okay — it might even be a good thing — for you to write in a way that respects that. Just be mindful that you're doing it and understand why.


Long story short: When you choose language, think about its impact on character.

Once you've done that, it's perfectly appropriate to balance with other considerations, too.

  • +1 for your notes on my thoughts about the use of 'vitiligo'. By the way, really good advice with when you choose language, think about its impact on character. – Daniel Cann Oct 19 '16 at 14:20
1

I don't know a single person who uses "of African descent" in everyday speech and the people I spend time with are pretty accepting, liberal-Democrat New Jersey sorts of people. The black people I know call themselves "black" when talking to me. While it may be language a narrator would use (depending on the tone) and my experience is limited to my specific circumstances, books that read like politicians speak tend not to be page-turners.

So when you're deciding on the language you're going to use, I suggest keeping in mind that the words you use and when you use them are equally important tools.

Viewers visualize characters as being like them, unless they're told otherwise. And whatever you tell them first often makes the biggest impression. If the very first thing you write about your character is the color of her skin, you're not creating a character, you're creating, at best, an archetype; at worst, a token character of African descent. It's also worth remembering that "of African descent" doesn't necessarily mean dark-skinned.

And readers will always remember the character, not as the woman who plays the piano and loves skiing and is dark-skinned, but as the African woman of color who plays piano and skis.

Race and appearance are factors in almost every part of our lives. A question worth your time to ask: Why do you want this character to be this particular race? Why is her skin being black (with vitiligo) important to the story you're telling? How is it important to her character? These questions should give you guidance about when to bring these up.

  • Thank you. I try to pay attention to every detail of my stories from scenery to plot like, to language used to specific time frame and details about each character , everything for me must have a meaning. Thats why occasionally I have trouble wording what I see in my head because I'm looking for a specific vibe. Most every characteristic about my characters are important from looks to attitude to what their name is I was just looking for descriptive words.. Mailed an old English professor of mine and got what i needed ^^. – Kali Oct 20 '16 at 14:44

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.