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I'm currently on the fourth draft of a novel I'm writing, which features two protagonists. One of them, is, in my mind, black. I say, "in my mind" because at no point in the story do I ever explicitly state her race, although there are some hints if you know where to look. There are several reasons why I haven't revealed her race:

  • By going out of my way to state that she's black, it implicitly says that everyone else in the story whose race isn't explicitly stated is the same race (implicitly white). At no point in the story do I mention anyone's race*.
  • To me, her race doesn't matter to the story - no one shows any signs of racism towards her or treats her differently due to her race. There are no plot points which depend upon her being black (nor, for that matter, for any characters to be any particular race).
  • Somewhat quixotically, I like the idea that by not revealing her race, readers can identify with her more easily.

Anyway, my question is: is it a bad thing that I haven't revealed her race? What are the main downsides to not revealing her race? Seeing as how a lot of urban fantasy (the genre the novel is) features white male protagonists, would it be better to reveal her race so as to add a bit of diversity to the genre?

For what it's worth, she's not the only character who in my mind is non-white, but seeing as how the others aren't focal characters, I don't see it as being as important a question for them.

[*] I do mention a character's accent at one point, but it's vague enough that race can't be extrapolated from it. There are also some names which imply those people come from certain regions of the world.

  • "At no point in the story do I mention anyone's race*." Well, you could add it for everyone – Azor Ahai Apr 22 at 17:47
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    J.K. Rowling, is that you? – Standback Apr 23 at 5:33
  • Here's a recent related question, and I suspect its answers will be very pertinent to you: "An LGBT main character, but the book isn't about LGBT issues" . I'm going to plug my own answer specifically, as one that discusses the pros and cons of "diversity-blindness", of simply having everyone treated identically and "feeling" identical. :) Hope that helps! – Standback Apr 23 at 5:47
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    One thing to be aware of: If you do not mention race in this book, but then end up in a situation where race does matter in some later book it can be incredibly jarring. By not mentioning race during the first description of the character you bind yourself to keeping the race ambigious. – David Mulder Apr 23 at 13:20
  • Somewhat related: I remember en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brain_(novel) as being so unspecific about the gender of the main protagonist that even they (or she, as I am now surprised to learn from the link, contrary to my memory) wonder which it may be. – Hagen von Eitzen Apr 23 at 15:23

10 Answers 10

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Welcome to Writing SE - great first question.

There is nothing wrong with being silent on race. You have a character who is - presumably - fully fleshed and three dimensional and that is what matters.

Readers love to imagine characters and not mentioning her race allows them to imagine her as they will. You say that you have hints so those who pick up on them will know she is black and those who do not will visualize her as another race - probably their own.

If race is not important to your plot or your characters, there is no reason to mention it.

The reader is going to realize that there is a high likelihood that a character with a name like Yordanos Diallo is black. A Carol Smith could be white or black.

Not mentioning race can leave the reader with the impression of an all white cast, but you say that you have names from different parts of the world so that is much less likely.

I have a character from Colombia and she is of Irish descent (her parents fled the Troubles and moved to the beautiful country of Colombia). I do not mention that in the book and do not describe her as other than beautiful. Readers are free to imagine she is a Latina who chose a cool code name. Maybe she is.

There are a few characters I do describe since it is important to the plot and characterization.

If race is not important to plot or character, silence is appropriate. Some things bear repeating.

  • How would you handle a subsequent book explicitedly highlighting the race in that case? In my experience things like that are incredibly jarring and for this reason most books at least give some general impression of how a character looks during their introduction. Preventing jarring revelations which break the immersion of the reader seems like an important goal. Unless you are using such jarring moment to communicate a message, but that's a completely seperate case. – David Mulder Apr 23 at 13:23
  • While I do not mention her given name, her surname is very Irish and connotes her religion. I would have it as an example of the futility of trying to avoid danger. At home, they were a target because of religion so they left to stay safe and avoid the prejudice of the time that Irish = terrorist. It was a decision they ultimately came to regret. – Rasdashan Apr 23 at 14:25
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    "Not mentioning race can leave the reader with the impression of an all white cast". Probably not if it's set in rural India. Location will matter a lot when readers guess a characters race. In more diverse areas, as you said personal preference may take over, and a lot of people might assume their own race, which of course isn't a problem until someone wants to make a movie or TV series! – Crazymoomin Apr 23 at 19:42
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    I've accepted this answer as I felt it answered my question the most directly, but many of the other answers have gotten me thinking about some other things I need to consider, some of which I hadn't, or hadn't given enough thought to. Thanks to everyone who answered! – Hyperion Apr 24 at 11:41
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The difficulty here is that race is a sociological construct, and that mentioning it --or even not mentioning it! --positions us in some way in a larger sociological framework over which we have little direct control.

As a reader of color, I really do appreciate seeing characters of color in genres I like, such as urban fantasy. However, it's difficult for me to imagine any person in today's real world being in a situation where their race truly never makes any difference at all in their experience or outlook. If she's a minor character, viewed from the outside, you might be able to get away with this. But as a major character (a POV character?) if you want to make her really live on the page, you owe it to her and yourself to do the research.

This may not be the advice you want --it's more work --but I honestly think it will serve your final work best. It will be a more unique story, and stand out more with a diverse cast of characters, and it will get a better response from readers if it's authentic, not superficial.

  • I really like this answer; assuming race is not important feels like a very large assumption. – Pureferret Apr 25 at 10:09
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As others have said, if the character's color doesn't matter in the story, then by not mentioning it you let the reader picture her as any color they like. Possibly matching their own color, possibly matching what is typical of the place where you set the story. (Like if I read a story set in Nigeria, I'd probably assume that all characters are black unless there's reason to believe otherwise. If I read a story set in Minnesota, I'd probably assume they're all white. Etc.)

I'd say the same if someone asked if it was necessary to mention a character's hair color or height or weight.

Any of these things MIGHT be relevant in any particular story, of course. Even if the story is not "about race", i.e. about racism or race relations or anything like that, it might come up in some cultural way or as some other incidental.

I'd discourage you from having clues to her color scattered through the book. If a reader sees a description of her when she is first introduced in the story that does not mention her color, and that reader pictures her as, let's suppose, white, and then 3/4 of the way through the book he sees one of your "hidden clues" and realizes that she is black, I think that would be very jarring. If I was the reader, I'd feel like I now had to go back over the entire story and re-picture it in my head.

For the same reason, I'd say that if her color is relevant to the story at any point for any reason, you should mention it when she is first introduced. If, say, half-way through the book you have a brief mention that, say, she couldn't go to the hairdresser with her friend because that hairdresser didn't know how to work with a black girl's kinky hair, or whatever, now as a reader I have to re-imagine all the previous scenes. You can get away with not mentioning subtle aspects of a person's physical appearance until late in the story, if people meeting that person wouldn't immediately notice, but I think most people would notice skin color pretty quickly.

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Here's the thing about race: different people have very different ideas about what race means, and how race affects individual's lives.

Some people's ideas of race is inextricably tied with their experience of racism. Some people's idea is that race doesn't really matter, or that it shouldn't really matter. Other people have a basic assumption of which race is the "normal" one, the default, and anything else is (in some way or another) special. And so on.

When you're writing a story or constructing a world, then you are the arbiter of how race really works there. The world works the way you say it does. And, if you don't describe how race works -- people are going to just assume some kind of default. Not addressing race at all is like not addressing whether or not the planet has gravity: You can go with the default, but that doesn't mean you haven't made a decision.

Now, in your case, you have a fairly clear idea of how race works: race exists, but the world is effectively colorblind. Nobody minds, nobody cares, nobody makes anything of it.

My question is this: How do you tell the reader that this is the case? Is the reader envisioning the same multiracial landscape that you are, or are they assuming something very different?

If you never address it at all, I think most readers will assume you just haven't given it any thought. They will assume everybody is "the same," because you haven't said otherwise. It sounds to me like that isn't the result you want.

But. Cluing the reader in to your setting's diversity is not the same as tagging one specific character as being "the black one". If you truly want to spend the effort on creating a world where skin color isn't an issue, you can absolutely do that -- you just need to do the work of actually portraying the world as you imagine it. To portray the world as one with lots of races and no racism, without singling out individual characters as "the ones with race."

You'll have to tailor this to your own story and your own vision of your setting. But some suggestions:

  • You can specify early on that the group aren't all white, without saying which of them is black! This in itself might be a testament to people not even caring who's what.
  • You can reflect the cultural norm in other characters and people. If the King is black and the Queen is white and nobody ever mentions this as unusual, that's a meaningful statement. If there's a fringe religion where different races are considered to have different "essences" and be "lucky" for different things, and they're generally considered really weird, that's a meaningful statement.
  • Give a lot of thought to how and why the world is so non-racist. Is there no local majority of one particular race? Did the different races not originate in different geographical areas, seeing themselves as "normal" and others as "outsiders"? How has race never become a meaningful distinction -- or, how has using it as a distinction become taboo? Answers to those will affect your world in ways you can portray!

You can find many more ideas in similar vein -- figuring out how to get across to the reader that racism just isn't a thing.

All that being said, this can be a very difficult path to walk down if you're aiming for serious worldbuilding. Plainly speaking -- in the real world, race is part of who a person is. It's very difficult to build an authentic world where race exists but has no discernible effect whatsoever. It's intertwined with culture, community, immigration, history, and tradition. If you try to just eliminate all those, you're much less likely to get across "there are black people and white people getting along just fine," and much more likely to be read as "everybody here is white, or feels white."

In that sense, just having specific characters who are POC can be a much easier route to showing how POC fare in the world. I can see why you're thinking of avoiding that, but the other way might not be what you want either.

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    I've accepted a different answer, but you've brought up some really excellent points with regards to worldbuilding and have gotten me doing into a real brainstorming mood. If I could accept two answers, this would definitely be the second one! – Hyperion Apr 24 at 11:42
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    @Hyperion Glad this was helpful, and welcome again to Writing.SE! :D – Standback Apr 24 at 19:33
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    I like this a lot, the falling to a default perception is what we automatically do when we read fiction. In fantasy stories our (mine) first approximation is often that there is not going to be rampant racism within the major races but usually exists between those same groups to some plot controlled amount. However humanity is daft and they have racism within their main group. As @Standback says you must set the stage or your reader will and this may differ depending on who reads it in what era. If however there is no racial content then there should never be any racial profiling. – KalleMP Apr 25 at 7:24
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Yes, you need to mention it.

If race, ethnicity, culture are important (hint: they're always important, even if they don't change the story, they're part of who your character is, just like gender and age and education), then you'd want to talk about them for every character. Or at least a few. Instead, you have a bunch of white characters and then just one nonwhite focal character.

Your question is about mentioning the fact that a character is black. You don't ask about how to reveal that the other characters are white.

Shake things up. Don't assume white people are pretty much the same (they're not). Don't make white the default, even if it is the majority. To do this, you need to acknowledge cultural differences across the board.

This isn't about labeling everyone as "white" or "black" or "latinx" etc. And it's definitely not about pointing out ways that the nonwhite character looks different from the white ones (I bet the white ones are just as different from each other, only in other ways).

One of the dangers of acting like race doesn't matter (so you never talk about it) is that many readers will assume everyone's white. Of course some readers will assume that even when you're explicit about the fact that they're not white.

Pretending that race doesn't matter doesn't actually help people who aren't part of the majority. In the mainstream, your "good" characters will default to white and your "bad" characters will be a variety.

Go beyond looks and find out how each of your characters is unique. Just the very act of being in the minority will change how someone acts. This is true if it's a woman working in a mostly male field, a middle aged man going back to college, someone with a facial deformity, etc.

Trust me, no nonwhite person in a mostly white country has failed to experience racism. Both overt and less so. The subtle ways others treat you, the way you're perceived, having to be extra careful around store clerks, police, school teachers, etc. These things are real. You don't have to talk about them outright (though you could) but you need to be aware. White men walk around in the world very differently from black women, for example.

So bring in the culture of all your main characters. You can reference this sometimes by looks, but don't depend on it. Don't assume your reader understands the mainstream culture and that you only have to mention when it's different. Infuse your characters will life from their specific ethnicities and more.

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    wrong. Race may very well not be important at all. Say someone robs a bank, his (or her) skin colour is irrelevant to the story, as is that of the bank employee (or she) holds at gunpoint. It may become relevant if the police later publish a photo showing the perp as having a specific skin colour that's rare in the area, but certainly not for the duration of the action itself. – jwenting Apr 23 at 10:23
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    @jwenting The question is about main characters of a story. Not criminals, not background characters. If you read my answer you'll see I spoke to how race/ethnicity/culture is not about looks and certainly not something you can reduce to "skin color." So I'm not sure why you're giving examples that are solely about skin color. – Cyn says make Monica whole Apr 23 at 14:08
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    @jwenting - I would submit that a white and a black bank robber might well be treated quite differently based on race in the modern-day USA. It's well established that black suspects are more likely to be shot by police, and that crimes with white victims are prosecuted more harshly. – Chris Sunami Apr 23 at 15:42
  • @ChrisSunami Yes, exactly. – Cyn says make Monica whole Apr 23 at 18:03
  • One does need to keep in mind that not EVERYTHING is about race. Some things can be allowed to stand on their own and make for pleasant reading in the distant racially tolerant future. Also not everyone HAS to be a racial activist, that is a voluntary calling and not part of authorship. Same as not everyone has to stop traffic for an old lady to cross a road, it is a dangerous job that is not suited to a single father who has to get home for when his son returns from preschool. This advice is close to badgering and shaming and does not advance any agenda, but does retard general tolerance. – KalleMP Apr 25 at 7:33
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I wouldn't mention characteristics that do not impact the story. Race, height, gender, religion, political leaning, weight, sexual preference - all in our culture but not the focal point of every story and even for the stories it pertains to, we have a day to day life that needs attention and living. Our culture made this a question, let's release the importance of it and move past it. Tell a rich story with characters I want to like or not, but that hold my interest and keep me thinking for days. I don't care what their race is.

  • Welcome to writing.se! Take the tour and visit the help center for additional guidance. This is a good first answer, you could improve it slightly by supporting why those things are not important to the story but don't feel you need to. Thanks for participating and happy writing! – linksassin Apr 23 at 5:39
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Always ask yourself WHY you'd want to reveal such information. Is it in any way at all relevant to the story?

If it isn't, avoid the trouble and let people use their own imagination. Setting up your stories so that people of all races and creeds may easily "climb into the skin" of your characters helps a lot for readers to enjoy your work. By fixing the looks (and other characteristics) of your characters strictly in a set framework, that becomes a lot harder.

Plus, especially with race, especially in the current US (and to a degree European) market, you're setting yourself up for being branded a racist if you're having characters do things people don't like to see those of specific races do, or even by having the "wrong mix" of races in your story.

Of course at some point race (or some other characteristic) of a character may become important. At that point, you can hint at it or mention it explicitly. But I'd certainly not do so without very good reason. E.g. a book I just finished reading had 2 protagonists fall in love, the reason they first noticed each other were that she was unusually tall and he had black skin, both uncommon in the society portrayed. After that one paragraph, the skin colour was never mentioned again as it was irrelevant except for that one scene, nor was the skin colour of anyone else in the book ever mentioned at all.

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Arguments can be made for both choices. I can only speak to what I've tried myself.

I have a project I've been working on for some time that has diversity in cast. At no point do I explicitly state any character's race or ethnicity. Sure, there are some hints in dialogue and such, but that's not the point of the story.

I've left races intentionally ambiguous in this project. Part of my reasoning is that I don't want it to become a focal point of the story. But besides that, by not detailing any character's racial identity, I'm making it easier for the readers to identify with, and invest in, any of the characters that might speak to them

I hope that's helpful.

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    I don't know if this reasoning holds water. People often identify more strongly with experiences that are very specific than ones that are relatively generic. – Chris Sunami Apr 23 at 1:28
  • @ChrisSunami I could see that assessment as it regards to events and experiences (which I do get specific with), but less so when it comes to physically identifying features. A fair simile might be the "neutral face" that makes some action stars so popular; the flat affect of the neutral facial expressions makes it easier for the audience members to envision themselves in that role. – Canis Animus Apr 23 at 1:45
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For me I would prefer not to know, I think as a reader and writer it adds a level of imagination by the reader. So in the end the reader will be able to flesh out the character and the world in their own way.

Race should not be a driving force of any character in my experience and if they are they will be doomed to fail as some readers will find it very difficult to identify with them if they do not share the same race. But you are the author and the decision is ultimately yours, either way do what feels right to you.

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Assuming race is not relevant to the story, I think it is still worth considering that you mention it, or make it obvious from the description of the character.

A story is more than just a sequence events - imagery and descriptions are important for bringing it and the characters to life in the mind of the reader. You might mention a character's lop-sided red baseball hat with the faded Bugs Bunny image on the front, or his messy blond hair, or her slender figure being accentuated by the long black evening gown, even though in each case it has no bearing on the plot of the story, but helps to draw an imaginary picture of the situation and characters.

Perhaps if you're writing in the first person, and she has no reason ever to think about her own race, or doesn't at any point look in the mirror and consider her own looks, then maybe you wouldn't point it out, but as soon as you describe what she looks like, her race will become apparent.

Now I'm not saying you definitely should, and done well it might be refreshing to let the reader come up with the looks from their own imagination, I'm just saying that just because race isn't relevant doesn't mean you shouldn't mention it.

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