It’s the Skull, Stupid (aka: using a drawing eye to put POC in your fiction)

Though today is the celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr’s birthday, I’ve wanted to write on the subject of writing people of color (POC) in far future fiction for a while, but I haven’t really felt like I had the tools necessary to talk about the subject as (even as a POC) it’s something I struggle with myself.  I was finally inspired to take this topic this week after watching lesson four of the online Craftsy class I’m taking titled Drawing Facial Features by Gary Faigin. Mr. Faigin is a portrait artist who has done extensive study of human anatomy for his craft. This class is focuses extensively on how the skull affects a person’s appearance. As a POC (especially a Black woman born and raised in the US) there’s always some wariness when people start talking about skull shape and race, but the fact is, there are patterns in regards to skull shape and facial features that do map onto racial appearance and gender, and as a writer (in addition to as an visual artist), these are worth exploring.


This is especially true for those of us (like me) who write far-future science fiction or fantasy worlds that aren’t specifically based around a specific period of time/historical culture. We are faced with what I feel is a special challenge in regards to how to show that the person you are writing about is non-White in a way that feels natural to the story and at the same time doesn’t rely on modern cultural references to convey the point. For example, if you are writing a world where being a POC is not relevant to how you are treated or in a world that doesn’t have the same history of race relations as our own, how do you populate your story, book, or epic series in a with a plausible, multi-ethnic brush.

A truism of writing classes, especially writing instruction in regards to conveying exposition in science fiction is “if it’s not relevant to the story, cut it.” The last thing your reader wants to struggle through, common wisdom in the field states, is your hours of historical research, the full monty on your jump drive functions, or a point by point bio on every part of your character’s appearance and life prior to the start of the book (take that, Victor Hugo).

This begs the question, if in my brain the two main characters of my book look East Asian and Black, but it isn’t relevant to the story, does it matter if these details don’t make it to the reader? I only have so much space in this story to devote to exposition (and my jump drive is based on a little known wrinkle in M theory which is really cool). Isn’t it more important to state that one of the main characters is born of a corporate aristocracy and on the run from the men who kidnapped him to ransom back to his parents while the other is an intrepid but untalented street boxer who has had to replace all but two of her visible teeth with low grade, too-white, implants?  (btw: why am I not writing this story?)

This is further complicated by the fact that for us, (and I’m saying US citizens here,) a person’s race and how they identify is VERY IMPORTANT to the people around us. As a multiracial (mostly Black and Greek) woman who doesn’t have an easily identifiable race, I’ve spent almost every day of my life answering the question, “What are you?” (These days I’m tempted to say Swedish, and I’ve occasionally answered ‘a natural born American mutt,’ which doesn’t really end the conversation but at least gets things going on a friendly note. This doesn’t even get into the fun of having people not believe me when I tell them I’m Black.) What’s even sadder about this is that it’s been such a staple of my life, it never even occurred to me to get offended by the question until I was having lunch with a Pakistani girl in my grad school program who had been asked this question earlier that day and spent most of our lunch together ranting about how rude it had been to be asked by a perfect stranger about her race.

So if you care about populating your fiction with a variety of characters that accurately reflects humanity, then getting across a variety of ethnicities matters. And the weight of importance that we put on the physical features that lead one to say “that person looks Black” or “that person looks Indian” matters enough that race (visible) is not a detail that you can just throw in later, even though within the context of your world, doing so would be more natural. In Western culture, specifically that of the United States (where I live), if given no guidance, chances are very high that a reader will simply assume a character is white unless given some clear indication otherwise. So if you inform this reader that the main character isn’t white halfway through the story, one of two things will happen (1) the reader won’t notice or (2) they’ll be totally thrown trying to recreate their character in a new image. This happens with every detail in your story actually. Lacking information, the reader just fills in the most obvious thing, which is why good writing is a LOT about managing details.

Which gets us to what I really want to talk about: how can we use principles of portraiture to depict race and gender in a world where you can’t lean on modern cultural cues (and stereotypes) to get your point across? Or if you just don’t want to lean on those cues. (He was a tall drink of dark chocolate cocoa…mmmhmm…)

(Btw: if you want to see an example of how NOT to lean on stereotypes to depict people of color, here’s a humorous video on the subject:

Mr. Fagin makes the point that one of the key and most important determiners of a person’s racial ancestry has to do not with their features (though these matter) but the “facial angle”. If you look at a person of northern European descent in profile, their features are more likely to line up on a 90 degree angle. In contrast, a person of African descent is likely to have a face angle that slopes more, closer to 45 degrees, meaning that their jaw will be further forward than their European counterpart. East Asians tend to be somewhere in between, having a greater angle the Europeans though not as great as those of African descent. Then you get into features. People of Asian descent tend to have eyes that are set more forward than those of European and African descent, and most people in the world it seems have wide, flat noses, making the straight nose of northern European descent more of an outlier than a norm.

Here’s my face in profile:


As you can see, I have a fairly strong face angle. (the tip of my chin is a good deal more forward than the base of my nose) My shadow is even more African descended than my face, if you look at the picture, which makes me smile.

The take home message from this for me is not that I’m going to go crazy in describing face angles in my writing (so yes, the title of this post is a lie, but so is fiction), more that it is important to describe what you are actually seeing as opposed to what you think you’re seeing. For example, I’m not really Black, nor do I know anyone who is. Nor do I know anyone who is white. I do a number of people who are brown. Dark brown. Light brown. Tan. Peach. Cream colored. I also know people with protruding jaws, and those who have small chins. I know people with tight, curly hair. I know people with hair the texture of moss. I know people with large brown eyes, long lashes, and designs shaved into their dark brown, springy locks.

When describing your characters, ask yourself, what am I seeing? Does this person have a wide, flat nose? Does she have a sloping forehead. Full, flat lips? What color is s/he really?

And if you’re looking for more resources on how to write POC, women and just about anything else:

And here’s your challenge. Take any of these four pictures and describe the person in two sentences without depending on cultural cues or direct mentions of the person’s (perceived) race:










BTW: If you’re looking for a truly remarkable facial proportion to put into your fiction, give your adult character an eyeline that is not halfway down his or her face.

Happy writing!