Physical descriptions of Asians


Reposted from my twitter feed because I think it’s worth saying:

The physical description of your Asian characters to easily ID them as Asian is not the first thing you should be obsessing about. Basically, this is the most Othering version of describing characters of colour–they’re just like white people, except with different physical features! But it’s not only features that make people “different” , and in fact our differences are often much much more than skin-deep. To whit: I can write (and have written) an entire story that features recognisably Asian people, without a single distinctive physical description. So can Rochita Loenen-Ruiz.

(I wonder how much of the emphasis on physical appearance is shaped by our worship of movies/TV series? I sometimes think that Hollywood et al. influence our way of telling stories, not necessarily for the better…)


  1. I tend to think that in Western culture, physical appearance has long been a big marker for identifying people, well predating Hollywood. Look at the prevalence of surnames such as White, Brown, Black in the UK for example – if two people in a village were both called John, then their hair colour would often be the marker of how you told them apart.

    Let’s face it, that whole “oh they all look alike to me” thing is based in the fact that when Western cultures have met others, the usual recognition cues of hair and to lesser extent eye colour tend not to be present. And as someone who has real difficulty with facial recognition (show me a picture of fifty famous Hollywood stars and I’ll have real trouble naming them – particularly female stars as so many are cast from the same mold (I use the term “cast” advisedly… there is a specific “type” which Hollywood gravitates towards) I do have problems with it myself – some Bollywood movies are difficult for me because I am not picking up the right cues to identify who I’m seeing on screen (again, I fear this is mostly the case with the actresses – again, because Bollywood has a very specific “look” it wants from most actresses, and therefore they tend to be more similar than the actors).

    Sorry, I know I’m veering slightly off topic. In general, I agree; on the rare occasions I write contemporary stuff, I tend not to do much with physical descriptions. I do admit, though, I will try and use names to give my readers an instant kick into thinking of someone as being within a particular culture, though I know that this is not necessarily the best way of doing it (to paraphrase Nick Mamatas, Will Smith or Jackie Robinson don’t have “black” names).

  2. Curious to what you think about this. I’m writing a character who for all it matters could be *any* ethnicity, but I want when my readers picture the character, to see picture him as favoring someone from Cambodia. Where he’s actually from is left vague and doesn’t matter much to the plot.

    And part of the point is to change the typical fantasy aesthetic. I want none of the ambiguity of the Hunger Games (and I say this somewhat ironically, since the black characters were plainly described as such). I want black and brown and red and yellow faces because they’re so absent, and because I want my world to be beautiful.

  3. @Brian: ha, yes, it’s true that hair and eye colour are very big distinctions in Europe (well, the UK and France and maybe Germany, Spain not being so much the thing for varying hair colour). I have very bad facial recognition, but quite honestly I could confuse two people with different hair colour… Names are a very good way of doing this except that people might not know them and misinterpret; others are food and cultural markers (as long as you don’t unroll the cliché carpet!).
    @Kermit: my two cents, but I think that the combination of names/food/other cultural markers are *far* better descriptions of people’s ethnicities than the colour of their skin (which is a very USian conceit). I’m not familiar with Cambodia specifically, but if it were Vietnam I’d use a Vietnamese name, slip in a few references to Vietnamese feasts and/or foods, etc.
    I have used “dark/light-skinned” as physical descriptions, but mostly in the context of comparing one ethnicity with another (for instance, pseudo-Asians vs. pseudo-Westerners), and they’ve always been accompanied by plenty of cultural markers.

  4. What it comes down to for me, when I see a writer resort to cliched physical description, is lazy, lazy writing. The whole discussion the genre is having at the moment about inclusivity is great but it must be pretty obvious that some people are going to do it wrong – not out of malice or because they’re necessarily terrible writers, but because it’s hard. It takes both effort and empathy to discover enough about a culture to conjure it effectively on the page.

    All of which you know, of course. But I think it’s just a stage of the process. We ask writers to try and vary their characters away from the straight, white, English-speaking default. Some writers will do better than others. Some will improve when people like yourself correct them, some won’t.

    Oh, and I’m not big on physical descriptions (especially of my main characters), but I know that there are many readers who *need* a good description before they can imagine them enough to fall into their story. They’re weird though.

    But I go back to the thing about laziness because it applies to writing any cultures, not just non-western ones. How many writers do you know who could write a convincing contemporary Scot? And a physical description would be no help there at all.

  5. Just as an addendum to that… I’ve got a half complete (time travel, actually!) story set in Paris, with mostly Parisian characters, and I’m a little nervous about getting it wrong. But I’ve been there several times, and I know enough Parisian/enne people to ask if I get into trouble. 😀

  6. @aliette: Well, the thing is that the character isn’t (or rather, we never know if he is) Cambodian, or any other ethnicity, as this takes place in another world. He’s *from* Earth, which is why he has these features at all, but where and what time period is left ambiguous. For one, it doesn’t matter, and two, I’m casting him as a sort of mythic archetypical human figure. Specifically, he’s the first human representative to come to this world, and I wanted a certain aesthetic for that. And some Cambodians I’ve seen have features that are a sort of “blend” of Asian and African.

    I can’t use food or language or other markers because they don’t exist in this new world he’s in, and he doesn’t retain any of the culture he came from. He doesn’t remember it – which isn’t a gimmick, but a plot point. It’s kind of a strange situation!

  7. @Neil: it’s definitely lazy writing, and people will improve (and some won’t!). I think the other problem of physical description is that by and large, it’s not essential to a character. Once you’ve provided it a first time, you can refrain from using it, and it’s just not going to stick. A tendency to, say, eat jasmine rice with chopsticks every meal is an equally clichéd description of Asian people, but it has a chance of reoccurring every few pages and reinforcing the reader’s impression that the character isn’t the default European white.
    (and I’m not Scottish, but offhand I’d say few writers who tried to write a Scot specifically would have got it abysmally wrong…)
    @Kermit: first off, I’m not Cambodian, but my family comes from the country next door, and describing people in terms of a blend of Asian and African is deeply deeply problematic. We don’t need either culture as a reference; the SE Asian phenotype is its own thing!
    >For one, it doesn’t matter,
    If all that matters to you is the skin colour (and, as said above, I have issues with this–my most Othering experiences in school not being about my physical appearance, but about the fact that everyone’s frame of reference seemed to be vastly different from mine), then quite frankly I don’t think you’re ever going to get across the fact that your MC is Cambodian speciflcally (not Cambodia, but there have been studies on physical markers in Asia, and the upshot is that even Japanese people can’t tell Japanese people apart from Chinese or Korean on the sole basis of a picture. How they identify Japanese people must be a combination of name, language & behaviour).

  8. It’s not *just* skin color. It’s the entire set of physical features. And in a world where there is no conscious transmission of culture from Earth, it is the only thing that matters with respect to “ethnicity”.

    And, while the SE Asian phenotype is it’s own thing (and let’s be clear that if we’re talking about phenotype, then we’re NOT talking about culture), there is a clear traceable Afro-Asiatic link at its origin. But perhaps “blend” was a bad word choice. I am not attempting to erase SE Asians by comparing them to (generic) “Asians” or “Africans”, as I do not see those two things as mutually exclusive. And I am also sensitive to people’s rejection of any comparisons to or claims of origins from African peoples, as that often comes from an institutionally racist perspective. Polygenesis and all that nonsense. Also, the global phenomenon of anti-blackness. But that’s another issue.

    Not accusing you of that, of course, but I can see the comparison between SE Asians and Africans/Asians as being taken several different ways. One, taking some pride in ancient origins, two rejecting any African connection, or three, breaking away from the obsolete Negroid/Mongoloid/Caucasoid model, which is inherently exclusivist. I assume you’re in the third camp. Still…it doesn’t *have* to be problematic. I personally know some Cambodians who identify strongly with African people – culturally AND with respect to similarities in phenotype – as in actually acknowledging ancient ancestry. That’s their thing. Other people identify differently. Like I said, it can go a few different ways.

    But anyway, I just realized that we might be talking about two different things. I’m talking about describing characters as having features *usually* associated with “Asian” people, regardless of whether or not the character is actually from Asia or even Earth. Which is only an aesthetic choice, not about representation. But you’re talking about relying on physical descriptions of actual Asian folks, which is a problem of representation because you can just as easily rely on the cultural markers – which is more significant. And I agree with that. I recognized the confusion when you said that I’m trying to get across that my MC is Cambodian. I’m not. I’m just trying to invoke a “Cambodian” aesthetic.

    BUT, to synthesize all this, maybe what you’re saying is that there are NO SUCH THINGS as “Asian” (or African or European) physical features? That individual characteristics are fluid across geographic and cultural boundaries? Really, that’s the only way your rejection of the SE Asian/African/Asian comparison can work. Because if there are such things, generically, as “Asian” or “African” features, – an eye shape, a nose shape, a texture of hair – then some Cambodians do indeed have a “blend” of those features. That the phenotype, viewed holistically, is unique doesn’t change that.

    However, if we completely discard the idea of “Asian” or “African” or “European” physical features, it would mean that authors MUST use cultural markers to represent their characters from a given place.

  9. >Once you’ve provided it a first time, you can refrain from using it

    There are few things that mark out amateur writing quicker than an over fondness for describing physical characteristics. Bottom line is, especially in a short story where wordage is at a premium, if the character’s physical appearance isn’t important to the story then the writer shouldn’t be spending their time on it. The character’s habits, daily routing, meal choices, family relationships and personal language are both much more likely to impact the story and give a more than adequate indication of their ethnicity.

    >and I’m not Scottish, but offhand I’d say few writers who tried to write a Scot specifically would have got it abysmally wrong…

    I know what you’re saying – that Scottish people at least have the advantage of being roughly western, and you won’t go far wrong by describing them like any other (say British) person. But if your aim to is to conjure a standard British person why make them Scottish in the first place? It’s true that we don’t get the same egregiously awful abuses foisted upon asian cultures, but there are horrible mistakes, from everyone having flaming red hair and talking in a rolling brogue to easily looked up mistakes of geography and to Scottish people “going home to England”.

    None of which is me attempting wave my little western flag and say “It’s not just you Asians!”. The asian (and other) cultures are still largely invisible in fiction, and badly portrayed when they are brought on stage. I’m actually only using the Scottish example to say a/ I do know to a small extent how that feels and b/ no matter what culture you’re attempting to portray, it really requires effort and empathy to get to know that culture.

  10. @Neil: er, sorry, I mistyped. I meant “most writers who attempted to write a Scot specifically got it abysmally wrong”…

  11. @Kermit:

    And some Cambodians I’ve seen have features that are a sort of “blend” of Asian and African.

    That’s fucking stupid. And offensively erasing, wow.

    Oh, and I’m from a country where large parts of the population are of the same ethnicity as Cambodians. I may have more of a clue than you do, idiot.

  12. @Kermit: er, too complicated to answer properly, but let me try… (bearing in mind that I’m speaking from Vietnamese origins and not Cambodian ones). I dislike any definition of a given phenotype as “a mix of A and B” because it feels to me like taking A and B as references and ignoring the specificity of C. It feels very bothersome and very erasing.

    But yes, if we’re talking pure aesthetics, I’m afraid I can’t help you; I was ranting about lazy cultural shortcuts and physical description as a shorthand for differences, which is quite a different situation…

    (multiply edited because couldn’t express my thoughts properly)

  13. Aliette – np, and it doesn’t change that it *is* easier for western writers to “ballpark” characters of other western cultures at least to the point where *most* readers won’t notice than it is for characters from non-western cultures. But that actually getting the details of a character of *any* culture that is not the author’s own RIGHT isn’t easy.

    It’s all very well ordering the Big Book Of Diversity In Fiction from Amazon, but it’s a big mofo book and you’ve got to commit to reading past chapter one, right?

  14. So then you agree that maybe the larger problem is presuming such a thing AS distinctively “Asian” or “African” or “European” features to begin with?

  15. @RH: yes, exactly. “blend” is somewhat erasing…
    @Neil: totally agree with you. There’s less distance to cover if picking a culture close to your own, less baggage if it’s a Western one, but it doesn’t change the fact that you can get it badly, badly wrong if you don’t bother to do some research….
    @Kermit: not quite, at least not in those terms. The problem is describing phenotypes *exclusively* in terms of a very limited set of descriptors.
    (also, not really comfortable with the way our conversation has ended up focusing on features–there’s a sort of hovering implication that only phenotypes matter, even if I doubt that’s your thinking on the subject!)

  16. @kermit If your character is so removed from earth culture and genetic lines (and let’s not forget human genome manipulation, which is pretty much a guarantee within the next hundred years) AND you say he could be pretty much of any ethnicity, I really think you’re making life difficult for yourself by attempting to give him a specific one. Why describe him physically at all? Why does it matter to the story? I’d be more concerned with creating characteristics that matter in story terms.

  17. Not that it matters to you, but the reason I’m even focusing on aesthetics has to do with beauty standards, what the protagonists are “expected” to look like in SFF – namely the presumption of whiteness – especially where there are no cultural markers, as in the case of other worlds. So, kind of the flip of what Tolkien did in invoking a “black” aesthetic with his orcs or whatever they were. You know?

    If I were going to create an explicitly Cambodian character, then I would be certain to highlight cultural distinctions. I have taken issue in the past with authors who, say, put a “black face” on a character who is in every other respect either “white” or “culturally neutral” – meaning that they exist in some weird vacuum. It’s tokenism, even if there’s more than one character, and I’m totally against it.

  18. Ha ha, Neil, I was answering your question before I even saw that you had asked it. 🙂

  19. But if you’re only giving the character a “Cambodian look” to challenge the reader’s assumption that the character is white, then it *is* tokenism. 😀

    It’d be much more useful to the story if you focus on the characteristics that arise from his culture. And he *does* have a culture. Even if he’s so far removed from that what we think of earth cultures are irrelevant to him, something must have replaced that – something cool and futurey! Seriously, if you put in enough details about the culture he does come from (and, “he”? *this* far in the future, is traditional bipartite gendering even meaningful?) the reader won’t care what he looks like.

  20. @Neil: I see why you would say that, and under normal circumstances I’d agree. But it’s actually a significant plot point that an individual’s culture does NOT transmit into this world. It’s not futuristic, and he’s not “removed”. There’s an actual plot element that “erases” culture. That’s not its purpose, but a consequence. Which probably sounds convenient, but…I can’t really go into more details.

    Abstractly some things do transmit, but it’s not specific to him or any other character. Like, I have buildings, which invoke certain architectural styles. And the characters’ names. This “thing” that erases culture is rather selective. 🙂 Anyway, enough about me and my stuff. This conversation has given me some things to think about, though.

  21. Oh, but one more thing. I’d always thought of tokenism as a situation where the aesthetic is used and the other markers excluded just out of laziness or disregard, not simply where they don’t actually apply.

    If we’re going to define tokenism as ANY use of an ethnic aesthetic without in turn fleshing out the culture and experiences of that character, then I would say that there is such a thing as “good tokenism”.

    Like, I have no problem with, say, a video game taking place on another world with no direct relationship to earth that uses a variety of ethnic inspirations, but also only draws from one particular culture. Like say you have some elves on another world and Elven culture is inspired loosely by an Islamic Caliphate. But amongst the elves there are those who *physically* resemble other ethnicities. Nothing wrong with that, provided you aren’t tapping into any gross stereotypes or misconceptions about the culture you’re using. Good tokenism! (Though I don’t necessarily agree that this IS tokenism at all)

    But if the character is *actually* ethnicity X, and you’re only demonstrating that through physical descriptors – the whole subject of this post – then that’s BAD tokenism! (or, to me, actual tokenism).

  22. Don’t really want to clutter up Aliette’s board with digressions from her original point, but I can’t actually imagine a scenario where no other cultural details aside from physical appearance apply to a character. Culture is the mulch that personality grows in. It might well be interesting to write an SF story where cultural elements are somehow (HOW?) stripped from a person but a/ you still have to address how that affects the memory, personality, habit, language elements of the character, and b/ even if you manage to convince us of that strippedness, the characters still must exist in a new culture, which in turn affects them. And don’t forget, the reader will bring their own expectations to *any* cultural clues you give to a character – especially if there aren’t many such clues.

    On tokenism – in the example you give, by the nature of video games all characters have to look like *something*. It sounds to me that you’re just talking about variety. But yeah, if there’s a black elf and an asian elf and a french elf carrying a baguette – it’s still effectively tokenism. Especially if the king of the elves is a white elf.

  23. Kermit said:
    “BUT, to synthesize all this, maybe what you’re saying is that there are NO SUCH THINGS as “Asian” (or African or European) physical features? That individual characteristics are fluid across geographic and cultural boundaries? Really, that’s the only way your rejection of the SE Asian/African/Asian comparison can work. Because if there are such things, generically, as “Asian” or “African” features, – an eye shape, a nose shape, a texture of hair – then some Cambodians do indeed have a “blend” of those features. That the phenotype, viewed holistically, is unique doesn’t change that.”

    But what are these “Asian” or “African” features of which you speak? Asia is what we technically call “huge”. It has Nenets and Tamils, Ainu and Pashtuns, Miao and Marsh Arabs. What are the “Asian” features shared by these people? Likewise, Africa has a huge range of phenotypes – your average Bedouin does not look like your average Zulu, nor do Somali and San tend to look alike. I’m afraid that by waving a vague “Asian” or “African” you’re succumbing to a shorthand that’s deeply unhelpful and culturally/ethnically problematic. Continents are purely artificial, external constructs which are pretty meaningless on the ground.

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