26 July 2011

Character Descriptions and Race

In my last creative writing class, I submitted a short story for review. The story I submitted never provides physical descriptions of my characters. Leaving the descriptions out was intentional. It was not important to me what they looked like or their color. What was important was the story. Why is my main character standing here in a funeral parlor in front of his father's casket? What brought him here? The story is what is important.

If a main character is going to turn out to be a white supremacist with major conflict in a story, then I can understand the need to describe him in the stereotypical fashion, shaved head with a swastika tattooed on the back. In this case, the physical description moves the plot along. That’s helpful.

However, that is not the case with the story I submitted. I was a bit surprised when a fellow student asked, "I'm curious why you never described the main character. Was he black or white?"

Wait…what?

It is a short story about the relationship between a father and son. The physical descriptions of the characters are irrelevant. This is not a screening for a movie where I have to choose Samuel L. Jackson or Tom Cruise as my hero. I can care less what color they are.

One response I read from another woman was she assumed every character in Harry Potter was black and she further states it is natural for a reader to assume that so long as no descriptions are given, all characters in a fictional story belong to the reader’s own race.

This concept is foreign to me because I never write with a pre-determined idea that all my characters are Asian. Are you kidding me? All my stories would have to take place at Disney World or some other touristy place and my main characters would all be wielding cameras and donning ebony cloaks.

So what do you think? Is it that important to you as a reader to know the race of the characters you read about, even though clearly there is no logical reasoning behind mentioning it at all?

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