Monday, November 19, 2012

Color Me Food

There has always been talk against describing characters skin tones by using food—especially describing people of color. But it was a recent comment I read calling writers who do this as “lazy” that got me thinking.

I am of the firm belief that whatever will give your reader the clearest, quickest view of your character is a description worth using. Does that mean you have to call a character tall when gangly may do, or describe someone as fat when portly can say the same? No. I still think employing creative ways to describe something otherwise unremarkable is the better way to go.

With that said, to describe you character as having brown skin isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but saying her skin is the color of cinnamon seems instantly better to me. Brown has so many shades. I get an instant picture when you say cinnamon, or chocolate, mocha, or brown sugar, or honey, or caramel, or coffee…

To me, it seems a wonderful way to give a person a clear picture of a complexion. Yes, this can become cliché and even lazy, but if the way an author describes her characters is considered lazy, there will be other lazy writing flaws as well.

I looked up synonyms for the color brown and came up with this: amber, auburn, bay, beige, bistre—WTH?, brick, bronze, buff, burnt sienna, chestnut, chocolate, cinnamon, cocoa, coffee, copper, drab, dust, ecru, fawn, ginger, hazel, henna, khaki, mahogany, nut, ochre, puce, russet, rust, sepia, snuff-colored—Seriously?, sorrel, tan, tawny, terra-cotta, toast, umber…

Some of these are perfectly fine; bronze, chestnut, cocoa, copper, mahogany. But others are just not the thing. I’ve seen sepia use before, quite a lot actually. But the word doesn’t bring a color immediately to mind. I know it’s brown, but what shade? Maybe it’s me. I don’t think it has to be that complicated. I wouldn’t want to read a book where the character was described as having snuff-colored skin, or ochre, or bay, or terra-cotta, or bistre. One of the last books I read described a character as having warm brown skin. That was perfect to me. I didn’t need more. I didn’t need a word that would make me stop reading to look it up and go, “Oh, it means brown.”

It’s not just for characters of color either. I’ve seen white characters described as milky, creamy, or peachy. Basically, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with using food to paint a picture of your character. There’s a way to make everything work. Would I suggest you refer to your character’s skin tone as brown-sugar or peachy every time you referenced it? Absolutely not. But, I’m not going to be one of those people who rolls her eyes if I see another character of color referred to as mocha, or honey, or chocolate.

These are just my opinions and I’d love to hear yours.


Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Don't think I've used food to describe skin tone. I have an alien race in my next book whose skin is black and wrinkled, and I called it 'charred.'

Karen Denise said...

Ooh, sounds interesting! But if you wanted to use food seeweed could work-lol. Even though it's green it's really dark and hard looking. Just kidding. Ignore me please.

Tamara said...

haha...I am guilty of the sepia thing. BUT that was because I read that I absolutely couldn't be cliche (and apparently insulting) by describing the girl as having mocha skin. That was "lazy" I also couldn't say she had milk-chocolate skin or any other food adjectives.

I tried this to describe the boy in my new book:

It’s summer and both of us have a sheen of sweat on our dark skin as we idly dribble the basketball back and forth.

Does that let you know they're black, or would you assume really tan? Ugh. Yeah...definitely a pain. Plus, the new story is only told from a guy's POV--so I can't even have a girl describing his skin tone as something poetic like cinnamon. haha.