In a fantasy world where things like Asia don’t exist how would you get the point across that a person may be a pale Asian person with straight black hair and blue eyes and a heart shaped face rather than a pale white person with straight black hair and blue eyes and a heart shaped face.

Using descriptors like white black and any shade of skin in between works in most cases but there seems to be some cases where color of skin, face shape, eye color and standard descriptors aren’t enough to get the point across. Would it be strange to use Asian as a descriptor in a story where Asia does not exist (I’m aware Asia is a big place with many different colors and shapes). Another example would be Indian people with light brown skin vs African (I’m aware Africa is a big place with many different colors and shapes) people with light brown skin. You could probably get around this issue mostly in this case with other descriptors like hair.

How do you differentiate between races in a world where people of all races are mixed together in all locations and not segregated into majority homogenous race countries like modern times?

2 Answers 2


Descriptions, whether of characters, places, or objects, work best when they come in little pieces, and ideally in dialog. A character can "wish I was pale like you" or "wish I wasn't so pale", in just the same tone as they could "wish I was tall like you" or "wish I wasn't so tall." An adjective can slip into a sentence every now and then: "she pulled her dark straight hair off her forehead" or "her [bronze/creamy/alabaster/mahogany/etc] face darkened to [some other colour word] in anger." (Warning: many people of colour strongly dislike using food and drink for the words to describe skin colour.) Tell us how the green hood of her cloak looks amazing with her green eyes.

A better question is why you're differentiating on skin colour. You say it is not to indicate that a person is from elsewhere. Are you doing that fantasy trope where occupation, intelligence, morality etc are based on race? If so (sigh), have your characters talk about it. "Well of course she would think of that, she's [word you made up that is totally not the word Asian] isn't she?" Or does someone have a parent who disapproves of inter-racial friendships or partnerships? Or are people of some backgrounds prohibited from some activities? All of this is grist for a good conversation to set up your conflict.

If not, then why does it matter? We don't know how tall everyone is or how long everyone's hair is. Only the people for whom it's relevant get physical characteristics described, and then it's not exhaustive, just the vital stuff. Sure, in your head this one is white and this one is Asian and so on, but why do you need to tell us? This isn't a movie or a comic book. It's a story. Tell me a story.

  • Well I thought about it more and I realized it doesn’t really matter much. The only purpose of using the race was to better describe physical appearance. I’m aware of the not using foods to describe skin issue. Do you have any advice on quickly describing minor characters that are part of a scene? I thought race would also be a quick and easy way to give face to someone who isn’t important in the story. Instead of having them be like a shadow or default setting unsure of what to imagine them as.
    – Woli
    Aug 26, 2023 at 15:58
  • You could invent characteristics of your races or religions or language groups. "A woman brushed by. Though her skin glowed like [other character]'s, she wasn't wearing a [made up word for special hat]." Or tell us about her brightly coloured clothes, or the toolbelt she's carrying. Or make a point of telling us about the white characters and how unusual they look compared to normal people :-) Aug 26, 2023 at 16:54

I would advise using other cultural identifiers to show there is a commonality with real world cultures. One way to do this is to make sure that your character names fit the cultural society they grew up in. For example, if I have a character named Akira, I'm going to picture him as someone of Japanese descent, Juan would be of Spanish descent, Sanjay would be Indian, Saikia would be I. Hell, in some cases the spelling of a name may change the ethnicity I picture them in (Lee would be the European spelling, while Li is the Asian spelling. Or May vs. Mei for a girl name equivalent). This not only helps narrow to inform a general appearance in one's mind of what the character looks like, but gives them a cultural background that is woven in and brought into cultural interactions in your own world. Consider the episode "Sokka's Master" from Avatar: The Last Airbender, where the titular master, a member of the Fire Nation, trains Sokka, who is from the Water Tribe (both nations are at war). The Master reveals that he was well aware that Sokka was a water tribe citizen because he used his real name... which is not common in the Fire Nation, while Sokka is much more common in the Water Tribes (He advises Sokka to use "Lee/Li" since it's much more common in the Fire Nation (and the Earth Kingdom).).

Another way to do this is to describe the person in outfits that are traditionally worn in the parts of the world. For Eastern Asian Cultures, one good item of clothing that can easily identify them as being from your Asian cultures is the conical hat. These hats have seen use in Asian cultures as far west as India, as far south as Indonesia, as far east as Japan, and as far north as Russian Manchuria. What's more, each culture has a different name for these hats, so you can easily tell where someone is culturally from by the name they use for the hat. If they call it a "kasa" they are Japanese, where as someone who is Chinese would call it a "douli" and someone in India, it's a "Jaapi." Again, I point back to Avatar as they used several different Asian and American cultural dress and architecture to distinguish the four nations and their fictional cultures. The Water Tribe was a mix of Inuit (though more American Inuit than Russian Inuit) with some Vietnamese River Cultures mixed with American Southern Swamp cultures for the Foggy Swamp Tribe. The Earth Kingdom was a blend of Chinese and Korean cultures, the Air Nomads had South Eastern Buddhist aesthetics with monastic temples that took inspiration from Himalayan cultures like India, Nepal, and Bhutan as well as Thai aesthetics. The Fire Nation was heavily inspired by Imperial Japan, with a few nods to Hindu and Indian Culture and Aztec/Mayan cultures when we meet the Sun Warriors.

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