1. NoGoodNobu
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    NoGoodNobu Senior Member

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    Unsettling "Exotic" Character Descriptons

    Discussion in 'Character Development' started by NoGoodNobu, Sep 28, 2016.

    [I hope this is the correct forum; my apologies if it is not]

    "Exoticism" as character description feels uncomfortable to me; while foreign features ARE beautiful, using the "foreignness" itself to depict beauty perturbs me

    To be fair, I'm hyper sensitive & consequently disturbed by these descriptions because I'm from a mixed cultural family, and my mother has always been approached by creeps who view her as some exotic prize. "I've always wanted a _____ woman" as if their ethnic fetish is a compliment. (Thankfully I myself as a complete mutt come across as simply Caucasian 93% of the time and so have personally experienced this only on rare occasions.)

    But when I read descriptions using ethnic qualities as the basis of expressing "s/he's beautiful and/or desirable" I actively cringe. Especially because the character the author is describing generally is not in fact any of the ethnicities s/he used for descriptions. It's even worse when s/he mixes them: eyes like an Arabian princess, lush curls like a Greek god, et cetera, et cetera; it's like the sin of mixed metaphors, only fundamentally more disquieting (as though you can simply cut up various persons of colour and stitch their foreign features together to create the ultimate exotic experience). And it predominantly seems these authors tend to use romanticized stereotypes that seem to play right into the whole ethnic fetish.

    It makes the characters feel like one dimensional objects to ogle, and not the beautiful or desirable individuals I'm assuming the author intended to depict.

    And there's nothing wrong with foreign features being found beautiful. There's a distinction between when an author depicts particular ethnic features & shows us how lovely the individual is vs. when an author uses these foreign qualities or "exoticness" to ultimately define their character's beauty.

    Am I the only one that feels this way?

    And I'm curious, if any one writes like the above that I'm criticizing, what your take on it is? I don't mean to actively berate the authors, and it might be helpful to know their point of view & reasons why they choose to write like this.

    I've been surprised several times of late when someone takes the time to calmly & carefully explain a differing view point that I actually have altered my stance. It's human nature to bristle & become defensive at poignant flat contradictions, but I've found that civil discussions can really get opposing ideas across for calm consideration.

    So please feel free to offer differing opinions.

    This is most likely a highly subjective impression. I just personally really don't like it

    ( >人<; )
     
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  2. Wreybies
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    Wreybies The Ops Pops Operations Manager Staff Contest Administrator Supporter Contributor

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    Moved to Character Development
     
  3. Wreybies
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    Wreybies The Ops Pops Operations Manager Staff Contest Administrator Supporter Contributor

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    As to the question: I too know how it feels to be seen and engaged in a way that has my foreignness trump my me-ness. When I was much younger, I thought nothing of capitalizing on being the "hot Latino guy" and it was really only when I moved to a place where being Latino is the norm, not the exception, that I saw how playing that card was a double edged sword.

    As regards portraying this in fiction...

    I am dead against revisionism. I am against the idea of never portraying something that genuinely exists in the real world. I think it's a serious mistake and tackles the problem from the wrong direction. I neither write nor read 1st person pov writing, so I don't really know how best to handle it when the narrative belongs to a participating character, rather than the disembodied recount of the 3rd person narrator. In 3rd person, there is a distinct difference between how the writer presents these things within the narrative and how a given character (or characters) engages this. The author can (and should, imo) seperate him/herself from the way the characters engage, and through this the author can handle the issue in a more level fashion.
     
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  4. NoGoodNobu
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    NoGoodNobu Senior Member

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    Sorry, and thank you.

    I thought it might not fit as it's narrative descriptions & so I thought it was not actual "development" of a character

    But I was uncertain
     
  5. Wreybies
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    Wreybies The Ops Pops Operations Manager Staff Contest Administrator Supporter Contributor

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    No worries. :) I think it's best addressed by Character Development because the question, at its core, has to do with the separation of the author from the individual viability of the characters and their personalities.

    Example: If there is just one person - we'll call him Bill - who is entranced by the exotic beauty of Phuong (Pheonix in Vietnamese), then the writer needs to consider how, when, and why Phuong's exotic beauty is described. If it comes gratuitously out of nowhere, from characters who aren't entranced, or from the unsolicited narrator, then we have a case similar to omniscient breast. When this happens, we have undermined character development to a significant degree and interposed ourselves, the writer, in front of the characters.
     
  6. NoGoodNobu
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    NoGoodNobu Senior Member

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    I agree that I am not a supported of revisionist, and do believe existing actions/beliefs/et cetera are all fair game to illustrate in writing (any other creative medium).

    I think my issue is it just seems so casual and not specifically from another character's view point, just a narrative's physical description of a new character. I don't think author's necessarily intend to address or depict ethnic fetishism; I think they ignorantly use comparisons or descriptions of exotic features as a means to evoke beauty or desirability of said character.

    She's a beautiful dark brunette, so to express she's both I'll compare her to a Spanish coquette. Or she has the most delicate pale skin without blemish, so I'll compare it to that of a Chinese imperial consort.

    It's like the way to portray beauty or beautiful qualities jumps immediately to the exotic, whether or not the character is in fact ethnic.

    Does that make sense?
     
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  7. Wreybies
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    Wreybies The Ops Pops Operations Manager Staff Contest Administrator Supporter Contributor

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    Yeah, I defo get it. Mmm.... I guess it's not something I run into too often in my own writing because my settings are nearly always such that referencing a Spanish coquette or Chinese Imperial Consort (or any male equivalents in describing men) would be serious anachronisms. My stories rarely take place in the real world. There's no reason for any of the characters to even know what "Spanish" or "Chinese" mean or refer to or are meant to evoke, and if it's the narrator making these comparisons, well, I'm always eyeballing my narrator to ensure there is no intrusion. The narrator making this kind of comparison would be compromising the setting I am trying to create by making use of anachronism. It's a thing I think about sometimes too much! :-D So, yeah, I totally see what you're saying, but again, my own experience in writing led me to a different initial conclusion since my characters really cannot think in these terms for lack of any exposure to them, and because I'm always slapping my narrator back into his/her place as dispassionate observer.
     
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  8. Cave Troll
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    Cave Troll Bite the bullet, do your own thing. Contributor

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    Well I would like to walk the thin red line, so to speak. Although first and foremost a character's character should
    be at the forefront of who they are as individuals. When it comes to exotic in my mind, is Xenos/Aliens. People are
    much to mundane, and so are alternatively Fantasy races ( they often come off like being foreign people in a different
    country, IMO). So when I think of exotic coupled with beauty as you put it, I would rather spend it on species/races
    that are much more intriguing as far as design, form, function, etc. Although just because they are from the stars
    does not correlate to their attractiveness, as many make up for the physical with the mental aspects. And yes there
    are those where these two qualities combine into whatever crazy body one can think up ( For a brief stint I had a
    human attracted to a 7ft female lizard that just so happens to be able to reproduce like a mammal. Having both
    features of intelligence and beauty. Also a tail. :D .

    So I think it all comes down to perception that the author is trying to convey to the reader, or how the reader
    interprets what has been writ. Though I think that messages get mixed up in the exchange sometimes, it all
    depends on just how much liberty the author has taken in overly justifying the extensive description. Leaning
    into the overly sexual nature because it shows the authors obsession to that particular character description. :)
     
  9. Commandante Lemming
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    Commandante Lemming Contributing Member Contributor

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    Yeah, I think on the whole you're right. Obviously there's always a time and place for purposeful use of problematic metaphors FROM THE POINT OF VIEW OF OTHER CHARACTERS - but doing it haphazardly is both offensive and lazy, and really it should only be employed when the language itself is important to a point you're making about either the character or the language itself. Obviously we all have our biases and it takes time to flake them up, but the entire goal of a lot of writing is to crawl out of your own skin and feel on behalf of someone else - which is especially important when you're writing outside your own culture.

    I also think it's one thing to select a culture for a character because it feels strangely alluring to you as an author - I think at some level we all do that with every character (whether the "exotic" element is a trait, a gender, an experience, whatever) - but it's another thing to then treat that character as an exotic plaything yourself. I'll fully admit that almost every character I write is someone I find "foreign" or "exotic" in some way - and occasionally that includes culture - but that gives me huge obligations to treat them properly. For instance, I know that something in my unconscious bias finds Indian-American culture exotic relative to my own experience, and therefore alluring and fascinating (I don't even consciously know why) - and that for some reason I find Jainism as a religion to be an object of deep intellectual curiosity. That was definitely a reason that one of my primary novel characters ended up being an Indian-American Jain - it was an experience foreign to me that I found fascinating enough to invest research in. However, once that character exists in your head or on paper, you're OBLIGATED to see things from THEIR perspective - and assuming they behave like real people, they probably resent being exoticized by anyone (including you as the author). I'm not one who says their characters have minds of their own, but having imaginary friends is a bit like having real friends in the sense that once you actually get to know a person in some depth, you start to realize just how hurtful certain things can be to them. That - and assuming your story gets published, it's worth assuming that someone from the group you're writing WILL eventually read your stuff - and there you have a very REAL person whose feelings you need to consider, even if you never meet them.
     
    Last edited: Sep 28, 2016
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  10. deadrats
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    deadrats Active Member

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    Who are these authors who use "romanticized stereotypes" and "foreign qualities or 'exoticness' to ultimately define their character's beauty?" What you're describing is not something I tend to come across in my reading. I'm surprised that this is something you see often. Maybe some real examples would help. But I don't see the problem with it as long as the author can avoid being cliche. Some people look exotic. Some people have these features. And characters can look that way too.

    Also, a character description has nothing to do with a character being one dimensional. There is a lot more that goes into character development than appearance.
     
  11. Cave Troll
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    Cave Troll Bite the bullet, do your own thing. Contributor

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    @deadrats You need to read Erotica or Romance to make things easier, than say trusting to the other
    genres. There are plenty of both that I am sure will go through a whole lot of in depth hyper-sexual
    descriptions of the exotic variety (Erotica I know will, but I assume Romance will too as it is
    Erotica Light). :p
     
  12. NoGoodNobu
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    NoGoodNobu Senior Member

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    First, this is not an universal issue with all writers or written works and I'm sorry if I made it sound as though it were. This usually isn't a problem in majority of the works I read or enjoy. It's generally quite infrequent. But it does happen that I come across works where this is present, and I come out feeling icky. I only created the thread because I recently read something which made me feel this way, and I couldn't find another thread or literary venue to openly discuss it.

    Second, I'm actually actively avoiding pointing out individual books & authors. I don't mean for this to be a political-correctness witch hunt or to actively accuse any particular person of cultural insensitivity or impropriety. That isn't my focus. I just wanted openly & safely discuss my personal (& possibly incredibly subjective) experiences and for others to share their experiences or various interpretations or points of view. I will say that I do find it more prevalent among unpublished or self-published works (that I've read online or as an e-book) and only very rarely in any sort of professional publication.

    I personally think that the majority of these writers mean absolutely no harm, and that's why I don't want to sound as though I'm attacking them or accusing them of something intentionally nasty
     
  13. deadrats
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    deadrats Active Member

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    I'm not on a witch hunt. The only reason I asked for an actual example is because I couldn't think of one on my own or ever feeling that way about something I read. Maybe I would have the same reaction as you if I read the same thing.
     
  14. theoriginalmonsterman
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    theoriginalmonsterman Pickle Contest Administrator Contributor

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    Like deadrats said, it's hard to relate when no examples are given. I think I understand it though. When people describe characters by using traits from other people(s) you find it as a weak way to describe a character, and treats the character more like an object when it's done that way.

    You'd prefer if people conveyed beauty in a character by using distinctive traits rather than just taking the likeness of something else and smacking it on the character. Would I be correct?
     
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  15. Cave Troll
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    Cave Troll Bite the bullet, do your own thing. Contributor

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    @Wreybies the link you shared was a little slanted to the neo-feminist agenda.
    That is not to say it was not interesting, just a little didn't expect the sub-text behind it.
    While I don't typically write either sex in a sexual manner unless either of the characters
    involved is doing the sexulization of the other. (Erotica does not count on this occasion.)
    So where I found the article was slanted, was when it came down to comic books and some
    of the images of a female being sexualized. My first thought was that comic books are typically
    aimed at young boys and men, so naturally they would be adding elements that draw in that
    demographic that they are aiming at. This kinda took me out of the overall discussion she
    was making, by directly addressing something that would prove her narratives positive by
    proxy in using comic books as an example. There was also no mention of any passages from
    specific books that would support her position that male authors make female characters
    sexual objects. This is what proved to me that this was part of an agenda other than simply
    expressing the difference from which gender is writing from their perception.
    Any who, it was a decent and informative read, regardless that it was serving a veiled agenda.
    I would have liked to see evidence to back up her position, instead of jumping to the first and
    simplest thing that would prove her point. I found it anecdotal at best. Though I must forgive
    the fact that they tried to prove a point with very little to support their claim as it is their personal
    blog. Still an insight into a much better discussion on the topic of 'author gaze' as a whole. I
    for one have not read a Sci-fi book where the female characters are sexual objects anywhere
    in the narrative ( at least none I can recall). Thanks for posting it. :)
     
    Last edited: Sep 29, 2016
  16. NoGoodNobu
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    NoGoodNobu Senior Member

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    Yes, that's pretty much accurate.

    I feel comfortable using Bronte's Jane Eyre as an example, although it's not actually accurate in that it's first person narrative & Jane Eyre's description reveals an internal fascination with the exotic as well as reflects the societal anglocentrism & the literary romantic orientalism of the period. Which in fact is very different than my discomfort at modern narrative descriptions choosing exotic comparisons. But it does, to some degree, use foreign features to define the beauty or desirability of (the English) Blanche Ingram.

    “delineate carefully the loveliest face you can imagine; paint it in your softest shades and sweetest lines, according to the description given by Mrs. Fairfax of Blanche Ingram; remember the raven ringlets, the oriental eye . . . Recall the august yet harmonious lineaments, the Grecian neck and bust"

    Edit: this just made me think that perhaps it is important that these choices of narration exist, as it might depict a facet of society in this time period to future generations. So while it may make me personally uncomfortable when I come across it, it is valid to be preserved in literature.
     
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  17. Cave Troll
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    Cave Troll Bite the bullet, do your own thing. Contributor

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    Looking at this phrasing as an artsy fartsy type I can see the metaphor in it (though I could be way wrong).

    paint it in your softest shades : gentle, delicate, refined, and the like.

    sweetest lines : lines are a defining quality, and lets just suppose that is how she treats Mrs. Fairfax as being sweet in nature.

    The forefront is merely a gratuitous embellishment of a compliment, that precedes the descriptors.
    So I fail to see how that is trying to paint Miss Ingram in a less than flattering way. The language
    used is a lot more 'flowery', than what we see in modern literature. It would also be good to know
    to whom Mrs. Fairfax is telling this to begin with, that would point in a direction that is anything
    but flattering.
     
  18. Commandante Lemming
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    Commandante Lemming Contributing Member Contributor

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    I didnt post a link, @Cave Troll - although @Wreybies linked something earlier.
     
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  19. NoGoodNobu
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    NoGoodNobu Senior Member

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    I am so sorry, I made a stupid presumption that everyone has read Jane Eyre and, what's more, has perfect memory of all the story & scenes.

    That particular excerpt is from when Jane Eyre (the narrator & protagonist) decides to create two paintings to set up a stark contrast between her plain self and the renowned beauty of Miss Ingram, as a reminder of Jane's place to herself & her comparative insignificance.

    Mrs. Fairfax is the housekeeper where Jane works, who gave her description of Miss Ingram to Jane, which notably never said the English aristocrat Miss Ingram had oriental or Grecian features, but Jane's imagination filled this in from Mrs. Fairfax' description:

    “Tall, fine bust, sloping shoulders; long, graceful neck: olive complexion, dark and clear; noble features; eyes rather like Mr. Rochester’s: large and black, and as brilliant as her jewels. And then she had such a fine head of hair; raven-black and so becomingly arranged: a crown of thick plaits behind, and in front the longest, the glossiest curls I ever saw.”

    And it is not that the choice of exotic descriptions are meant as insulting to the ethnicity used as comparison or to the individual being compared. Quite the contrary: it's the use of "exotic" qualities to ultimately define the character's beauty that I found uncomfortable & very much similiar to ethnic fetishes.
     
  20. Iain Sparrow
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    Iain Sparrow Senior Member

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    The problem, is that I'm a red-blooded (white) male who does indeed find some women of different ethnic backgrounds to be... somewhat exotic.
    Similarly, I find some places, animals, natural wonders that are far removed from America to also be exotic. To me, Nepal is exotic, a Snow Leopard, a fishing village in the Azores. I think it comes from a natural curiosity of all things foreign... though I will agree with you that often enough in fiction there is a disquieting element of superiority to the type of descriptions you take issue with.
    When I do encounter the sort of writing that bothers you, it's usually in classic literature written many decades ago, Kipling comes to mind, also Conrad.

    Just as an experiment, describe me as if I'm a character in a story of yours...

    ... Lord Sparrow, his long unforgiving hair the color of Autumn leaves, and broken hearts. Skin like bread dough, piercing eyes that looked like eyes because they were eye-shaped, not almonds.o_O
     
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  21. Cave Troll
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    Cave Troll Bite the bullet, do your own thing. Contributor

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    Well first off it is not your fault that not everyone has read it. You are by no means 'stupid' @NoGoodNobu , so don't think like that.
    Secondly I said I could be wrong with my interpretation, it is not uncommon.

    I found a sketch that would best represent the description given.
    blanche_ingram_by_adabsurdum.jpg
    It quite accurately portrays the description from the passage. (At least as best they can interpret it)
    I still kinda fail to find the problem with the interpretation of the passage even after seeing it manifest
    as a depiction. Maybe I am missing something. Typically the person who stands out will be perceived
    as exotic and have some extra quality, since they do not look like everyone else. The odd man out so to speak,
    is considered more attractive in a mass of similarity. Being unique makes you more desirable whether you
    want to be or not. It is a human thing.

    @Commandante Lemming My Apologies I shall correct that error, Thank you. :)
     
  22. NoGoodNobu
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    NoGoodNobu Senior Member

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    I will do my darnedest never to offend your hair or do anything to get on it's bad side.

    I don't know if I can cope with the idea of hair holding a perpetual grudge against me. . .



    Also in all honesty, as a warm-blooded (of whatever shade it bleeds) female, I also find various foreign features attractive. I've had the biggest crush on a Ukrainian boy named Igor, and I've been utterly charmed by a Peruvian classmate, and I have found myself saying on several occasions how drop-dead sexy so many African ladies are. But I personally believe there are gorgeous people of every ethnicity, and every people & culture has a fairly equivalent number of unattractives as any other.

    I think my issue is to equate their beauty only to their exoticness; I honestly think these individuals would also be considered attractive even within their own ethnic communities, and while the features that are so fascinating are uniquely foreign, there is more behind it than simply that.

    It's okay to find other ethnicities attractive; they all really are. That isn't the same as the creeps with racial fetishism (just because you can see or acknowledge a Korean woman as stunning does not necessitate that you have "Yellow Fever"). And it's not quite the same as saying someone is only beautiful because of their ethnic qualities, or describing someone as beautiful by comparing them to ethnicities they are not.

    However, I really do appreciate everyone's point and discussion on this topic. I am starting to think differently of the written depictions (even if my instinctive emotional response may remain just the same). You all raise good points and have unique view points to consider.
     
  23. Tenderiser
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    Tenderiser Not a man Contest Administrator Contributor

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    I've read this thread a few times since it popped up and I'm still struggling to understand the issue. It seems (as far as I can tell) that you're okay with the similies themselves as long as the author isn't using them just because they're 'exotic'?

    Edit: Reading this back, it sounds hostile. Not my intention! I want to understand but am too dense. I need Unsettling Exotic Character Descriptions for Dummies.
     
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  24. KaTrian
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    I write in close 3rd so if another character is described, it's through the eyes of the POV character. It's unlikely all my characters would be so sensitive to other people's feelings and so in tune with social justice talking points they'd refrain from finding a person with "foreign" looks exotic or something similar. In one WIP, I wrote this American soldier and he considered the woman who came to visit him exotic, except I didn't use the word "exotic" but I might as well because he was attracted to her foreigness and otherness, plus he had a bit of a thing for black hair and bronze skin.

    People have been attracted to my foreigness as well, and I've never had a problem with that. I think it's quite natural for us to be curious or get enchanted by something we don't see every day. On account of our infinitely eurocentric outlook on everything, it's easy to forget how other ethnicities perceive us. E.g. it never occurred to me before that dark brown hair and blue eyes would be considered exotic outside of Scandinavia (my husband's experience) and my bright blonde friend has told me the Japanese people won't leave her hair alone when she's out and about there. I'm flattered when people think the shape of my eyes, face, and cheekbones look exotic. Makes me feel special and different. I've never found it malicious or demeaning, or that it would've somehow made me feel worthless. So yeah, sorry, on a personal level I don't agree with you, but it's your right to be offended or feel uncomfortable; things that don't perturb you probably get under my skin. Having said that, I can understand that e.g. the sexy, exotic Latina trope can make some Hispanic women feel like they have to meet some weird sexual expectations or they're reduced to just looks (objectified?). Japanese and Thai women might also feel this way as they're quite popular among mostly white men due to their ethnicity, but I hesitate to speak for others. I'm not sure if there's a sexy exotic Slavic woman trope, so it's possible I'm less likely to be affected by the negative side of "ethnicity based admiration" or whatever you might call it, and this is another reason -- besides my personality -- that I don't mind if someone thinks foreigness = beauty. This is not so say unsettling descriptions couldn't exist.

    A topical example of how not to do this would be great, though. Considering how important identity politics are to a lot of people nowadays, plenty of blog posts and Goodreads reviews written about offensive descriptions must exist. I once came across this blog about writing people of color. The author outlined what not to do (although, again, no examples given), and I found it curious that she said PoC's don't want their skin tone to be compared to food like café latte. It's a cliché, of course, but she wasn't clear if this was the reason to avoid it or if it was because food is... bad? I think it had more to do with such comparisons just being too common, but then again, Nalo Hopkinson, Toni Morrison and Yvonne Vera make it work, so yeah, goes to show there are no hard and fast "rules" (she also advised not to show AAVE in spelling. I guess she never read Sapphire's Push).

    I think as an author, you want to find fresh similes and adjectives, and if you write in close third or 1st person, make sure the word choice is in the voice of the POV character. Secondly, you'd choose something you are comfortable with because you can't know what your audience reacts positively or negatively to, unless it's something really egregious and obvious. So if you cringe when you read something like "She reminded him of some Arabian princess sprung to life from the pages of Thousand and One Nights", avoid them in your own writing, at the very least. Lead by example. ;)
     
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  25. Wreybies
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    The article is undoubtedly weighted in a certain direction - and I am certainly not a 3rd wave feminist - but I quoted it specifically for the part where she speaks about omniscient breasts. Put aside the feminist lean and she still has a completely valid point that POV has been comprimised in the story when the narrative begins to wax rhapsodic about these breasts. I can give a specific example: James White in his Sector General novels (Science Fiction) was constantly guilty of "omniscient breasts". Nurse Murchison is the only regularly occurring human female in this franchise of books and is neverendlingly described in terms of her enviable and generous female attributes. James White catches a lot of flack for this. The only human female in a franchise about an interspecies hospital is a nurse (of course) and we are made to know - every ten pages - that she has bosoms the likes of which have felled nations. Seriously. :wtf: White tries to fix this later in the franchise by fast-tracking her career up to doctor in Pathology (pathologists and diagnosticians are the gods of Sector General), but if you never make it past the slump in his writing (there are two or three books in a row that aren't very good) then you would never know this. Anywho... the treatment of Murchison in the books is such that even her description in the franchise's wiki page is given as:


    But again, as I noted later in this discussion once I got on the same page as the OP, the kinds of descriptions the OP is talking about are not very common in science fiction or fantasy, but for a reason that comes prior in the order condescendi. You cannot reference exotic beauty by making use of real-world ethnic fetish if the ethnicities in question do not exist in the framework of the story. No one in Westeros or Essos (including the 3rd person narrator) can refer to Daenerys as a "Nordic beauty" because Nordic doesn't exist as a thing in that world. And though you could technically do this in Science Fiction if our real Earth or humans from real Earth are in play, I still think it doesn't really occur in Science Fiction for the same reason. It may be technically possible, but the author is too invested in the fomenting of suspension of disbelief to make such a reference that pulls the reader back to the real world for a reference source.
     
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