Lynn Capehart’s “The Importance of Inclusionary Writing” appears in the October, 2010 issue of The Writer magazine. It points out how characters of color are described in many stories.
Capehart’s premise is that some writers describe their non-white characters only by race. And, she says, they “…use race alone to delineate the character, as if he or she were a generic stand-in for the entire race, and not an individual with a unique set of talents and ticks.”
I could describe a character e.g. as tall, with thinning gray hair, his left shoulder perpetually slumped from a high school skiing accident. His friend, a short black man, walks by his side. The description, “black man” is supposed to be enough. The first description doesn’t include race. Perhaps, because I am a white writer, you assume my character is white, too. But read it again, my first character could be nearly any race.
I understand what Capehart is trying to say. I’ve been listening to a mystery novel and one character, a hotel concierge, is described as “a Dominican…” (as in the island, not the religious order). Took me right out of the story as I wondered how the main character, a white police detective, knew he wasn’t a Latino from somewhere else? Either this was author intrusion in this third person novel, or the character appeared in earlier novels. Either way, the description didn’t do much for me, the reader.
The ideal, Capehart says, would be for “All characters of equal weight in a scene [to] be created [described] equally…” The aforementioned “Dominican” was important in the scene as the witness to a crime. The author didn’t work very hard to describe him. Why not?
I started thinking about how we as writers for children describe our characters. I decided to go to the experts, the Newbery winners. How do these writers introduce new characters? Let’s look at a few.
1950: Amos Fortune: Free Man by Elizabeth Yates. Chapter 1: Africa
“At-mun, the young prince, was tall and powerfully built, though he had seen no more than fifteen summers. He carried his head high and his eyes flashed.”
1959: Onion John by Joseph Krumgold. Chapter 1
“Onion John was a lot different from anyone I ever hung out with before. Like his age. No one actually knew how old he’d be. But considering he was six feet and three inches tall with a mustache it was a good guess that Onion John was well along in years…Most of the words he used were full of x’s and z’s and noises like ptchky and grvtch.”
1977: Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred D. Taylor. Chapter 1
“…pulling with exasperation at the high collar of the Sunday dress Mama had made me wear for the first day of school…and dragged my feet in the dust, allowing it to sift back onto my socks and shoes like gritty red snow. I hated the dress, and the shoes…they imprisoned freedom-loving feet accustomed to the feel of the warm earth.”
2001: A Single Shard by Linda Sue Park. Chapter 1
“Tree-ear was so called after the mushroom that grew in wrinkled half-circles on dead or fallen tree trunks, emerging from the rotten wood without benefit of parent seed. A good name for an orphan… Tree-ear knew the story of his friend’s name. ‘When they saw my leg at birth, it was thought I would not survive,…Then, as I went through life on one leg, it was said that I was like a crane. [Crane-man said] But besides standing on one leg, cranes are also a symbol of long life.’ True enough… He had outlived all his family.”
Described in order: a young black man, a homeless person who is perhaps Slavic, a pre-teen African American girl, and a Korean 12-year-old and his guardian. Not one writer uses skin color or race as part of his/her character description. Yet, in a few words we learn a great deal about each person and can begin to become emotionally involved with their stories.
Lynn Capehart’s article opened my mind. I will find myself paying closer attention to the descriptions of all the characters in the books I read—and write.