Writing Gripes: Physical Attributes

Today, I read an interesting post by Hannah Sutker at The Huffington Post called “Writing and Polite Racism”. Essentially it was about how some writers tend to approach writing race in characters in two ways: (1) Ignoring it; or (2) Watering it down into more ambiguous terms. Since Miss Sutker does such a sublime job at writing her own article, you can read the entire thing here but what I wanted to focus on was point number 2.

In the article, Miss Sutker provides some fine examples of the physical characteristics of ethnic characters being compared to food stuff. A part of me wonders whether it’s because as children we were made to learn poetic techniques (similes, metaphors, personification, onomatopoeia – remember learning these fun tidbits for about 8 years?) and then forcefully inject them into every piece of creative writing we ever did. Did this contribute to the lack of originality when describing ethnic characters? Or is it really like Miss Sutker suggests? That authors “water down” racial character descriptions so as not to draw attention to race itself?

Nevertheless, this is not a topic that I feel like I have an informed opinion on. What I do have an opinion on however, is the bits of racial character descriptions that I see in books that annoy me (but not all are related to food!). Here’s the top 3:

1. “Almond shaped eyes”

A character descriptor most commonly used on characters with Asian heritage. FYI, I’m 100% Chinese and my eye shape does not resemble mildly delicious nuts. Just sayin’.

2. “A halo of frizzy hair”

Usually used when describing a character of African or African American descent. I suppose frizzy hair could be described as a halo if it is gravity defying and surrounding the head, but in my mind it just conjures up images of somebody with a doughnut made of hair that is hovering angelically above.

3. “Chocolate coloured skin”

Again, used to describe darker skin toned people. This isn’t quite as annoying as it is common because I feel like writers could think outside the box with this one because chocolate is not the only thing that is darker in colour. My dislike for this description is very much akin to my dislike for when writers harp on about how “the colour of her eyes were like fresh blades of grass in the spring” but when it comes to brown eyed girls and boys, it’s either “chocolate” or just “dark”. Come on guys, consider putting a little thought into it.

Now I realise that this whole post just turned into me revealing how nitpicky I am, but aren’t all roses flowers? Are Ferraris not cars? And are not blogs essentially spaces for opinion and occasionally ranting?

I’m sorry, I’ll dial back the melodrama in the future but for now, answer me this: What is your biggest gripe when it comes to describing ethnic characters in books?

Till next time,

Not Another Mary Sue

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