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When describing a character I usually provide some indication of their race/ethnicity since a lot of my work has multiracial characters and I tend to use elements of ethnicity in characterization. Most of the time I find a tasteful way to describe the color of their skin and start them in a scenario that allows them to show their heritage compared to other characters eg. name, how they speak, where they're from, what they wear and like etc.

I've recently had someone read a particular scene involving a character, and was surprised afterwards, when they told me that they didn't understand why the character was speaking a certain way (slang etc) and had completely missed what their ethnicity was and that this was why they were speaking this way.

My point is that you can never predict the level of cultural awareness of a reader, and so certain aspects of a characterization will fail to convey the character's ethnicity if that reader has little to no knowledge of that particular culture, which will affect that reader's enjoyment.

When comparing books and film for example, I find it interesting that many film scripts I have read are very up front about character ethnicity eg. Trent, 21, Black. But this is rare in books and I'm not sure why.

So with all that said what are some ways to convey a character's race/ethnicity clearly (while hopefully steering clear of stereotypes) but appropriately (without sounding racist or offending anyone)?

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    Is your writing first-person, or third-person? Either way you can relate your POV character's thoughts on other character's ethnicity. – Alexander Mar 25 at 19:07
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    I would say try to give your characters at least family names that are reflective of their ancestry, though this doesn't help with African Americans, as many are descendant's of slaves and effectively have difficult to trace ancestry due to separations of families in the slave trade as well as many being given more European names. I did come up with a clever way to demonstrate both that my character was African American as well as living in a future society that had moved on from racial divides... but it was probably too clever. I'll explain later. – hszmv Mar 26 at 0:08
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    @hszmv I agree that it can be an extra challenge when trying to convey not only ethnicity appearance, but also origin, when these are not the same but both relevant. Eg. African living in Japan: saying simply that the character is Japanese will not convey to the reader their African origin, even though they are actually Japanese i.e. a citizen. – FrontEnd Mar 26 at 2:14
  • @FrontEnd: Having known someone who was a permanent Japanese Resident, I would probably guess that by his very name, he's not Japanese. Just a hint, Japan is very difficult to become a citizen for immigrants. Most non-native Japanese are permanent legal residents of Japan, with U.S. citizens being the largest subset of immigrants, followed by U.K. citizens. If your not ethnically Japanese, the Japanese will usually assume you're an American unless you're able to correct them. If it's Pre-1945 setting, it's almost unheard of. – hszmv Mar 26 at 11:27
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The reason film scripts are very upfront about it is because the final product, the film, is not: Though explicit in writing, the film doesn't need to be upfront about it, as everyone can see that they are of Asian descent, for example. Scripts are also only used as a sort of guiding stone for the director, editor, cinematographer, actors, casting director, etc., so the more explicit certain details, the better. Many shots and some dialogue however are made up on the spot (Blade Runner (1982), the "tears in rain" line, for example), so the final delivery is never as in your face as the script is.

For books, remember that not all readers read and understand all books. If it were up to the public to decide how to write my stories, I would honestly rather not write, because it wouldn't be my story anymore. So you need to decide what advice to listen to, and which not to. However, don't let anyone dumb down your text, as this would be unfair to that part of the audience that knows what you are talking about. Unless, that part of the audience you want to reach is giving you this feedback.

To steer away from stereotypes, don't think of them as people of a certain race, but as human beings. If their ethnicity or race makes a difference to their character, then being explicit is, in my opinion, good, because it is part of characterization. It forces the reader to know them as a person of a certain race, rather than having them "work" to figure it out. Further characterization (favorite food, hobbies, idiosyncrasies) solidifies them as unique human beings rather than stereotypes.

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So given your response in the comments, this actually comes off quite easier than most times people ask this question.

You are confusing nationality with ethnicity which is not the same thing. Your character may be a citizen of Japan. They may even be the child of immigrants to Japan and themselves gave your character a Japanese sounding name... if the character's mother was the immigrant from Africa, married a Japanese man and took his family name, it's still possible your character might not look completely ethnically Japanese, despite a Japanese name and citizenship.

In this case, you need not describe his skin color to as part of his physical description but rather his journey from the part of the world he (or parent(s)) lived in, to their present day residency in Japan.

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  • The ethnicity/nationality difference was just an example, showing one context where perhaps skin tone may be more relevant to describe than others. The explanation of the migration journey I agree needs to happen at some point, but in the context where a character is being met for the first time and little is know about them (especially why they are living here) I'm not sure how feasible it would be when first meeting a character to describe them based on the migration journey in a non contrived way. – FrontEnd Mar 27 at 11:56

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