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Vary Your Color Words—But Be Careful With Skin Tones

YA writer and children’s book illustrator Ingrid Sundberg loves color names. On her blog, she tells us, ” I love to stop in the paint section of a hardware store and find new names for red or white or yellow. Having a variety of color names at my fingertips helps me to create specificity in… [Read More]

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YA writer and children's book illustrator Ingrid Sundberg loves color names. On her blog, she tells us, " I love to stop in the paint section of a hardware store and find new names for red or white or yellow. Having a variety of color names at my fingertips helps me to create specificity in my writing. I can paint a more evocative image in my reader’s mind if I describe a character’s hair as the color of rust or carrot-squash, rather than red." To that end, she's created a fantastic collection of twelve images full of different color shades and words in the same family in what she's calling "The Color Thesaurus." It's a really great reminder to vary up your word choice and be more descriptive when you write.

But! There's one aspect of this color collection that needs to be addressed—many of the colors that could be associated with skin tones, such as the browns, peaches, and oranges, are connected to food terms. That's all well and good when you're describing objects, but you do need to be careful when you're actually describing the skin of your characters! A lot of authors (particularly those in the science fiction/fantasy communities, since often they aren't able to fall back on the same ethnicitiy-marking language that our real-world culture has; and in the romance genre, as there's a tendency to associate food with sexuality) fall into the trap of depicting dark skinned people, especially women, with food metaphors.

This association isn't just a tired cliché: it can also can be downright dehumanizing. Writer N.K. Jemison wrote on her website in 2010, "I get really tired of seeing African-descended characters described in terms of the goods that drove, and still drive, the slave trade—coffee, chocolate, and brown sugar. There's some weird psychosocial baggage attached to that."

So what to do?  K. Imani Tennyson of the blog Rich in Color suggests this:

"Try to write your characters without describing them as food (same for using almond eyes to note someone is Asian). Describe your characters differently. Maybe use a different metaphor; I read one that compared a character’s skin color to a brass doorknob. Or, as my mentor suggested, write skin tone in contrast to something different, like their clothing. It’s really up to you. The point is to extend your thinking and find unique and different ways to describe your characters."

Also, make sure that you're being even-handed with your descriptions of skin tone and not only describing those with black or brown skin. Here in America, we have the unfortunate tendency to view white skin as the default and only remarking on someone's skin color when they deviate from that. The answer isn't to start describing everyone with foodstuffs, of course—"as a general rule, writers seeking inspiration solely from Starbucks menus probably need to dial down the caffeine," YA lit author Sara Hockler says on the subject—but it helps to be aware of the unconscious biases you might be carrying when you're writing. Some authors even use those biases to their advantage and, when writing stories about predominantly dark skinned characters, only describe the white characters' skin.

Regardless of what you decide to do, it's always important to think about this stuff!

(via Galleycat)


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