Children's writing

Character Races

Earlier this week, YA author Mitali Perkins posed this question on Facebook, Twitter, and then her blog: Should authors describe a character’s race?

As a reader, I admit that I tend to gloss over character descriptions. My brain and I prefer to draw our own characters based on other information, including our own personal experience. My vision of a surly, generous, or attractive character is undoubtedly different from the visions of others, so why not let me create him/her according to my personal tastes? Chances are I’ll like (dislike) him/her better.

The exception to this is when the race of the character matters to the story. In this case, however, there may be other cues besides overt character descriptions that will inform my imagination. If I learn the character lives in Lebanon, or if his mother has falafel on the stove, I’ll imagine accordingly.


As a writer, I hate character description, and not just race but pretty much all character description. Stereotypes and cliches are rampant (African-Americans have skin like some kind of coffee beverage, and boys have long curled eyelashes girls would envy–bleh and bleh) and the presentation is almost always awkward, standing out apart from the story, calling attention to itself. I’ve mentioned here before how much I hate self-description in first person narratives; it’s almost always unnatural (I gazed at him with my dreamy blue eyes–bleh again). Whenever possible I minimize or avoid character description. Unless it’s relevant to the story, I prefer to let readers have their way.

This is not unprecedented. Judy Blume never describes Margaret in Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.

In picture book writing, authors are taught to leave these kinds of details up to the illustrator. Many are surprised by the illustrator’s choice and perspective, like when a person becomes a lizard in the illustrator’s eyes.

Two nights ago, I started a new book. It’s a recently published book that was given to me; I’ve never heard of it, and I’m not familiar with the author; in fact, I can’t tell you at the moment the race or gender of the author. I did not read the jacket copy. It’s a book–I opened it and started reading. (I once entered a movie theater without any idea what movie I was being taken to see. Talk about clueless.)

The character was not described in the first two chapters. Come to think of it, I don’t think there’s been any description of the main character yet, though the MC has described other characters. My brain and I drew her fairly quickly, though, based on little more than voice, attitude, and situation.

Last night, at the beginning of chapter three, I got a name to go with the girl in my head: her name is…um…Jeff.


6 replies »

  1. Now that is uh, different. I’m guessing the book is in the first person. I wonder if an boy or man reading the book would identify the character as male. The next question is, is that lack of differentiation a good thing? I’m really asking, not commenting. Do boys and girls really do things in so similar a way that gender becomes unimportant, or should the character have behaviors, quirks, mannerisms that reveal this. You’re reading the book- what do you think?
    On race, I tend to agree that unless it’s important to the story, there isn’t a need. I do tend to include some description in my writing (please don’t hate me), but I hope I don’t stoop to the cliche. (An African-American friend of mine long ago wrote a poem to her boyfriend that began “You’re the sweetness I like my coffee and the color I like my toast…” I actually really liked that.)
    I tend to include description, not to tie down a character to my vision, but because we do generally notice things about others. I guess that’s actually a case for describing characters other than the MC and perhaps not describing the MC- hmm.

  2. When it comes to character descriptions, I personally need some clues. I definitely draw my own picture, but I need a little help along the way. Long lists of fine detail bore me, but I like broad strokes. Give me a little something to get started with and I’ll fill in the rest.

    Since I know absolutely nothing about writing, let me share with you my uneducated thoughts as a pure reader: provide me with what one would see upon a very quick glance. To me this includes gender, approximate age, and, yes, race. Pehaps include hair color and type of clothing (dressy, utilitarian, etc). Why not include race? I don’t see it as discriminatory or prejudicial. Jen, I can look at you and my mind registers quickly “female”. In the same way, I can look at Reiko (woman I worked with) and one quick impression is “Korean”. Is either thought *wrong*? I think not. To me, it’s pure observation and, in reading, these clues help with my mental picture.

  3. Shelly, I agree with everything you said, except the part about knowing nothing about writing. You are an intelligent and thoughtful reader- no one knows *more* about writing.

  4. I second Becca’s notion that thoughtful and intelligent readers know a thing or two about writing.

    As for including character description, including race (or particularly race), I’m convinced there’s not a right answer, just a choice to make.

    On the one hand, it can be revealing and when well done, beautiful. Some of my critique partners are aces with description. I am not, so I prefer to minimize or avoid it when possible.

    On the other hand, if race is not relevant to the story, what’s the harm in letting readers decide? We might prefer our characters be a specific race: one we know and are comfortable with, one we find attractive, one that reminds us of a friend who comes to mind when we read. If I like a story more because I imagine a character to be a race of my choice, all the better.

    My vision of Aunt Elinor in the Inkheart books is not what Cornelia Funke had in mind. Too bad, so sad. I stand by my Aunt Elinor; I like her better.

    As for your specific questions, Becca, regarding my vision of a girl character when it was supposed to be a boy…I reread the first two chapters again last night and found nothing that suggests to me definitively that the character is really male. (Yes, it’s first person.) The chapters are short, and the scenes they cover are gender-neutral. I will, however, have Mike read the first two chapters and get his take.

    What we get in the first two chapters are: voice (irreverent–it’s YA, after all), a view of secondary characters, details of the setting, a clue about why the character is there.

    If the author (well-published male) were in my critique group, I would suggest he slip the character’s name into Chapter 1. It would be a cinch; I noticed last night precisely where I’d put it. It was a shock to discover my error and stopped me in my reading tracks, but I’ve made the transition to a male character just fine; his male-ness becomes apparent in ways besides his name.

    I don’t think it will be an issue for the vast majority of readers because I don’t think most people go so blindly into books. But I do sometimes, and I’m sure I’m not the only one. We’re probably a tiny minority, but I’m fairly certain I’m not unique.