(so I sent this before, but I don't think it send correctly.) I'm writing an IronPanther one shot, and I'm trying to describe T'Challa in a way that isn't fetishizing. Do you have any tips for ways I can describe him that is very appreciative of the way he looks without being hella creepy? What are some dos and don'ts?
Hi! Thanks for your question :) It’s very responsible of you to be mindful of this issue. I’ll try to cover the bases, but I’m not a person of color, so this is only based on reading and research…
Writing Characters of Color: Dos and Don’ts
First things first: I would suggest to anyone writing characters of color that you should follow @writingwithcolor. It’s my absolute favorite blog on the topic of diverse writing, and includes plenty of resources for most races and cultures. I’ll probably link you to a couple of their posts in this guide, so keep an eye out! So here we go…
Do: Make their race clear.
In fact, clearly designate the race of all characters! Even if a majority of your characters are white, you should state this in their description – otherwise, you’re painting the image that white is Baseline and Normal, while black/brown/beige are Divergent and Strange. Understand that many readers will assume White Until Proven Otherwise. This means that if you shy away from stating a character’s color in the fear of offending PoC readers, you’re actually just erasing the character’s race altogether. (Personal note: obviously your readers will know what color T’Challa is, so this is a point for the future.)
Don’t: Use descriptors that make me hungry.
“Chocolate,” “caramel,” “coffee,” “brown sugar,” “cinnamon,” “honey” – you get the idea. Anything that could also be used to describe my dessert is probably a terrible idea. Not only is this not at all how white characters are described, which is unfair, but the reduction of adult, three-dimensional people to grocery items has racially-aggressive roots. This is where I’m gonna link you to Writing With Color’s guide on how (and how not) to describe characters of color.
Do: Familiarize yourself with the harmful stereotypes.
This means a little research, no matter what race you’re writing. A lot of the racist mistakes made in literature/fanfiction come from a place of ignorance, sometimes willfully. People avoid learning the dirty past of racial representation in media, because they’re afraid they’ll subconsciously absorb them. It’s a weird complex and I advise you, and all writers, to take the time to glance over the most offensive stereotypes for people of color, women, LGBT, trans/nonbinary, autistic, mentally ill, and disabled people. This will not only keep you from hurting anyone, but it also makes your writing more unpredictable and interesting! Plus, it makes you not-one-of-those-douchebags-who-write-two-dimensional-exotic-chocolate-brown-mistresses and all that 👍
Don’t: Desexualize your characters.
This is a common mistake that can come from good intentions. You’re try so hard not to fetishize a character of color and then it reduces them to a non-sexual, non-attractive broom in the corner. Characters of color – all characters really – god, especially women – should be three-dimensional and fully developed people, who are not sold to readers on their looks and sexual appeal. BUT this doesn’t mean you should exclude all sexuality in writing. T’Challa, for example, is a damn handsome man – you can’t possibly write him and ignore how nice he looks! So don’t be afraid to describe him physically. You can describe his eyes and his lips and his muscles and we will read happily. Go ahead and talk about how smooth and warm and rich his skin is. As long as sexuality is described through a lens of admiration, rather than objectification – and as long as their sexuality exists in accompaniment to their full, developed personality, and not instead of it – then there’s nothing wrong with making a character bangin’ hot. So do it. And lastly…
Do: Consider collaborating with a beta-reader.
You said in your previous ask that this was one of your first attempts at writing characters of color, so I’d suggest that if you feel nervous about it, partner up with a beta-reader who has enough experience to keep you in check. It’s our responsibility as writers (especially for white, privileged writers such as myself) to learn to look at ourselves and assess whether or not we’ve crossed the line. Having someone beta-read for you will show you the critical thinking process to go through, so eventually, you’ll be able to do it without thinking about it! Maybe a few people here would be interested in a betaship.
Those are my top Dos and Don’ts, but as always, this is limited to my experience. Be sure to check out @writingwithcolor and do your research – and remember that no matter how much research you do, you’re bound to make a mistake or two. If it happens and a reader points it out to you, don’t beat yourself up about it or get defensive. Just apologize, correct the mistake, and move on.
Thanks again, and good luck :) Happy writing!