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?"


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?


  1. I'm with you on this one. I don't care about the color of a person's skin, so I don't mention it in my writing. If it has some significance to the story then of course mention it. But otherwise, I want my readers to envision my characters to be like them.

  2. To me I have to have some kind of direction on what a chartcher looks like when I'm reading. Else it's just a name... literally. Samething goes when I'm writing I want to show my readers what I'm seeing.
    But on the same token, you need to let the reader's imigniation run with them. In fact that is why Spider-Man is such a great comic book, because every part of the webhead is covered. Stan Lee did it so that every child, from every race, can envision themselves slinging from rooftop to rooftop.
    So it really depends on the story, like the example of American History X. And it even depends on the reader, such as the woman w/ HP.
    But I like this peice, I guess this is where my little ramblings is going. Brings to light a good issue with actual writing. I heard both use minimal desctipon and use maximum.

  3. I appreciate the feedback, Kelly and Cambron. I'll continue on with the way I do things. It's interesting to see how others deal with these situations.

    I find myself reading both ends of writing controversies all the time, so I really appreciate the sharing!

  4. Just as I like to know what kind of car the protagonist is driving (even if it doesn't really matter to the story), I like to know if a character is tall, short, white, black, fat, or skinny. To me, it's all part of "the setting."

  5. There are many readers and writers in your boat, James. It's interesting the many debates I've read, too. Thanks!

  6. I'm with you! If a point in my story requires the character's description, then I'll write one. But I find that I never make it a complete description. Basic characteristics that will add to the scene, but not define the character. I think that I'd find that too limiting in case I threw in a curve later on. As the story builds, so does my character.

    BTW - I am still laughing at the samurai characters! I haven't seen that picture in forever, and forgot how much I love his grin! Awesome... ;) Ok, now I'm off to write.

  7. I figure if I mentioned Asians, I had to have that pic! Thanks for stopping by, Carolyn.


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