One of the hardest things about describing a character is the color of skin. We rely on some curious similes that generally relate to food. Peaches, cream, mocha, olive… to name a few.
Some descriptions bear a great deal of baggage because they carry the weight of racism, sexism, and ignorance. I’m not getting into a detailed analysis of that because it’s something that can’t be done justice in a blog post.
So how do you describe a character’s skin color?
I do it like this…
Google Pantone skin colors. I’ll wait.
Back? Did you notice something? All the colors of skin in the world are a continuum of pink, beige, and brown. You might not be able to notice it easily but they also have undertones of red, yellow, blue and green. On the far end of the spectrum we get people who are nearly white and some who are nearly black but they still have undertones.
Painters know this and now you do too.
I’ve been making it a policy lately to describe every person in my novels without referring to food. This has been hard to do without using words like peach and cream because those are really good descriptions of beige. I hate the word beige.
In general I used to use the words that cosmetic companies use like ivory, porcelain, rose, tan, golden, bronze, and espresso but it carries sexist connotations. This may work in a romance but romance isn’t really my thing.
Some authors don’t describe their characters but I’ve never enjoyed that. So in general I have personal guidelines… don’t I always?
If I’m writing in first person I let the character do the description based on their skill sets.
If I’m doing third person I do the description based on the tone and genre of the story.
If I think a description sounds racist, I try again. Unless the character is racist.
I generally stay away from food words, sometimes they work, and sometimes they just offend. Skin is not olive, it may have green undertones but it isn’t overtly olive. It’s been used to describe people of Mediterranean origins but it’s just not accurate and has been used in a racist fashion.
I stay away from words that don’t bring up a universal description. Porcelain and cream are actually very pale versions of white and not light beige in the way cosmetics companies use them. Earth and sand are as varied in color as… well… earth and sand.
I stay away from archaic words like swarthy, ruddy, or dusky. They mean black, red and dark but traditionally they are also used to describe a ‘bad guy’ and I just don’t want to go there. see olive
I’m experimenting with saying things like light brown with yellow undertones and a smattering of freckles across her nose, or fair with a pink cheeks, or so pale you could see the blue veins across his nose. I may still use peachy and rosy to describe variations of beige. I haven’t decided yet.
It’s not perfect but I haven’t come up with anything better.
Overall I’m not saying you can’t use certain words and descriptions I’m just saying you’re better off challenging yourself to be more accurate… and try not to be ignorant about it.