1. Rebecca Farrier

    Rebecca Farrier New Member

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    Describing Characters 'not of earth' without anachronisms?

    Discussion in 'Character Development' started by Rebecca Farrier, Jan 23, 2017.

    I have a few characters who are really hard to describe without using descriptions like 'middle eastern' or 'western' or 'oriental'. However their story isn't set on earth so those terms wouldn't exist.

    How do I describe features that are distinctly middle eastern for example, without using those words? I need the reader to understand that they look very Arabic without actually saying it, and I'm COMPLETELY lost! :(
     
  2. Shadow Reeves

    Shadow Reeves Active Member

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    just describe a middle eastern man? "His skin carried the natural tan common to hot desert and equatorial regions, a thick mop of black hair which he'd not attempted to brush sat just above thick eyebrows while his equally dark beard looked well managed and sat a handspan below his chin. Deep lines around his eyes from squinting became deeper as he smiled at me, his white teeth sat crooked in a stark contrast to his dark features. 'wan't to touch my beard?' he asked me with a wink "

    also using clothing helps identify culture. "the women all had traditional small red dots between their eyes, with many wearing head scarves". - BOOM! Indian
     
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  3. deadrats

    deadrats Contributor Contributor

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    These how-do-you-describe questions pop up a lot. Honestly, you're the writer. I'm sure you've described plenty of things. If you really don't know how to describe things, I suggest doing a lot more reading. Reading good books with good descriptions is going to help you a lot more than anything that will be said here.
     
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  4. ChickenFreak

    ChickenFreak Contributor Contributor

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    This description is very strongly white centric--everything is contrasted with a light-skinned, straight-hair standard. I wouldn't suggest that strategy.
     
  5. Shadow Reeves

    Shadow Reeves Active Member

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    I never mentioned white skin, or straight hair, nor did i make a contrasting remark or any kind of juxtaposition. This could be from the view point of a black woman and still be correct. So i genuinely don't understand how you consider this white-centric. How do you say someone has a dark beard without using the words dark or black? "his beard was equal in hue to that of a starless night sky" seems a little superfluous to me.
     
  6. ChickenFreak

    ChickenFreak Contributor Contributor

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    "Natural tan" suggests that a normal skin color is lighter. Someone to whom very dark skin was their cultural normal might describe this same person as, "His skin had the faded color typical of..."

    The "mop...not attempted to brush..." and the contrasting approval of the beard seems to me to come from the point of view of someone with fairly straight hair. Someone from a culture where naturally curly hair is allowed to be natural might instead say, again of this same person, "His hair had a normal tight curl, but his beard was tortured into the weak, dangling texture fashionable in (location)..."

    (Edited to remove "tight" from the curl, because, again, that assumes an uncurled normal. In fact, maybe 'normal texture' instead of 'normal curl'?)

    Being struck by the presence of white teeth assumes that the observer usually sees people whose teeth are much closer in color to their skin. Again, different observer, same person, might say, "His teeth seemed to retreat into his mouth..." This one is probably pushing it; I'm just trying to emphasize that what one is struck by communicates what one regards as normal.

    Edited to add: This character is pretty clearly being observed by a light-skinned, mostly-straight-haired person who sees light skin and straight hair as normal. If you have a first person or close third person narrator, that's fine. If the narrator is more impersonal or is NOT a white-skinned straight-haired character, then the original description is setting a standard of "normal" that is either white-centric, or just doesn't make sense.
     
    Last edited: Jan 23, 2017
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  7. ChickenFreak

    ChickenFreak Contributor Contributor

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    Returning to note: I'm not saying that I'm immune to this. I'm a white woman who was raised in a largely white environment. I'm saying all of this because I know that I myself need to avoid the mistake of treating whiteness as everyone's normal. The day of the "flesh" crayon needs to be over.
     
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  8. Wreybies

    Wreybies Arroz Con Admin Operations Manager Staff Supporter Contributor

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    You are correct that these things happen a lot more than we realize. In the film Battle for Terra, there's a scene that always bugs me silly because of this kind of phenomenon. The two main protags from Terra (natives) are flying and this big creature comes up from under them out of a lower cloud deck and they call it a sky whale. Sky whale implies that they know what a regular whale is and need to say sky to differentiate. They've never seen a regular whale. Different planet and pretty much everything flies in some form or another. Why don't they just say whale? I'm ok with them calling it a whale, but sky whale bugs.

    [​IMG]
     
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  9. Shadow Reeves

    Shadow Reeves Active Member

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    i disagree almost entirely, you are trying to add comparisons to a character that does not exist. you are saying "if they were black you might say X" but they are a null-entity. there is no point saying "if"...they do not have a skin colour, they don't exist so there is no point putting forward those examples. i could write it a dozen different ways if there was a character but my writing is almost entirely neutral.

    1. "...skin carried the natural tan common to hot desert and equatorial regions" this is completely objective. it doesnt matter if you are white or black or yellow there is no ambiguity as to the colour i am describing, Tan is the name of a colour. The closer to the equator you live, the darker your skin becomes. https://goo.gl/prb8qE . It is a natural tan for that region and whatever your base of reference is....that fact will not change.

    2. Mops are straight. have you ever seen a mop? they are straight, but unruly. A mop of hair does not mean curly, it means there is a lot of it, it is long, and it is unkempt. to claim "his hair had a normal tight curl" is being far more presumptuous to the character's origins than i have been. Afghani men and women have predominantly straight hair, it isn't particularly curly - wavy perhaps - but it is thick. - here is a mop for reference. https://goo.gl/5SCeSt

    3. Saying there is a contrast between white teeth and dark skin does not allude to a lack of white teeth or a commonality of white skin, you seem to be stretching so far. If I was a black man, or the character was black there would still be a noteworthy contrast between white teeth and dark skin.

    I never said anything about Flesh colour. You are throwing out non sequiturs to give evidence against an argument that doesn't exist. Please rewrite my piece completely neutral, show me what it is to write without a black, white or brown - centric view, but also keep it interesting. i am genuinely interested.
     
  10. ChickenFreak

    ChickenFreak Contributor Contributor

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    Well, "flesh" also used to be the name of a color. Admittedly, the origin of "tan" appears to refer to tanned leather, rather than the tanned skin. However, the modern-day use of the term "tan" is likely to refer to "tanned", and that gets you into relative skin colors. The second definition of "tan" when I Google a definition is "a golden-brown shade of skin developed by pale-skinned people after exposure to the sun." I'd recommend a different word, one less closely tied to relative skin colors.

    Actually, it was the expectation of brushing, not the mop, that I was talking about. Not all hair types are appropriate subjects for brushes. Your narrative point of view assumes that hair should be brushed. It's entirely possible that the POV character and the subject of the description are both from a culture where that is true. My point is that the narrative point of view is communicating an assumption.

    That's because my whole point was to communicate that your description had an origin-based/culture-based point of view. So I presented a different origin-based/culture-based point of view. So the fact that it's origin-based is by design. (I also, possibly after you started to reply, corrected the "tight curl" and changed to "normal texture", because if what I would see as a tight curl IS a normal texture for another observer, then "tight curl" makes no sense. We remark on what seems unusual, not on what seems normal.)

    Again, we remark on what seems unusual. I'm glancing at the TV, and seeing that there's a distinct contrast between the white teeth and peach-colored skin of the white people on TV. But I had to look, and think about it, to observe that, because it's totally normal to me. I wouldn't normally remark on it. In the same way, a character or narrator who remarks on the contrast between white teeth and a darker skin color is making it clear that dark skin is unusual to them.

    I can't really see the character. I need a picture, and I still need a point of view. My point is that any description has a point of view. A narrator providing a description will describe what is different from normal, and skim over what is the same as normal. So a white-centric point of view isn't neutral, it's a white-centric point of view.

    So, come to think of it, I'd need a picture of the character being described, and one of the character doing the describing. Ideally I'd need a detailed biography of the one doing the describing, but I could just assume that their appearance is "normal" for their background.
     
  11. Cave Troll

    Cave Troll Loved by a Sweet lady. :) Supporter Contributor

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    I agree with @Wreybies on that point.

    @Rebecca Farrier

    They are a well-disposed people of soft olive and bronze with warm eyes reminiscent of rich tobacco, and locks as dark as onyx.

    I hope this helps a smidgen with your descriptive needs. :supersmile:
     
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  12. Reed R Gale

    Reed R Gale Member

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    I think in this, and the following post, you inherently bring up an interesting point: we must always use contrasting things to denote a the perspective of something. Staying purely neutral takes away emotion from descriptions you might want to be emotional. I think instead of worrying about 'white-washing' we should worry more about 'who's speaking?' Which @ChickenFreak you do mention later...

    ...but I felt needed more extrapolation.

    This could suggest a million more things that should, to some degree, be taken into account. Maybe the 'non-attempt to brush' could be taken within the context of an individual with curly hair. I personally have a friend with an afro who complains if they don't have the opportunity to comb their hair in the morning. I hardly notice because I have straight hair, but someone with curly hair might totally notice.

    Or... maybe you're right and it is someone with straight hair noting something they find distasteful about the persons appearance because it isn't like their own. As you stated before, we need to pay attention to perspective. However, locking ourselves into a single viewpoint that simply looks at racial divide can prevent us from seeing things as the character or narrator we attempt to portray might.

    [​IMG]

    ...but though thems be fightin words...

    Therein lies the point, we all can argue all day about erasing connotation from our pieces, but I ask why? Sure, work to remove it as much as possible when you want someone as neutral as possible... but most people, most readers, most writers, most characters, hell, most narrators have some perspective. Instead of trying to erase the connotation, why not play it in a certain direction?
     

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