1. JadeX
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    JadeX Active Member

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    How to allude to a character's race without directly mentioning it

    Discussion in 'Character Development' started by JadeX, Jul 22, 2015.

    ...because nobody wants to come across as being racist, right? Of course not. But in this modern era of everyone from the news media, to overly-sensitive civil liberties groups, to middle school girls on Tumblr masquerading as "social justice warriors", good luck trying to satisfy anyone in this world of forced political correctness. But not everyone in your story is going to be the same race - because if they were, that would also make you look racist. But you can't directly state it (in most cases, anyway - as with anything, there are exceptions) because then you can be accused of "singling out" a character on basis of race. It's such a sensitive subject, one so taboo and forbidden that it just seems there's no way to win.

    This is where your writing skills are truly put to the test. In order to convey an aspect such as race, you must get creative. Pick your words carefully. I'm no expert in this field by any means, but here are a few little tips and tricks I've discovered.

    1. What's In a Name? Names, names, names, names, NAMES! Character names (especially surnames) are probably the most effective tool a writer can use to convey multiple aspects about a character. Learn about names, and know where they come from. Names can be used to not only convey race, but also a more specific heritage from a specific region - which, often times, comes full-circle back to race.
    - For example, a character in my current book is named David Ferguson. "Ferguson" is a well-known Irish name. Ferguson = Irish = White.
    - If you have an Asian character and you want the reader to know said character is Asian, don't give him an ambiguous name like "Mark Price" - try "Mark Tanaka" or "Mark Watanabe".
    - Likewise, most readers will recognise that "Abdul Hafiz" is likely an Arab, "Rohan Kumar" is probably Indian, "Vasili Andreyev" might be Russian, "Hector Batista" is most likely Hispanic, etc.
    - Black characters, on the other hand, are a bit tricky, especially as most blacks in Europe and North America had traditional European surnames slapped onto them, a practise which dates back to the days of slavery. One common black naming convention is a Biblical name + European surname. "Michael Jackson" is a great example of this. However, there are some distinctly "black" surnames, and a plethora of given names that you can use. Names of Muslim and French origin are fairly common - "Jamal" and Malik" being examples of the former, while "Andre" and "Antoine" (or its alternate spelling "Antwan") being examples of the latter. As for black surnames, some distinct-yet-common-enough ones include Atkins, O'Neal, Davenport, Lynch, Dawkins (or Hawkins), Blackwell, Blackman (gee, I wonder how that one originated! :b), Addison, Cleveland, King, Carter, Brown... the list goes on.

    2. Language and Vernacular: This is another thing you can use to tell people apart. People talk differently depending on where they are from, and it's not uncommon for these sorts of speaking patterns to be passed on through generations, even after emigrating elsewhere. Wikipedia is full of articles regarding different speech patterns of different regions and cultures, complete with pronunciation quirks, specific terms, slang, etc. Use such resources to your advantage, and try to write your characters' dialogue accordingly (to the best of your ability - nobody's perfect).

    3. Stereotypes Aren't Bad, As Long As You Avoid the Bad Ones: We tend to look away and go silent whenever the word "stereotype" is mentioned, as we've been conditioned to believe that ALL stereotypes are inherently bad. They aren't, not necessarily. Just avoid the negative ones that are meant to target and offend people - "whites can't jump", "blacks can't swim", these are examples of the BAD kind of stereotype. The kind of stereotypes I'm talking about tend to more or less go along with the "Language and Vernacular" section above.
    - Example: "This is good party... but, perhaps better if your friend not act like drunkard," he laughed.
    What you can infer: The omission of certain words is typical of the stereotypical "broken English" supposedly spoken by those of heavy Eastern European/Caucasian descent - likely Russian, or Ukrainian. Couple this with the "Names" section above - what if this character's name were Ivan, or Victor?

    Take this excerpt from my book for an example of how all three of these methods, along with a single passive adjective, can be used to paint a picture of a character without directly stating his race:

    Those are only a small handful of the methods I've uncovered in dealing with race and ethnicity in writing. Of course, none of these are fool-proof, and there's virtually no way to escape criticism and make everyone happy, but at least you can try.
    What are some other methods you've used to convey race? Do you have any ideas you can add? Feel free to discuss and expand this list with your own tips!
     
  2. Daemon Wolf
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    Daemon Wolf Active Member

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    Why can't you directly mention it? There's no reason not to. I mean I've mentioned breed(race) a few times already when describing a character. I usually don't find any reason to do so if you're talking about a group but if there is an individual character whether 2D or 3D I think it's important to give as best a description as you can which includes whatever the man's breed is. Doing otherwise is kind of silly, people will always be mad about something, you don't need to tip-toe around the subject just for their sake.
     
  3. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    I think that some of your techniques are far likelier to be offensive than just making a direct statement. The dialogue in your example worries me, in particular.

    I just went to see how Robert Barnard handles his character Charlie Peace in A Charitable Body. I see that he states the skin color directly. Charlie's wife Felicity is out with their son Thomas, talking to a woman at a museum:

    "...Do come back some Tuesday. Or bring your husband.”

    Felicity had to fight the suspicion that the woman saw that her husband was black (not difficult by looking at Thomas), and she assumed that he would therefore not be interested in the treasures of Walbrook Manor and could be left to mind the baby. No point in rummaging round for possible prejudices though. And at least the woman had presumed a father was in the picture. Felicity smiled and said she was sure there was plenty to see in the garden.
     
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  4. Sifunkle
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    Sifunkle Dis Member

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    I agree with @ChickenFreak - about dialogue in particular.

    Specific slang/vernacular can work, although cultural transmission is fairly fast (look at how the English language evolves). IMO they're more likely to reflect geographic location or socioeconomic status (which may or may not relate to race). If you consistently have only characters of certain race using certain patterns, there's the potential to a) be less realistic, and b) conform to a negative stereotype. If you don't consistently, then it's not an effective way of revealing race. But this all varies with context; it can be made to work.

    Be careful how you portray accent - if you spell it out in dialogue, you're effectively saying, "This accent is wrong," versus the correctly-spelt default (presumably yours). That can be interpreted as racist.

    I agree with the other posters that it's better to directly state things (assuming it's actually necessary). People are different: that's not negative, it's what makes us interesting. It's discrimination that hurts. If you're worried, another option might be to have an overtly racist or anti-racist character who draws attention to it (that way the audience can blame the character, and the writer can actually score points).

    Having said all this, I don't personally care about PCness, am forgiving of what I've advised against, and love laughing at how my own accent gets (mis)represented :) You can't please all the people all the time.
     
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  5. Shadowfax
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    Shadowfax Contributing Member Contributor

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    Hi JadeX,

    I'm sorry, but I'm not seeing ANY race-characterisation in your excerpt, other than what you told us in your lecture.

    I get that you think Atkins is indicative of African-American descent, but I personally have never known one who wasn't clearly NOT.
    • [​IMG]

      As for having a "dark, wrinkled face", he could just as easily have spent too long in the sun; the dialect, too, could just as easily be uneducated white man as uneducated black man, and the obsequious behaviour ditto.

    And you really haven't avoided a bad stereotype.
     

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  6. Song
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    Song Active Member

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    For me you only mention it when it is vital to the characters back story. In my current story a chinese woman has a significant arc, and it's established she is because her mother wants her to return. However other than that I wouldn't mention it, I want whoever is reading it to project some of their own identity on it and if they want to make the main character to be black they can. For me it's more important to describe personality, general appearence like well dressed, smooth beautiful skin etc.
     
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  7. KaTrian
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    KaTrian A foolish little beast. Staff Supporter Contributor

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    You probably want to introduce your character, regardless the race, as "organically" as you can. What I mean is that you show them as they are, as your narrator or other character would observe them. If you wish not to directly explain about their heritage, ethnicity, or color, then go ahead, use more subtle techniques, but I don't think you need to be subtle out of fear of racism. It's good to be mindful and educate yourself, sure, but it's possible all your characters aren't.

    To expand on this, a name can give some idea of a person's ethnicity, but in this day and age when races get mixed up all the time, it's not a clear indicator of e.g. skin color. If my husband had married a black woman, she'd likely have a Bulgarian surname. A school friend of mine is white but if I remember correctly her surname is of Nigerian origin. Sure, it's possible to use this technique to expose people's prejudices and presuppositions. Say, it reads Eva Schumacher on paper and the character expects a white woman but actually meets a black woman of German origin. Could happen.

    I don't have the skill to reproduce e.g. AAVE in writing, but some writers like Sapphire have done it, but then again, she's part of the culture and ethnicity her writing depicts.

    Then again, I have some knowledge of other languages than English, so I might be able to show broken English more convincingly than someone who hasn't studied languages, speaks no other language than English, and isn't surrounded by people from different countries.

    Stereotypes show only one or two side(s) of a given culture, so they can offer a rather narrow view. They can have a more harmful effect than that too, sure, but it's not like they're always inherently bad as you said. I've observed people amplify stereotypical traits of their culture or ethnicity in certain situations. I think it's partly related to national pride, and I don't think that's a bad thing in and of itself. Especially with disappearing cultures, like certain Native American tribes, emphasizing what others may perceive stereotypical might actually be important to them.

    It's perfectly possible that an American of Russian or Ukrainian descent actually speaks perfect English, especially if they were born in the US or immigrated there at a young age, so whether you give them the broken English trait or not depends on the character and their history.
     
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  8. Renee J
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    Renee J Contributing Member

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    The problem with directly stating the race of a character is that it's sometimes done in a lazy manner. The race is mentioned, but then the character doesn't really develop past that. But, if it's a great character and not just a token or stereotype, stating their race can be good.

    A problem with not stating the race is that people will assume they are white if it takes place in the U.S. Even though whites are a majority, it's not that much of one. White is the default, it appears.
     
  9. Link the Writer
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    Link the Writer Flipping Out For A Good Story. Contributor

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    A book I've read recently described a character as being black with the phrase, "She reached out with a brown arm." I suppose one could infer race by that, but I imagine it'd get old very fast.
     
  10. JadeX
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    JadeX Active Member

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    Not necessarily "uneducated"; rather, a slightly "Southern" vibe is what I was going for. And now that I look at it, the example I cited from my book works better in-context than out. It might help to know that, culturally, the characters in my work are "stuck in the 1960s", so to speak, and so that is also a part of what I was trying to reflect in the dialogue I cited. Like I said, it works better in-context. In hindsight I probably could have written a different example to use in this thread.

    Exactly my point, especially the latter part. I'm not saying you should "never directly state race", just that in most cases (and unless it's done well) it can come across as odd. If you can work out a way to do it, more power to you.

    Thank you, good to see someone understood what I was meaning. I merely mean that certain stereotypes can be used in a subtle way so that the reader recognises them as possible traits of a particular group, but not that they should or must be used. They're just a way to build a mental link between a certain type of character and what the reader is familiar with from knowledge or experience. However, one must be careful in deciding which are okay to use and how to use them correctly. I wouldn't recommend doing this a lot, because it's very easy to step over the line without realising it. There's a reason I listed it last.
     
  11. neuropsychopharm
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    neuropsychopharm Active Member

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    Agree with both of these. I don't see a problem directly stating race/skin color.
     
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  12. Commandante Lemming
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    Commandante Lemming Contributing Member Contributor

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    There are all sorts of ways to veer into stereotype regardless of how you do it. Honestly, and this isn't a technique thing so much as a process thing, the invaluable thing for me is to have readers of a variety of backgrounds seeing my stuff. I have plenty of my own personal biases that I'm not going to see unless a reader of another culture points them out. I have an African-American reader who's been invaluable not just in terms of my treatment of race, but even more so in my treatment of poverty. I also lucked out and somehow got a Greek-American reader in my group who took a hatchet to all of the stereotypes imbued into my Greek-American main character (who actually ended up being Greek by accident, not because I planned it. Long story). Based on that, I also know that my first task on revision is going to be to find an Indian American beta reader, because one of my main characters is Indian AND that character gets used a lot for comic relief (not because of her ethnicity but because of who she is and what her job is).

    In terms of actual writing technique - mentioning race directly is actually OK provided it's done right, not stereotyped, and not expected that "he's black" is enough of a descriptor for us to paint a full picture. I've actually had this discussion with an African-American writer in my writing group (same reader mentioned above) - she's writing a civil-rights-era historical peace, and a few people in our mostly lily-white group got a bit offended when she used so many detailed descriptions of the tone of people's skin. Because, as white writers, we're sensitized to not do that. For her, however, (and in the black literature she reads) skin color is actually MORE important in descriptions when you're dealing with black characters - for several reasons. One, when one is writing about race in the context she is, it's actually socially important to know which of the African-American characters are lighter skinned and which are dark skinned. That plays into how they are perceived and how they perceive one another. The other, more practical thing, is that (compared the Caucasian population), the African-American population has a huge chromatic variation in skin tone from person to person - but conversely, they do NOT have the same level of variation in HAIR COLOR that Caucasians do.

    Think about it, when you're a white author describing a white character, one of the first details that normally gets thrown out is hair color. When you're painting a mental picture, there's a big difference between a blonde, a redhead, and a brunette. However, with non-Caucasian characters, you generally have one available natural hair color - black (dark brown if you're stretching). Hence, with these characters, especially when you're dealing with populations that have a high variation - the primary chromatic input you have to offer your reader isn't hair color, it's skin tone. African American writing sites have had entire sections devoted to the different ways of describing exact skin tones - and it's best to be creative and specific JUST LIKE WHEN DESCRIBING CAUCASIAN HAIR COLOR. If you tell me your character has "brown hair", I'm going to think you're phoning it in and not being specific enough, which is why you'll tell me about her "curly, dark-chocolate locks" if that's what your going for, or alternatively her "severe, dirty-brown bob, flecked with gray." In the same way, telling me a character is black means nothing to me in terms of constructing appearance - there's a big difference between "her smooth cappuccino skin glistened in the sunlight" and "his deep ebony features, weathered and scarred by years on the street." See where I'm going here?

    Also, I like the trick of referencing side-details that clue the reader into the larger reality. I have a side character - Tony - who I don't tell you is gay, but when he has a business meeting, I made sure someone asked how his husband and kids are doing. Nudge, nudge, wink, wink...yup, he's gay...and that's not terribly important to the plot...so now we move on.
     
    Last edited: Jul 22, 2015
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  13. neuropsychopharm
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    neuropsychopharm Active Member

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    I think you're spot on in skin color importance, Commandante, btw! Although I do bristle sometimes at descriptions like "cappuccino" for skin tone. Might just be personal preference.
     
  14. Link the Writer
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    Link the Writer Flipping Out For A Good Story. Contributor

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    Yeah, I don't think people want their skin color to be compared to food and drink. :p Plus, it sounds very purple-prose indeed. Her skin was as white as vanilla ice cream. or His face was a deep hazelnut-gold color. His body was like mahogany.

    *passes you the brain bleach to erase the purple prose I just wrote*

    But yeah, just say it directly, no need to tip-toe around it. We have to know what the character looks like one way or another, y'know?

    However, I suspect it can get quite offensive if done improperly. One of the earliest examples I can remember was from a mystery aimed at middle school kids (I was in the sixth grade.) The MC was asking a very young child, who was black, if he remembered what the person they were looking for looked like. He had no idea what she was talking about, so she took his hand, put it up against her (pink hand) and said something like, "Did his hand look like yours or mine?" Looking back, I now wonder why the author did that. Surely there was a better way as, with hindsight, it made the MC look either extremely clueless about the context of her question, or racist.
     
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  15. Snoreos
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    People tend to be so focussed on being politically correct that they miss that a lot of writers don't actually state the ethnicity of the characters. I usually leave it up to the reader which race they want to imagine my characters. Just because I didn't state exactly what colour their skin was, doesn't mean they should automatically be imagined as white.

    Things such as eye-colour and hair colour tend to give away the race of characters since black people lean toward having brown eyes rather than blue or green, typical of a white person.

    Unless it is absolutely essential that the reader knows for sure that the character I'm introducing is black, I don't bother making it clear. Frankly, dodging the question and making a covert plan on how you are going to explain what they look like to the reader is a little bit over the top. It's as if people are avoiding using the term "black" to describe a character because they are ashamed of using it.

    If people are unashamed to assume my main character is white without my saying so, I won't be ashamed to state that they are black if absolutely necessary.
     
  16. Commandante Lemming
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    Commandante Lemming Contributing Member Contributor

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    Yeah I get that one - I just have a hard time coming up with non-human things that are chromatically brown. I'm open to suggestions as I actually used "cappuccino" for a skin color in my book (for my Indian American character) and am not happy with how it flows.

    ...that and for the post I was stretching for examples I could use quickly - actually I'm not sure I'd use any of the color descriptors in that post in my actual writing if I could avoid it (which, given that I just admitted using one in my writing, I clearly can't o_O )
     
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  17. Commandante Lemming
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    Commandante Lemming Contributing Member Contributor

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    Yeah but on the other hand I'm trying to think how I'd write that if the child is too young to get some basic concepts. The way that's phrased is probably a bit better than "was he white or black?" - plus depending on who the character is, the "does he look like me" implication could tell you as much about the person asking the question as it does about the suspect.
     
  18. Commandante Lemming
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    Commandante Lemming Contributing Member Contributor

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    ...and this is a total sidebar - but you can have some real fun with people's minds if you state the character's ethnicity up front and then proceed to subvert all of the expectations that come with that. My Indian American character is fun to write because she's radically opposite most Indian-American stereotypes (she's a pop-culture obsessed fashion and music blogger with a crazy temper and zero brain-to-mouth filter) - which by the way messes with both the non-Indian and Indian characters that surround her. That and I threw the audience for a loop by engineering her to not check many American assumptions about Indian ethnic identity - she's not Hindu, she's Jain - and her family's home culture isn't Hindi or Punjabi, it's Assamese. So there's a sense in which stating things up front actually gives you an opportunity to pull out the threads of the stereotype.

    Also - on the hair color remark - I'm laughing at myself because I have a non-Caucasian character who is naturally blonde and that really, really messes with people (she's Australian Aboriginal, and that population has a substantial number of natural blondes - but once I move her to America, it messes with everyone that she's both black and blonde.)
     
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  19. Snoreos
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    Snoreos Member

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    I actually smiled at half of this message since you throw all stereotypes out the window with your characters. But yes, I agree that being upfront is better - unless it really doesn't matter what race they are to the plot. Either way, it wouldn't affect the reader.
     
  20. Link the Writer
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    Link the Writer Flipping Out For A Good Story. Contributor

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    Agreed. I'm having trouble trying to figure out how I'd have my MC ask something like that without sounding like a quasi-racist. She's basically telling the kid, ‘I think he was either white or black, so here is my hand and yours. Did he look like you or did he look like me?’

    As of now, all I can think up of is just not bring up the skin color and ask if he heard the suspect say anything like where he/she was going, what he/she was going to do, etc.

    EDIT:
    OK, to be honest, that whole scene was stupid now that I look at it. She's asking who is likely a very young toddler what he saw at the scene of a crime. And she pulls the skin color thing via hand-comparison. I'm surprised the boy's parents didn't smack her for that, or at least yell at her over it. This is an example of how to not show the race of your characters, ladies and gents!
     
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  21. TheApprentice
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    I was reading the last book in the Ender series: Children of the Mind or something like that. What they do is mention certain obvious things without really mentioning the race of the people. For example, they mention Peters light colored skin, or this girl he is traveling with's epicanthal fold.

    Honestly though, when it is done like that its all so obvious I don't really think the point is to avoid being labelled as racist so much as to show off good writing skill.
     
  22. Shadowfax
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    Shadowfax Contributing Member Contributor

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    When I was younger "black" was the offensive term. It comes as a surprise to get told off by my daughter because what was offensive then is acceptable now, and vice-versa. So perhaps it's safer to steer well away.
     
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  23. T.Trian
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    T.Trian Overly Pompous Bastard Staff Supporter Contributor

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    Personally I don't see a problem with e.g. "her milky-white breasts" since, well, with certain Caucasian skin shades, they really look milky-white. :D

    Sure, it's kinda cheesy, but in some contexts, cheese can work if you're specifically going for that kind of tone in the scene. I mean, sometimes people say and think the cheesiest, corniest things when they take their clothes off with someone they're mad about, especially when we're looking at the description of one character through another who's prone to being a bit cheesy. :p

    "His nuts, tiny and hairy, like rambutans..." Okay, that's a bit bizarre, but hey, some character might think that too. :D
     
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  24. Link the Writer
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    Link the Writer Flipping Out For A Good Story. Contributor

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    Thank you for that wonderful image. Now I have, in my head, an image of Helen's ship doctor stark naked. Thanks. ;)
     
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  25. T.Trian
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    T.Trian Overly Pompous Bastard Staff Supporter Contributor

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    I aim to please. :p
     
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  26. Link the Writer
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    Link the Writer Flipping Out For A Good Story. Contributor

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    To be honest, I've a feeling that there's going to be a romance between them. Once I get there, I'll ask how to do good romance. Don't want to be like Lucas, of which I apparently write like. :p

    "I hate space, Helen. It's so cold, dark...empty. Not like here. Here everything's-"
    "Doctor, return to your cabin at once; you've drank too much. I'll take over from here."
    "Uh..." <ahem> "Yes, yes. Right away, Captain."

    "You are in my very soul, Helen. Tormenting me. I wish I could cast away those-"
    "Doctor, do I need to take you to a medical ship?" <speaks in radio> "Commander, change course."

    "But we've agreed that to continue our relationship would jeopardize the mission. It would consume our lives. Our ship. Everything-"
    "I think we're all about be killed anyway. Last chance."
    <kisses>
    "Helen, Doctor, permission for me to take over the mission? Or throw myself off the balcony? Either one?"

    :p

    *steers thread to proper course*

    I think @KaTrian has it spot on. :) There are a lot of ways to allude to your character's race, so play with each and see what you come up with.
     
    Last edited: Jul 25, 2015
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