An interesting thought arose when I was working on my new book and introducing a new character. If my first description of him read ‘Vincent was a tall guy with a shaved head’, what image does that put in your mind?
Now a trickier question. What colour skin do you imagine he has?
Does a white person automatically see a white character unless told otherwise?
What if I say, ‘Vincent was a tall, black guy with a shaved head’?
Does that change your perception of Vincent?
But I wouldn’t ever think to say ‘Vincent was a tall white guy’, unless the book was set somewhere that you’d expect the characters to be black, which mine isn’t.
That’s where I started to ponder this question more deeply. Do we visualise characters to fit our own ethnic groups unless told otherwise? What colour do you see characters?
I suppose if you’re reading a book like The Colour Purple, you automatically know what colours the characters are. But my book is set in Brighton, and has nothing to do with race issues, I just wanted to have a representational cast of characters, and some people in Brighton are black. It’s no big issue.
The key bit of information that is constantly drummed into any writer is to ‘show not tell’. If Vincent was unhappy I could describe his posture and actions to illustrate this. But how do I show that he just happens to be black? We do use ‘tell’ words to give a mental picture of a character.
But is this something that’s an issue for readers who aren’t white? Is Western literature filled with white characters, and do other races only appear when a political point is being made? Where are the black heartthrobs in romance? In fantasy, are all the good guys white? Are black people over represented in thrillers and crime novels?
This is an issue that I’m still pondering. Be brave and dive in with feedback or comments.