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In English, the common name for some racial or ethnic groups is a fairly neutral English word (e.g. white, black...). Others, however, are named only by reference to a geographic point of origin (e.g. Indian, East Asian, Pacific Islander...)

How do you describe the latter in a work of speculative fiction where Earth and the corresponding locations do not exist? I would like to have ethnically diverse humans in such settings, but I'm having trouble describing them. Of course I can just not describe such physical traits, but then most readers would simply imagine everyone as white.

I know that you can vaguely allude to skin colour as being brown or 'olive' as well as a number of other possibilities, but I feel unable to indicate anything about nose shape, epicanthic folds or other small characteristic physical properties without beginning to sound like a racist treatise from the 1800's.

Is there a good way to do this? Or should I just not bother and settle for racially ambiguous descriptions?

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  • It depends strongly on who your characters are. If you have a character viewpoint that strongly cares about such differences, describing them becomes far more natural. Plus, unfortunately, racism is a great way to get such description out.
    – Weckar E.
    Jul 30 at 8:48
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    Unless your plot hinges on phrenology or an ethnicity reveal (barf), I vote for ambiguous, since all perceptions of difference would likely be relative to the protagonist's worldliness…. It's going to be MUCH faster to relate something like "She had the proud features of her island people…" (tells us the important part: where she's from) as opposed to "Her epicanthic folds were 0.7mm further apart, her earlobes were attached, but her middle toes extended farther than the big and little ones…" (arbitrary laundry list of measurements that mean nothing to the reader).
    – wetcircuit
    Jul 30 at 11:10
  • "corresponding locations do not exist" - meaning do not exist in real life? In a fantasy setting, author usually defines fictitious lands inhabited by people of characteristic appearance, for example "Summer Isles" in George R. R. Martin's "Song of Ice and Fire".
    – Alexander
    Jul 30 at 18:05
  • William C. Dietz wrote two novels, "Death Day," and "Earth Rise," which deal with race, but they may be not as subtle as you wish to be in your story. Hence I post this as a comment rather than an answer. Aug 2 at 17:56
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I would recommend drawing a map and designing the cultures that will fit based on that map. For start, if your Earth has an equator, then think about cultures on our Earth near the equator and how they would fit into your world. You can also choose to research cultures and transform them for your story.

Avatar: The Last Airbender achieved this quite well. They drew inspiration from existing cultures to create their own. The Water Tribe is based on Indigenous cultures like Inuit people, the Fire Nation is based on Imperial Japan, the Earth Kingdom is based on monarchical China, and the Air Nomads are based on Tibetan Buddhist monks (source). Region also plays a role because the Water Tribe is split between the North and the South and have different customs.

As viewers, when we are introduced to a fire bender, there are certain ethnic features we expect: straight black hair, pale skin, and sharp features. Therefore if we see people with these features, we assume they are part of the Fire Nation. There is also a certain type of temperament we expect as well because of their customs and views. While it does create stereotypes, it is not based on our real world ones, but based on the ones in the show. It also doesn't sound like a racist treatise :)

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There are several ways to handle this. Science fiction and fantasy stories often simply assume that humans, and common species such as horses, dogs, robins, wheat, and oak trees exist, even though there is no connection with Earth in the universe of the story. A similar assumption could be made about human "races", that is clusters of physical traits which have often been used to distinguish between ethnic groups. The novel series Game of Thrones follows this pattern, as do the "Diskworld" novels.

More originally, one could create ethnic groups as part of the world-building behind the story. These might use some of the traits that have been used to mark off ethnic groups on Earth, but in different combinations. Such traits as skin tone, hair thickness and curl, shape of facial parts (eyes and noses, for example), relative height and build, and the like could be used, but in different combinations than are historically seen here on Earth. Light skin with slanted eyes and curly hair, dark skin with straight hair and short stature, or whatever combination the author invents. The story might include cultures that are biased against some traits and in favor of others. Something like this was done in Addison's The Goblin Emperor. In the Alternate History story Down in the Bottomlands by Turtledove there is a group known as the "strongbrows", which is a somewhat persecuted minority in some countries. Eventually the reader realizes that these are descendants of the people known to us as Neanderthals.

Or one could describe people with various physical traits, but not assume that they are divided into ethnic groups in the setting of the story.

Which of these would be best depends on the author's style and intentions.

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If your world is populated by humans who evolved and adapted to climates as they spread across the globe, then --absent a cataclismic event wiping out local populations -- then you would expect diverse populations. You could use the traits of humans populating your planet -- Earth -- as a reference for which groups populated your world.

This method is used in "A Wizard of EarthSea" by Ursula Leguin for the populations of the many islands of EarthSea. She associates the name of the people with their kingdom or empire or island if it is large enough. For example, the Karg attack the island of Gont -- Ged's home -- and are described as having long blonde hair and their ships are long boats. We'd recognize them as Vikings, most likely. And the people of Gont are described as dark with curly hair -- if my memory serves me.

Once she established the typical appearance of a people, she'd largely use only the name of the people to describe them - a Kargish warrior or a Gont Sheppard and many many more -- when a new character entered the story.

Also, she wasn't really fanatically about linking a new character's appearance with any ethic group. I think she used this as a subtle hint that as Ged became better educated, he saw individuals and not representatives of their respective groups.

If your world was populated by an Act of God, whether some deity zapped them into existence or relocated them across time and space to inhabit the planet, then the populace of that world would be -- most likely -- less diverse and might even be a monoculture. It kind of depends on the length of time and the drivers of cultural drift that population(s) experience.

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