Okay, right off the bat, we have a problem. Actually, I suppose it’s a problem with how we’re approaching the problem. Read the title of this entry again: “Writing Ethnic Characters.” It’s making the assumption that most readers (or listeners) for this entry will be white writers trying to figure out how to create and describe characters who are not white without relying on stereotypes, over-used cliches, or offensive terms. It also could be said that it makes the implicit assumption that white is the “default” while everything else is “other” or “ethnic.”
Unfortunately, I’m not sure how else to segue into a discussion of this challenge that white writers face. While writing All’s Fair, I found that I had to research how to describe certain characteristics of people who are not white since I have had very little contact with people of color in real life. (A slightly embarrassing example is my search to find out what black people look like when they blush. They might feel their cheeks heat or burn, but what does that look like to someone who is watching them?)
This is something I’ve started to struggle with now that I’m aware of how lacking in diversity many of my stories have been. I don’t want to have token non-white characters, but I also want to take advantage of how many variations there are in the colors, sizes, shapes, and looks of humans. It’s easy to describe non-human characters; usually your protagonist will be a human and if they are encountering elves, orcs, or dragons for the first time, they are going to notice how they look. But how do you work in descriptions for characters without waving your arms and shouting, “Hey! Look! Here’s a black person, and Asian person, and a Hispanic person! Hooray for diversity!”
Working in descriptions without an info-dump is difficult, believe me. Skin color or hair texture are fairly simple to work in, but it’s trickier to be subtle or nonchalant about description when you try to describe something like eye-shape, which is notoriously cliched for Asian characters. “Almond-shaped” has been used for a long time, but is rather lazy. Terms like “narrow” or “squinty” sound rather negative and tend to indicate personality traits of a character rather than physical appearance. “Epicanthal folds” is so clinical that, unless another character happens to describe people that way, it will probably pull readers out of the story because it doesn’t flow with the rest of the writing. And if your story is set in a fantasy world, then you might not be able to use the term “Asiatic” because that wouldn’t be part of the world’s vocabulary.
On top of all that, you should do your best to make sure you aren’t using terms that various ethnic groups would find offensive descriptors (unless, again, your point-of-view character thinks, talks, and describes people that way.) Prime example: don’t use food words to describe skin color. I made that mistake out of sheer laziness and was kindly, but quickly, corrected. I found a better way to describe skin tones (types of wood and metal are pretty interesting) and I now know to do a quick Google search of my descriptions to see if there are any discussions about the proper way to use them. These days, you are almost guaranteed to find articles or blogs dedicated to these kinds of issues.
Some people argue that there shouldn’t be any descriptions of characters, or they should be kept to a minimum, so that way readers can imagine whomever they want. Now, I know at least one person who automatically diversifies the cast of whatever book they are reading, but most folk are a little bit lazier and tend to assume that the characters are of whatever ethnicity the reader is, unless stated otherwise. I personally recall being irritated while reading A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. LeGuin when I didn’t receive any indications of the characters’ physical characteristics until halfway through the book. And with Hollywood’s tendency to white-wash everything, it’s good, I think, to give at least a few general indications of what a character looks like. Skin color, hair and eye color, texture, any other distinguishing features that might stand out, especially if they are important to the plot… Those kinds of descriptors I think should be included.
The bottom line is, as always, write what best describes your characters in ways that are interesting and informative, but be aware of the connotations and possible baggage that those words can hold. Words have power; be sure to use them in a wise and judicious manner.