Writing Question: Best Method for Introducing People of Color?


I’m currently writing a relatively far future military SF novel (or revolutionary military SF, since it involves revolution).  One thing that I want to indicate about this future and its wide-reaching human empire is its relative inclusiveness.  Race is not as much an issue there as it is today, which means that the cast of characters I intend to show will embody a mixed world.

To make that clear in the story, I feel as though I need to identify several characters by their race (or everyone by their race, really).  But I don’t want to in part because I really don’t know how to go about doing so without essentializing or reducing characters to their race (or even identifying them by something that I personally feel has no say on one’s character).  What exactly is the best method for introducing the race of a character (any race)?

I honestly don’t know…and I’d much rather have an idea on how to go about it before shoving my foot in my mouth.

The comments are yours.

About the Author:

Shaun Duke is an aspiring writer, a reviewer, and an academic. He is currently an Assistant Professor of Digital Rhetoric and Writing at Bemidji State University. He received his PhD in English from the University of Florida and studies science fiction, postcolonialism, digital fan cultures, and digital rhetoric.

8 thoughts on “Writing Question: Best Method for Introducing People of Color?

  1. I can only comment as a reader and a person of color – I have no idea how writers do things, but some things I think that work successfully for me personally – when the character is looking at themselves – say in a mirror – and then describing themselves – all in context of course. Or when they see other people that are similar to them – and then go on to describe how.

    • I'm hesitant about using the mirror trick, but I suppose if I have the characters recognize what others look like, but without the judgments, I can make it possible to have a sea of different faces in there.

      Just a note: none of this "racism ain't the same" thing is utopian in any sense. It'll just be…better than now somewhat.

  2. If the conceit is that race doesn't matter, then don't prioritize indicating race in the text. Let it come about naturally, almost absentmindedly, and I'd suggest doing it late in the game. Let people assume whatever they want about particular characters, only to later, in passing, describe how a tattoo looks on a particular shade of skin, or how an accent makes a word sound to another character, etc.

    And I think you'd have to downplay the fact that you're pointing out racial elements, even then. Don't spotlight race by naming them over and over again if at all. Just mention material distinctions between certain things, because they exist, and leave it at that.

    I think it would be difficult to visualize an entire world and peoples without ever establishing certain things, so just let it happen when it organically does. Readers will have to make the nuance you want to achieve happen in their own heads. If you write with the spirit of the world you're trying to envision, this will impact quite a few readers in precisely the right way and it will be a powerful effect. If you try to spell it all out for everyone, though, it will impact nobody equally, and that will just be a waste.

    • I think I poorly phrased what I was trying to suggest. I'm not trying to create a utopia where race literally doesn't matter in any context other than "hey, that person has X color skin, neato, let's have lunch." I just mean that most of the institutional barriers will have been torn down in this future, such that the folks running Company A or leading the military or the government will be a varied lot. It just won't look like today, where the majority of people in government are white and male.

      So there are still racists in my world, and there are still some folks who harbor racist feelings, whether they know it or not. They just don't have the power they used to. Does that make sense?

      Oooh. I like the idea of talking about tattoos on skin. That's a visual distinction one could throw in without making any sort of commentary on race itself. Thanks for that! (It also works in a military SF setting, since military tattoos are fairly common).

  3. If it is the far future, and race truly isn't a big deal anymore, you also need to carefully work out the logic for why such distinctive phenotypes still remain. Shouldn't every one be a homogeneous dark-eyed, dark-haired mass of light brown? Or are we seeing individuals gathered from a variety of worlds/space stations originally populated by single races familiar to us in the present day? Have certain phenotypic features (melanin for sunny worlds, a lack of melanin and the ability to easily synthesize vitamin D for darker worlds) been retain and/or genetically enhanced for different extraterrestrial environments? If so, this allows you to discuss these differences more organically (and meaningfully in the context of your far future story).

    • Hi there!

      I covered some of this in a comment to someone else, so see those πŸ™‚

      As for what people will look like in this future: I don't imagine the world as having moved beyond contemporary racism by way of mixing everything up. That might be the path we're going towards in the future, but that seems like something thousands of years ahead, while the Memsys Universe (which is where I'm setting this novel) only extents out 1,000 years on the outside (I've not thought beyond that, yet).

      That said, perhaps addressing these things on biological terms might prove useful. Something to think about.

  4. Heya Shaun πŸ™‚

    This is an awesome question, and something I've wondered about myself. Top-of-my-head stuff: Do what Dave B. said and only let readers know what they need to, or throw in some descriptive stuff during a slower part in the middle (around a campfire, or eating, or whatever you have your characters do). Going by the "show, don't tell" principle, use things like skin, eye, and hair color/style, ethnic names, accents, etc. and let the reader infer race from these hints.

    Maybe there could be a line early on explicitly saying that the world is diverse, so that readers fill in the blanks and are on the lookout for said diversity.


    • Unfortunately, there are not fun campfires in this novel. It's mostly people plotting against other people…or planning to commit genocide…or…dealing with political garbage…or well, you get the point πŸ™‚

      I don't think a line in the beginning would be a good idea, though, as there's no easy way to say "hey, this world is diverse, see" that doesn't smell suspiciously like begging for approval. At least, that's how I see it in my crazy mind. But I do like the idea of using accents as a method for dealing with this. While accents themselves are perhaps unfairly coded as racial (African accents are assumed to come from black people; Chinese accents from Asian people; British from white people), I do think it would give me the ability to explore diversity without explicitly talking about race. People could read into accents what they want, couldn't they?

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