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Writing/Describing Different Ethnicities


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Apologies if this topic has been touched on before, but it’s on my mind at the moment, in part because one of my critiquers (not here) is totally confused by my descriptions of the reality-based but fictional ethnicities in my current story...confused to the point that the story isn’t working.

 

So first of all, for my readers—how do you picture the physical differences between Tur and Sev/Sevian characters in the stories? Is the fact that they’re aren’t many physical descriptions given problematic?

 

And second, a related general question for everyone—how do you go about describing physical characteristics of an ethnicity other than your own without being stereotypical or offensive?

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I can see Boris and Anna clearly as Easter block type. 

 

I have more difficulty with Tur/Sev differences. To be honest it doesn't really bother me that much as long as I can visualize the characters for myself when reading.

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31 minutes ago, Zee said:

And second, a related general question for everyone—how do you go about describing physical characteristics of an ethnicity other than your own without being stereotypical or offensive?

Interesting question. I'm Black, so my White characters are the ones who aren't my ethnicity. Sometimes I'll explicity mention their ethnicity early on, and at other times I'll describe their hair colour and texture as seen through another character's point of view. I haven't yet written other ethnicities, so I'm not entirely sure how I'd handle it beyond putting it in backstory.

 

Only my White characters blush and turn pale when in the grip of strong emotions. I use other descriptions for the non-White characters. Interesting side note-- I had to ask some White writer friends whether somebody can first blanch and then turn red if they're shocked and then embarrassed. I wasn't sure because my complexion stays the same no matter how I'm feeling. 😅

 

I think if you do your best to avoid cliches--in essence write well--you'll go a long way towards minimising stereotypical usage. For example, chocolate skin, almond eyes, mocha complexion, woolly hair... those are kind of cliched, and something a writer striving for excellent wordcraft should try to avoid, anyhow.

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One thing I read somewhere was to never use "almond" in reference to the shape of eyes when it comes to Asian characters.  This is now deemed offensive.  It leaves one in a bit of a quandary as, well, how else do you describe them?

 

I think it is less about describing physical characteristics, and more about personality traits that can be the real flashpoints in writing.  Lovecraft, in some of his earlier works, was fairly unkind to people of color (sometimes using the term "mongrel," to describe someone).  A general rule of thumb s to avoid using characters that are people of color that you might find in a pre-1960s movie (or maybe 1970).

 

The thing is that people are people, regardless of race.  And to be fair, there are some people in every community that have - what are generally seen as - negative characteristics.  My thought is that, if you brush up against these negative characteristics in a community, provide a character of the same community what contrasting habits.  If one character is a lazy drunkard, add one that is fastidious, hard-working, and sober.

 

Or, just simply don't go there.

 

In the end, if someone is looking to criticize, they find something regardless of your best efforts.  The best you can do is to try and be fair.  Write the person, not just the color of their skin.

 

Another thing is to simply not describe them at all.  Give characters vague, general descriptions, and let the reader fill in the blanks.

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To me, adding details that are not necessary to the story just bloat it unnecessarily and slow it down. I've only read a portion of your pieces, but I tend to imagine various East-European looks, with the Sevians being more northerners, like Poles or Russians, while the Tur are more southerners, like Bulgarians. Yet whether whether I'm right, or not, I don't think the difference matters, as long as it doesn't clash with the story. For all i know, they could look like the aliens in Avatar...

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1 hour ago, Zee said:

So first of all, for my readers—how do you picture the physical differences between Tur and Sev/Sevian characters in the stories? Is the fact that they’re aren’t many physical descriptions given problematic?

I think you did fine with the descriptions. I imagined the Sevian characters looking more Russian, and the Tur characters looking more Georgian or Turkish.

1 hour ago, Zee said:

how do you go about describing physical characteristics of an ethnicity other than your own without being stereotypical or offensive?

I'm not big on physical descriptions in my writing. I normally mention hair, eye color, and height; but that's about it. If the character is a different nationality, I'd probably just say it. For example, if I had a Chinese character.

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14 minutes ago, HK1 said:

I think you did fine with the descriptions. I imagined the Sevian characters looking more Russian, and the Tur characters looking more Georgian or Turkish.

 

That's actually fairly close to what I have in mind...something like the difference between ethnically Slavic East Europeans (Ukranian/Moldovan/Serbian) and ethnically Roma people...still with a European look, but slightly different, almost Turkish or Asian. But trying to describe these physical differences in a way that's clear to people not familiar with these ethnicities is tying my fingers up in knots...maybe I should just let it go.

 

Anyway, the tension of the story is supposed to arise from cultural/linguistic/values differences, not from physical details...racism is  far too simple when it's boiled down to "hating people who don't look like us."

 

27 minutes ago, Wes B said:

 Yet whether whether I'm right, or not, I don't think the difference matters, as long as it doesn't clash with the story. For all i know, they could look like the aliens in Avatar...

 

LOL! If all the characters were massively tall and blue, that would kind of spoil the effect of the story, don't you think?

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1 hour ago, Zee said:

LOL! If all the characters were massively tall and blue, that would kind of spoil the effect of the story, don't you think?

 

Oh, I dunno... It depends on the exact effect you're shooting for, and whether that effect is crucial to the story. By creating new ethnicities, you make them distinctly different from me as a reader, no matter what my ethnicity mat be. Let's take that to its logical conclusion. As long as we're fabricating ethnicities, why not fabricate species, as well? 🤡

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Guest kiwigummy

I didn't feel like I had the rapport with you to say that's actually how I felt. I couldn't understand the purpose of mixing and matching Sev, Tur, Greek. Why not just set it in the real world? I guess that's not the story you wanted to write, but it'd really help if there was consistency across the board.

 

And when describing ethnicities, why not just say the ethnicity?

Each country has a list of recognized ethnic groups. If the reader is interested, they can search up the pictures.

 

Example:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_ethnic_groups_in_China

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Honestly, your characters seem fine to me. If you want, you could go into detail with hair and eye color and such, but you don't need to write full-out pages of a description like Nathaniel Hawthorne did in The House of the Seven Gables. A few sentences or even just two will work. Your main goal is getting your plot down. Descriptions can wait.

Just go with what you think is best for your book though. 🙂

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12 hours ago, kiwigummy said:

I didn't feel like I had the rapport with you to say that's actually how I felt. I couldn't understand the purpose of mixing and matching Sev, Tur, Greek. Why not just set it in the real world? I guess that's not the story you wanted to write, but it'd really help if there was consistency across the board.

 

You mean like everything should be made-up, or everything should be real? I see what you mean, but you’re right— that’s not the story I wanted to tell. For various reasons, I decided “Alternative History” was the way to go. 

 

12 hours ago, kiwigummy said:

 

And when describing ethnicities, why not just say the ethnicity?

Each country has a list of recognized ethnic groups. If the reader is interested, they can search up the pictures.

 

Very true, but I wonder how many readers would take the time to do that...

 

 

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1 hour ago, Zee said:

For various reasons, I decided “Alternative History” was the way to go. 

 

Then I guess you should ask yourself whether you’re thinking Reader first when writing.

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1 hour ago, Zee said:

I decided “Alternative History” was the way to go. 

I agree with you 100%. If you were to use real-world ethnicities, then people of whichever one was the oppressive one would be offended that you don't understand them. Using made-up ethnicities is much more effective and easier on readers of all groups.

 

I did wonder how "they" could tell which ethnicity other people were if there were not recognizable differences. Some cultural differences were obvious in the other book, like having teeth pulled.

 

 

Edited by carolinamtne
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15 minutes ago, kiwigummy said:

 

Then I guess you should ask yourself whether you’re thinking Reader first when writing.

 

Well, I know I'm not going to delight all readers, but there are very few authors who accomplish that, regardless of genre or subject matter.  I have a few fans who really enjoy my work (the number's slowly growing) and I'd like to think I write for them.

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6 minutes ago, carolinamtne said:

I did wonder how "they" could tell which ethnicity other people were if there were not recognizable differences. Some cultural differences were obvious in the other book, like having teeth pulled.

 

There are slight physical differences--Tur people tend to be shorter, for one thing, and often (but not always) dark-haired.  Also, they speak two different languages, and have certain cultural peculiarities of appearance and dress, like tattoos, and the missing teeth, etc.  Sevian woman usually cover their hair with kerchiefs and Tur women do not.

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On 2/18/2021 at 2:51 PM, Zee said:

 

That's actually fairly close to what I have in mind...something like the difference between ethnically Slavic East Europeans (Ukranian/Moldovan/Serbian) and ethnically Roma people...still with a European look, but slightly different, almost Turkish or Asian. But trying to describe these physical differences in a way that's clear to people not familiar with these ethnicities is tying my fingers up in knots...maybe I should just let it go

Ok, I was close.

 

So you were able to describe enough for one reader to get a general idea anyway. 🙂

On 2/18/2021 at 1:38 PM, Jeff Potts said:

The best you can do is to try and be fair. 

I agree.

 

 

Write what God has for you and let Him worry about the rest.

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