Friday, 31 August 2012

Black or white in black and white

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.


  1. With a child who is colour blind you start seeing colour in a whole new way. Recently we saw a film where a character had the tips of his dark hair bleached. According to my son they were green. Does that make you see a character in a new way, if they have blond tipped hair or green tipped?

    And I was always confused when characters in books had 'olive' skin or 'swarthy', what does that mean? Olives can be green or black in my mind.

    And I remember looking for a jumper my father wanted that was described as 'aubergine'. I thought it must be purple but it was the colour of the inside of an aubergine, so it was yellow.

    I'm aware that Zadie Smith has only described the ethnicity of the white characters in her new book. Not having read any of her work before I look forward to trying it, not because of the colour issue but simply because she thinks it is her best so far.

    Colour is an interesting concept, I wonder what other people think?

  2. What might be an interesting aspect to explore is the misinterpretation of a character's ethnicity - someone who's always applied one 'identity label' to themselves finding that other people don't agree.