1. halisme
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    halisme Contributing Member Contributor

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    How to describe ethnicity in a world without them?

    Discussion in 'Fantasy' started by halisme, Mar 18, 2015.

    A simple question, how would you describe a character's ethnicity in a world where the term that describes them doesn't exist? I'm currently writing a fantasy story and there are going to be some East Asian characters, however, there isn't an Asia in this world and I think saying Asian descent wouldn't really fit with the writing. So I ask, how do you, or would you describe a characters ethnicity in a world which doesn't have the common term.
     
  2. Commandante Lemming
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    Commandante Lemming Contributing Member Contributor

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    Focus entirely on physical description and descriptions of cultural practices. Skin tone. Hair Color. Eye Shape if you're really careful. Also if you're mimicking real-world Asian cultural practices, make sure the cultural practices in your world cue the reader immediately that this part of your world is to be viewed through the lens of an Asian culture. (For what it's worth - PICK a single Asian culture to cue. There's no such thing as "Asian culture" - and saying something is Asian doesn't cue me at all as to whether the warriors riding in are Japanese samurai, Mongol hordes, or the imperial Chinese army...and yes I realize those are all stereotypes to start with, but work with me here).

    The trick is to figure out how to communicate exactly how people look without saying anything that sounds stereotypical. I'd also decide what these people are called in the world - they'll obviously have their own label for themselves. At which point you can describe the culture once and then people will have a reference point when any new character is called "Tsungurese" or whatever you call them.
     
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  3. BayView
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    BayView Contributing Member Contributor

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    You can also tie the physical characteristics in to the geographic/climatic realities that led to the characteristics. Like, people from northern climates tend to have less pigment, people from really sunny places tend to have more. So if you describe the climate of the place of origin and combine that with the basic hair/skin colour information, you can give a pretty good clue to the readers.
     
  4. halisme
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    halisme Contributing Member Contributor

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    The other issue is that humanity has basically been forced into a small area for the past two hundred years or so, so geographical clues will likely require a bit more explaining. The proximity also means that most cultures have mixed together, though are still some elements.
    The main issue I have with physical description is that I've never really read them being physically described in a way that isn't considered racist, instead people referring to the geographical location.
    Thanks for the help, I'll see if I can get it to work. If you have any further suggestions, please help.
     
  5. GingerCoffee
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    GingerCoffee Web Surfer Girl Contributor

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    Family lines, geographical origin, that's what ethnicity is.
     
  6. Commandante Lemming
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    Commandante Lemming Contributing Member Contributor

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    Yeah you may have to explain a little bit so that readers understand the world. You could also allude to the mixing having happened in the past by noting that certain people "retained their traits from before the great mixing" ...even before you explain how that actually happened. Actually you could use that to build mystery, allude to the fact that most people are now racially ambiguous in appearance, and that people who aren't middle-brown and culturally mixed stick out (whether they're Asian, Caucasian, or African in appearance)
     
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  7. BayView
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    BayView Contributing Member Contributor

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    Well, if they've been living together for 200 years and haven't interbred into beautiful beige wonder-beings, then there's probably some ethnic/cultural/racial tension keeping them apart? So you could play up the tensions in order to clarify the differences...
     
  8. halisme
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    halisme Contributing Member Contributor

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    That's actually an idea for a later story in the same setting if I ever get the first one finished, and there has been quite a lot of interbreeding, but mostly in certain areas.
     
  9. GoldenFeather
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    GoldenFeather Active Member

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    For now focus on describing them just as you want to, racist or not. Later in the writing process, or while you edit, it will come to you how to describe them in a way you would feel comfortable with. And you know what? Even if people might think it's racist, it's a story and you're painting a picture.

    Try not to care too much about readers' reactions right now. Focus on getting your story across and leave the worries for when you edit.
     
  10. ManOrAstroMan
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    ManOrAstroMan Magical Space Detective Contributor

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    If your fictional culture is based on a real world culture, readers can make logical assumptions based on things like surroundings and the syllables used in the characters' and places' names. Then, you can go a little easier on physical descriptions of the people as a group.
     

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