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A character looks at another character, skin colour creates certain associations. A character looks at himself, and associations would be shaped by society, and by what is "normal" in that society. What we refer to as "black", for example covers a huge range of brown shades, that would only be jumbled together as "black" where "white" is the "norm". "Brown" is an even more confusing category, that appears to be a catch-all for all the shades that are neither "black" nor "white". And all those distinctions are only half about actual colour, other half being things like ethnicity.

Now, I need to throw away all those weird cultural associations, and start from scratch. Both novels I am currently working on are set in the Middle East (or a fantasy version thereof), so the range of Middle-Eastern skin colours is the "norm".

I am narrating my stories in third-person, one limited, the other - omniscient. Culturally, my "narrator voice" is very much where my characters are.

Under those constraints, how do I describe my MCs' ("brown") skin colour? (Other characters can sort of follow from the MC's baseline and the MC's perception.) I have so far used "tanned", but that isn't right at all - it suggests that the character is naturally paler than they currently appear, which is not what I'm trying to describe. "Brown" doesn't really work either, for the reasons explained above, and also because it's not really descriptive - so many shades of brown. And it would be strange, I think, to describe my MCs' appearance in exotic terms, since they're supposed to be pretty much the norm.

(It might be that I'm having a blind spot, because this is what I look like. Since it's mine, it's just "skin" to me.)

This question is related, but its point of reference is different, and the accepted answer has a "Houston, we have a problem" in the exact colour range that I'm trying to describe. This one is about describing a "white" character in a "non-white" setting, while mine is about describing the average "non-white" character in the same setting.

EDIT: A valid concern has been raised, as to why I need to mention skin colour at all. Two reasons:

  1. Because if the characters were Caucasian, I would not have struggled to describe their skin colour, and I would have mentioned it in passing (one character being tanned from spending a lot of time outside, another having pale, almost translucent skin, etc.) so it's weird to avoid describing a different skin colour just because the frame of reference is not Caucasian.
  2. Because through the MC, I wish to set the norm for the society I'm describing. I also wish for the freedom within that norm: if I mention a character is pale, having spent most of their life indoors, I want this to be the pallor of a princess in Japanese legend, not the pallor of a redhead.
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    Interestingly, in my language there is a word for that skin color and it is not 'tanned'. It has nothing to do with tan. Google translator suggests translations 'dark', 'swarthy', 'dusky', 'swart' and some others which are blatantly wrong. Dunno if any of these is correct. – rus9384 Feb 11 at 15:49
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    I struggle with this in my stories even where white could be the reference. I want it to not be the reference. I don't want black or brown to be the reference. These colors are so 1980s computer graphics. I strive to maintain a rich pallet of hues in my work. But it still feels I miss the mark I want to reach. – Ed Grimm Feb 12 at 1:20
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    "Since it's mine, it's just "skin" to me." Seems like that's an answer right there: just call it skin and/or don't mention the color. – Todd Wilcox Feb 12 at 3:44
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    @KonradRudolph I actually only think of my skin colour when looking for make-up, or clothes styling advice. For the first case, it's "medium". For the second, "olive" produces best results with Google. When explaining that I wouldn't want to live in Europe because my skin colour makes me more susceptible to Season Affect Disorder, I'm "relatively dark". Skin colour is not part of my identity, so describing it is case-by-case. – Galastel Feb 13 at 1:17
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    If you've ever read it, the Earthsea series does a pretty good job of doing this: tawny, copper, clay-colored, dirt-colored, like coal, etc., etc.—maybe it's a good exercise to write as if your character were caucasian (since it's your point of reference) and replace adjectives appropriately, maintaining their relation? – AmagicalFishy Feb 13 at 2:51

11 Answers 11

31

I have had many friends from the Middle East and their skin tones ranged from essentially white to soft brown. I found a more telling feature that seemed to set them apart were some slight similarities in facial features.

Mention of the MC’s skin tone need not be made. Your character could notice that others are paler than he or darker than he. You could even have some horse related theme since the Arabs are culturally people of the horse.

You could have him notice that his skin is the color of one of his favourite spices.

Tea is almost a religion there, those with dark skin could be seen as resembling strong tea.

When it came to horses, darker colour ones were thought to fare worse in the sun so were eschewed.

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    +1 for not mentioning MC's skin tone. He's "normal" & so why talk about it? Other people are pale or dark in comparison. – G. Ann - SonarSource Team Feb 12 at 13:16
  • Comparison of skin (and in particular skin of POC) to food and drinks give me, and I think many people, the jibblies... But +1 for not mentioning the MCs skin. People don't really go around 'noticing' what color their own skin (or eyes or hair) is, and it really breaks immersion for me when an author does that class fanfic-style "MC is getting ready in the morning, looking in the mirror and and listing off the color of their features" thing. – Meg Feb 12 at 20:53
  • Considering the OP is asking for ways to describe skin colour, few options arise. Myself, I prefer characters who don’t go around comparing their skin to trees or various objects. Such a character might notice that cumin, for example, that falls on his hand, disappears. I was taught the Middle Eastern method of making tea and, not having glasses, missed out on the essential raising tea to the light to confirm colour and strength. Tea would be a very positive connection with a strong positive connotation. Are we not all people of colour? Some are just paler. – Rasdashan Feb 12 at 22:26
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I like to equate skin tones with food or natural objects. Caramel, chocolate, cream, sand, etc. Eye and hair color work well this way too.

There are so many beautiful shades of skin it is a shame to leave it out of descriptions. White people tend to focus on hair and eyes and ignore skin aside from the very large divisions of black and brown and white (not that anyone's skin is truly black or white). Or they mention "tanned" which implies a change from the natural color due to leisure or work in the sun.

The Black community in particular has a rich history of naming different skins, and then depicting them in written or visual art. Many other ethnic groups have gorgeous descriptions. Reading how they do it should help fuel your ideas.

People notice if you leave it out. Maybe not white people (they'd notice if you never described hair color), but certainly people from the cultures you're writing about.

In addition to comparing people's colors to natural objects, you can compare them to each other.

"Her lover's skin was translucent against hers. Cream marked with the slightest tint of beet. Her own ebony seemed almost blue in the morning light."

  • Yeah, tying skin back into other concrete things seems the way to go. 'Peach colored skin' is just a statement with no value added, unless you dislike peaches, of course. – Adonalsium Feb 11 at 20:28
  • @Adonalsium Well I'm "allergic" (reactive) to coffee and chocolate, but I think the colors are lovely. :-) – Cyn Feb 11 at 20:31
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    There is pushback against using foods – particularly colonial plantation/exploitation crops like tea coffee and chocolate (which were probably over-used adding to the baggage)… I post this link not to disagree or say it is "wrong", but since there is existing discussion against it, some readers will be prejudiced/forearmed. A few writing blogs link to this website, which seems like a thoughtful resource for this topic (and written by a POC who has gathered other 1st-hand opinions): writingwithcolor.tumblr.com/post/95955707903/… – wetcircuit Feb 11 at 23:07
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    @wetcircuit Good article. Part II is especially useful IMHO. writingwithcolor.tumblr.com/post/96830966357/… – Cyn Feb 11 at 23:26
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    @wetcircuit Did you see this? I found it very helpful. In part because I need to figure out which of my time-traveling characters are going to need the sunscreen some of them brought. People always lump me in with "white" so I figured I'd be maybe a 15 on that scale. Nope. 21. Much better than using a stupid swatch (and I'll tell you, I never realized how un-pink my family is until we starting taking ballet). arpansa.gov.au/sites/g/files/net3086/f/legacy/pubs/… – Cyn Feb 11 at 23:48
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There are plenty of options, but a few factors you should take note of.

If this is a Middle Eastern 'setting', that means it's hot and dry, likely desert-like. Even a Caucasian's skin will darken there before long, tanning. Unless they're a redhead, which usually means they can't 'darken', so they'll likely redden and have freckles like there's no tomorrow.

There are Caucasians in the region, native to the region. This isn't as uncommon as many would think. So the first question you should answer (for yourself) is: how common is this complexion/race in this region? If it's very uncommon or even rare, then everyone's likely to stare.

So what to compare it to? Stones in the region (alabaster), foods/drinks/ingredients (salt, rice, milk, cream--careful with this, for some reason comparing race to food is 'trigger territory' for some people), flowers (desert lily, cactus flower), or even natural features (clouds, sands, fresh snow). Or just say 'pale' if that makes sense in your comparison.

Keep in mind that no culture or identity is monolithic. There's always a percentage of 'other' even within a xenophobic cityscape. People notice differences quicker than similarities, whether in dress, race, hair colour, eye colour, or even facial features. Humans a funny like that.

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    While the examples you're offering are pretty, what made you assume my MCs are Caucasian? (Rereading my question, I see I could have been clearer that this is not the case. Nonetheless, your implicit assumption is exactly why I must set this issue straight early on in my narration.) – Galastel Feb 11 at 15:03
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    @Galastel Because 'Caucasian' is a synonym to 'white' in many cases. They never saw real Caucasians, I guess. But Middle-Easternes are different from those either. – rus9384 Feb 11 at 16:27
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    In the older sense of the word, "Caucasian" applies to Persians as well as Indians, and as Rasdashan implies in their answer and @Fayth85 hints in mentioning Caucasians native to the region; it is more distinguished by facial features – user1675016 Feb 11 at 19:45
  • @Galastel The default in Western literature is straight white male. Anything outside this 'standard' is a modifier. There was no mention of what the MC is, therefore...? I wish this wasn't the case, mind you. Most of my MCs are queer women of colour. And each time I have to defend why. So why is it I'm wrong for assuming exactly what every reader automatically assumes, and use the 'standard' for examples? – Fayth85 Feb 11 at 23:03
  • I said "the range of Middle-Eastern skin colours is the "norm"" and then "it would be strange to describe my MCs' appearance in exotic terms, since they're supposed to be pretty much the norm." So it was kinda hidden, but it was there. :) I wasn't planning to use this question as an experiment, (and forgetting to explicitly state what I've implied wasn't planned either,) but it is actually very helpful to see how explicit I have to be when talking about skin colour. – Galastel Feb 11 at 23:20
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The term I see most authors use for in-between tones these days is "olive complexion"

From behind the WP link, for those who care about definitions:

Olive skin is a human skin color spectrum. It is often associated with pigmentation in the Type III to Type IV and Type V ranges of the Fitzpatrick scale. It generally refers to light or moderate brown, brownish, or tannish skin, and it is often described as having yellowish, greenish, or golden undertones

... and here's a part relevant to your Middle-East mileu:

Type V pigmentation is frequent among populations from the Middle East, parts of the Mediterranean, parts of Africa, Latin America, and the Indian subcontinent. It ranges from olive to tan, Middle Eastern skin tones. This skin type very rarely burns and tans quite easily.

The types in question refer to the Fitzpatrick scale, which as near as I can tell is just a linear scale describing how sensitive the skin in question is to ultraviolet light (iow: how easily this person sunburns).

  • +1 for the link. I am formulating a question in my mind (for elsewhere) about sunburn in Middle-Eastern and other populations and this is super helpful to me. – Cyn Feb 11 at 20:34
  • I'm finding this chart quite useful. arpansa.gov.au/sites/g/files/net3086/f/legacy/pubs/… – Cyn Feb 11 at 22:25
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    I remember when quite young, reading about someone with "olive skin", wondering who has green skin? - as the most common olives at that time and place were green... – Stefan Feb 12 at 18:25
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The white/black/yellow/red race classification system is based on the Western race classification system. Wikipedia is not the best resource and definitely not the most reliable, but sometimes, you can find interesting articles about general topics.

Galastel, you mention on your own profile that you are from Israel. You have also mentioned that you speak English, Hebrew, French, and Russian. Hebrew is a Middle-Eastern language. Surely, you can find something in the modern Hebrew language about race. To my understanding, the Jews view themselves as one people or one race regardless of actual skin color. Maybe in your story, you may have a fantasy race, in which the fantasy race only puts people into two categories -- the civilized people and the savage barbarians.

Under those constraints, how do I describe my MCs' ("brown") skin colour? (Other characters can sort of follow from the MC's baseline and the MC's perception.) I have so far used "tanned", but that isn't right at all - it suggests that the character is naturally paler than they currently appear, which is not what I'm trying to describe.

First of all, I don't know what you are describing. Let me search for an image.

enter image description here

In my opinion, that man appears light-colored.

enter image description here

In my opinion, that man also appears light-colored.

enter image description here

In my opinion, that man also appears light-colored.

enter image description here

In my opinion, that man appears dark-colored.

"Brown" doesn't really work either, for the reasons explained above, and also because it's not really descriptive - so many shades of brown.

Assuming that you are a Middle-Easterner, specifically an Israeli, you can look at your own skin color and compare other people's skin color to yourself. If a person has lighter skin than you, then you will describe that person as "light-skinned". If a person has darker skin than you, then you will describe that person as "dark-skinned". If a person has exactly the same skin tone as you, then you will ignore the skin color, because your own skin color is the default.

You may also look into the Hebrew language and how it categorizes people based on skin color or race. Then, you use the Hebrew word in original form or in transliteration in your English manuscript.

And it would be strange, I think, to describe my MCs' appearance in exotic terms, since they're supposed to be pretty much the norm.

Language and culture come hand in hand. In many works of English literature, authors focus on hair color and eye color, because (1) the English language evolved from the English people, and those types of people have varying eye color and hair color so they use hair color and eye color to distinguish people, and (2) the focus on hair color and eye color in culture is embedded in English literature and language.

You may follow this literary tradition, focusing on specific color terms to describe physical appearance, or you may describe people in your Hebrew language and translate that literally into English. The Chinese language, for example, does have color terms, but there is no one-to-one translation with English color terms, esp. when describing people. For example, 黑 may refer to the color "black", the skin color of a Black person (idea borrowed from the West), or a dark-colored person (may be a dark-skinned Chinese person). If a native Chinese person has darker skin color, then that person may be described as 皮肤黑黑的, referring to the darkness of the skin color. 黑 in this context does not mean "black". It just means "dark". In addition, in the Chinese language, facial characteristics may be described without using color terms at all.

(It might be that I'm having a blind spot, because this is what I look like. Since it's mine, it's just "skin" to me.)

Then use yourself as a reference point. Even if you don't use yourself as a reference point explicitly, then readers may still use you as a reference point. Sometimes, Chinese readers will take into account of the author's own personal background as a reference point. If the author uses specific regional Chinese terms in the story written in Standard Written Chinese, such as 伊 as a pronoun in literary/classical Chinese and vernacular Chinese, then the reader may take into account of the author's background and assume that the author is literally from that region in China. Similarly, J.K. Rowling is British. Her Harry Potter series unsurprisingly sets in the United Kingdom and has a lot of British cultural references.

This one is about describing a "white" character in a "non-white" setting, while mine is about describing the average "non-white" character in the same setting.

I can only speak from a Chinese perspective, because I am Chinese-American and bilingual in Chinese and English. In a Chinese context, I am quite hesitant in labeling a person as "Chinese" or "non-Chinese" based solely on appearance. I need to double-check on nationality or ethnic group affiliation. If a person is part of the Han people or 55 ethnic minorities in the People's Republic of China, then I'd consider that person "racially Chinese". If not, then I'd check to see if that person descends from the Huaxia people. Those people are also considered "racially Chinese". So, a person with blonde hair and blue eyes from England with no blood from the Hua people or whose bloodline to the Hua people is lost to history would be a "foreigner". I would also consider Sinophobes "foreigners".

Because if the characters were Caucasian, I would not have struggled to describe their skin colour, and I would have mentioned it in passing (one character being tanned from spending a lot of time outside, another having pale, almost translucent skin, etc.) so it's weird to avoid describing a different skin colour just because the frame of reference is not Caucasian.

Have you considered taking ideas from your Hebrew language? How would a Hebrew speaker describe a person in Hebrew?

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    “Wikipedia is not the best resource and definitely not the most reliable” — This is an odd comment: Wikipedia has repeatedly been shown to, in fact, be the most reliable general reference. It’s on par with or better than expert-curated, closed-source encyclopaedias. – Konrad Rudolph Feb 12 at 14:28
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    @KonradRudolph Wikipedia isn't reliable or accurate per se, the quality of its articles varies widely, from very good to total garbage. And with the content of its articles liable to change at the whim of pretty much anyone, there's no saying whether an article you read that's good today will still be good tomorrow. – jwenting Feb 13 at 5:23
  • Hebrew tends to describe people based on where they're from, not the color of their skin, at least IME. – Mithrandir Feb 15 at 9:07
  • @Mithrandir How specific does that get, may I ask? Care to share any examples and literal translations? – Double U Feb 15 at 13:29
  • For instance, "Teimani" - lit. Yemenite. Used for people from, well, Yemen, who are usually slightly darker than the Sphardi (lit. Spanish) Middle-Eastern, uh, I'm not sure if "native" is the right word here, but it'll do. Someone paler is usually called Ashkenazi (lit. from Ashkenaz in Germany). Someone very dark could be Cushi (lit. African). – Mithrandir Feb 15 at 14:05
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Maybe relate the skintone to the person's surroundings? Example: comparing the skintone to the color of the sand nearby, or a building, and talking about "the sharp contrast" or the shared undertones. You can work in colors as needed, but basically, the idea is to use what's surrounding the character to help describe them.

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I'm going to start the answer with a question of my own:

Why do you need to describe the skin colour?

What does it actually add? Is it a core pillar of the story? Or a point of differentiation?

JK Rowling and Harry Potter are great examples of this. When Noma Dumezweni was cast as Hermione in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child there was a lot of bigoted, racist outcry. JK Rowling set it straight in no uncertain terms. At no time did she mention that Hermione Grainger was white, or what skin tone she was. Her defining feature was her brown, wild hair and her personality. That's it.

So I would ask the same question of you. Is your MC's defining feature their skin tone? Or is it something else? Are they a part of a relatively homogenous society? If so, what is achieved by describing skin tone? Look at their other traits - are they muscular? Long haired? Close shaven scalp? Beard or clean shaven? Scars? Injuries etc. All serve to differentiate your character without having to describe what their skin tone is.

And you've touched on this yourself. They are "the norm", so you can't describe them as exotic. You yourself used the words "this is what I look like. Since it's mine, it's just "Skin" to me". This is no different for your story.

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    Fair point. It's several elements combined for me: the characters do live in a relatively (very relatively) homogenous society, so I want to set what is the "norm", I want to set straight many readers' implicit assumption that the MC is Caucasian, and I just want to be able to describe skin, right along with hair, beard, etc. It's neither more nor less important than, for example, hair, so it feels weird to me to just ignore a feature. If they were Caucasian, I would have had no trouble describing them - English has plenty of words for that. So it's a bit weird that I should ignore their skin – Galastel Feb 11 at 15:16
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    (cont) colour just because they're not Caucasian. (BTW, some fans found Rowling has mentioned Hermione's skin colour somewhere. It just wasn't particularly important to who the character was - she could have just as easily been black.) – Galastel Feb 11 at 15:18
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    I’ve upvoted this and I think it’s the right approach but note that Rowling did in fact describe Hermione’s skin colour, albeit entirely accidentally: There’s a scene in which she’s described as tanned (“very brown”) from spending the holiday in France. Although tanning occurs with all skin types, such a noticeable effect after a short holiday in France is a clear indication that she’s in fact light-skinned. – Konrad Rudolph Feb 12 at 14:31
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    "The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed." - Eddie is white. Susannah is black. Roland is a gunslinger of any color you want (if you can somehow get Michael Whelan's cover art out of your head). – Mazura Feb 12 at 14:33
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I see, basically, two scenarios how your MC's dark complexion can be relevant and require special description.

  • Your MC skin tone is darker than the average, to the point that it might influence the plot;
  • Everyone's skin tone is darker than European white, and you want to convey that fact to the reader;

In first case, you can play on contrast between your character's skin tone and the others', invoking adjectives like "dusky" or "swarthy". In second case, you make a brief mention of people's skin color here and there, again playing on contrast with some objects, like white fabric on one's dress. Use of "tanned" can definitely be avoided.

I am wondering what metaphors and similes people of "non-white" cultures are using in their languages to describe dark complexion. In English, "brown" sounds too generic, while "dusky" or "swarthy" seem to have some negative connotations.

  • What about the second case? – Galastel Feb 11 at 19:17
  • The second case is imho easier because you would have many more opportunities to contrast, or liken skin tone against different objects. Or are you asking specifically about synonyms for "brown"? – Alexander Feb 11 at 19:19
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When we describe skin color, or shades of color in general, you are correct that we need a point of reference. In the case of skin color, one usually subconsciously or consciously picks a point of reference (usually their own skin color).

If you're afraid of your reader picking a "White" point of reference, then you should explicitly establish a point of reference.

Here are some ways you can do that:

  • Through the setting
    • When we imagine certain areas, we also imagine certain people. No one is going to imagine the streets of suburban India to be brimming full of Caucasians. If you explicitly state your setting to be Middle Eastern, the reader is going to assume the characters are Middle Eastern. Most people of reasonable intelligence are going to be able to imagine a realistic skin tone based on that.
  • Through ethnicity and heritage
    • Perhaps the setting isn't specific enough or you want more emphasis. In that case, use the character's ethnicity and heritage. For example, even if your story took place in central Africa, your readers would still understand that a character is white if you simply described them as "Born in America and of pure European descent".
    • Similarly, your readers will know the approximate skin color if you say the character is Middle Eastern with Middle Eastern parents (though you might want to be more specific for the sake of immersion).

Once you've established a baseline point of reference that is very clearly not white, you can start narrowing down the description.

If your character is average, then you don't need to mention skin color at all. It clearly isn't very important, and the reader should be able to approximate it based on the baseline you've set already.

If your character is not average, you can use relative terms that further emphasize you are being relative to the baseline you've set. Examples:

  • "Darker than many of the other locals"
  • "Darker than his local friends"
  • "Very pale, despite his parents' average tone for the region"

Other Options (not necessary unless skin tone is essential to the story):

If you absolutely need to be as specific as possible, you can use relative language between ethnicity's. Examples:

  • "So pale that he might pass for European"
  • "She is much darker than her parents' average tones, yet still recognizably an Egyptian"

Note: Might want to be careful when throwing ethnicity around so that you don't accidentally perpetuate stereotypes.

You could also utilize character dialogue. For example, if your character is mistaken by a stranger for a western tourist, the reader will be able to assume the character is light-skinned, especially if your character corrects the one who made the mistake.

Dialogue can also include an introduction. If the character is notably light, for example, he or she could introduce himself or herself with a line somewhere that says "Though I may look more European by my skin tone, I was born and raised in Saudi Arabia".

Again, these last options would feel very forced unless they were absolutely necessary for the story. For that reason I don't recommend them.

1

My first thought was to compare skin tones to well known foods, but a previous comment mentioned that this was borderline offensive to some people. You might use other natural objects - skin the color of various minerals, tree barks, clays, etc. (This also has the advantage that you can use a fictional tree to give an ethnic group a distinctive skin color you never actually describe.). Spill out a box of 64 or 128 crayons and look at names for all the skin colors.

If you want to use skin color as a proxy for ethnic group identity, consider also drawing on ethnic and regional dress and hair styles, accents, and even musical tastes to clump your characters into associative groups.

Also remember that skin tones are far more than just how dark one's skin is. Are there blue or yellow tones under that melanin? Reddish hints? What color are lips, palms, nipples (a friend once told a story about middle school gym class, getting stared at in the shower by a classmate who had never considered that nipples weren't all the same color.)

If you really want to mess with your readers, create an ethnic status hierarchy where it doesn't matter how dark your skin is but it is carefully noted how blue it is, or the shape of one's fingers, or the luster of one's hair, or height.

0

Learn your shades and synonyms.

There are many brownish colors that correspond roughly to skin tones, including caramel, coffee, and chocolate.

Ideally, you would choose a word that is commonplace to your character. E.g., you should not use "chocolate" in your setting because chocolate came to Europe in the 16th century from the Americas, and it took some time after that to become more widely available.

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