Writing with Color: Description Guide – Words for Skin Tone
We discussed the issues describing People of Color by means of food in Part I of this guide, which brought rise to even more questions, mostly along the lines of “So, if food’s not an option, what can I use?” Well, I was just getting to that!
This final portion focuses on describing skin tone, with photo and passage examples provided throughout. I hope to cover everything from the use of straight-forward description to the more creatively-inclined, keeping in mind the questions we’ve received on this topic.
So let’s get to it.
S T A N D A R D D E S C R I P T I O N
B a s i c C o l o r s
Pictured above: Black, Brown, Beige, White, Pink.
“She had brown skin.”
- This is a perfectly fine description that, while not providing the most detail, works well and will never become cliché.
- Describing characters’ skin as simply brown or beige works on its own, though it’s not particularly telling just from the range in brown alone.
C o m p l e x C o l o r s
These are more rarely used words that actually “mean” their color. Some of these have multiple meanings, so you’ll want to look into those to determine what other associations a word might have.
Pictured above: Umber, Sepia, Ochre, Russet, Terra-cotta, Gold, Tawny, Taupe, Khaki, Fawn.
Complex colors work well alone, though often pair well with a basic color in regards to narrowing down shade/tone.
For example: Golden brown, russet brown, tawny beige…
- As some of these are on the “rare” side, sliding in a definition of the word within the sentence itself may help readers who are unfamiliar with the term visualize the color without seeking a dictionary.
“He was tall and slim, his skin a russet, reddish-brown.”
- Comparisons to familiar colors or visuals are also helpful:
“His skin was an ochre color, much like the mellow-brown light that bathed the forest.”
M o d i f i e r s
Modifiers, often adjectives, make partial changes to a word.The following words are descriptors in reference to skin tone.
D a r k – D e e p – R i c h – C o o l
W a r m – M e d i u m – T a n
F a i r – L i g h t – P a l e
Rich Black, Dark brown, Warm beige, Pale pink…
If you’re looking to get more specific than “brown,” modifiers narrow down shade further.
- Keep in mind that these modifiers are not exactly colors.
- As an already brown-skinned person, I get tan from a lot of sun and resultingly become a darker, deeper brown. I turn a pale, more yellow-brown in the winter.
- While best used in combination with a color, I suppose words like “tan” “fair” and “light” do work alone; just note that tan is less likely to be taken for “naturally tan” and much more likely a tanned White person.
- Calling someone “dark” as description on its own is offensive to some and also ambiguous. (See: Describing Skin as Dark)
U n d e r t o n e s
Undertones are the colors beneath the skin, seeing as skin isn’t just one even color but has more subdued tones within the dominating palette.
- Mentioning the undertones within a character’s skin is an even more precise way to denote skin tone.
- As shown, there’s a difference between say, brown skin with warm orange-red undertones (Kelly Rowland) and brown skin with cool, jewel undertones (Rutina Wesley).
“A dazzling smile revealed the bronze glow at her cheeks.”
“He always looked as if he’d ran a mile, a constant tinge of pink under his tawny skin.”
Standard Description Passage
“Farah’s skin, always fawn, had burned and freckled under the summer’s sun. Even at the cusp of autumn, an uneven tan clung to her skin like burrs. So unlike the smooth, red-brown ochre of her mother, which the sun had richened to a blessing.”
-From my story “Where Summer Ends” featured in Strange Little Girls
- Here the state of skin also gives insight on character.
- Note my use of “fawn” in regards to multiple meaning and association. While fawn is a color, it’s also a small, timid deer, which describes this very traumatized character of mine perfectly.
Though I use standard descriptions of skin tone more in my writing, at the same time I’m no stranger to creative descriptions, and do enjoy the occasional artsy detail of a character.
C R E A T I V E D E S C R I P T I O N
Whether compared to night-cast rivers or day’s first light…I actually enjoy seeing Characters of Colors dressed in artful detail.
I’ve read loads of descriptions in my day of white characters and their “smooth rose-tinged ivory skin”, while the PoC, if there, are reduced to something from a candy bowl or a Starbucks drink, so to actually read of PoC described in lavish detail can be somewhat of a treat.
Still, be mindful when you get creative with your character descriptions. Too many frills can become purple-prose–like, so do what feels right for your writing when and where.
Not every character or scene warrants a creative description, either. Especially if they’re not even a secondary character.
Using a combination of color descriptions from standard to creative is probably a better method than straight creative. But again, do what’s good for your tale.
N A T U R AL S E T T I N G S – S K Y
Pictured above: Harvest Moon -Twilight, Fall/Autumn Leaves, Clay, Desert/Sahara, Sunlight – Sunrise – Sunset – Afterglow – Dawn- Day- Daybreak, Field – Prairie – Wheat, Mountain/Cliff, Beach/Sand/Straw/Hay.
- Now before you run off to compare your heroine’s skin to the harvest moon or a cliff side, think about the associations to your words.
- When I think cliff, I think of jagged, perilous, rough. I hear sand and picture grainy, yet smooth. Calm. mellow.
- So consider your character and what you see fit to compare them to.
- Also consider whose perspective you’re describing them from. Someone describing a person they revere or admire may have a more pleasant, loftier description than someone who can’t stand the person.
“Her face was like the fire-gold glow of dawn, lifting my gaze, drawing me in.”
“She had a sandy complexion, smooth and tawny.”
- Even creative descriptions tend to draw help from your standard words.
F L O W E R S
Pictured above: Calla lilies, Western Coneflower, Hazel Fay, Hibiscus, Freesia, Rose
- It was a bit difficult to find flowers to my liking that didn’t have a 20 character name or wasn’t called something like “chocolate silk” so these are the finalists.
- You’ll definitely want to avoid purple-prose here.
- Also be aware of flowers that most might’ve never heard of. Roses are easy, as most know the look and coloring(s) of this plant. But Western coneflowers? Calla lilies? Maybe not so much.
“He entered the cottage in a huff, cheeks a blushing brown like the flowers Nana planted right under my window. Hazel Fay she called them, was it?”
A S S O R T E D P L A N T S & N A T U R E
Pictured above: Cattails, Seashell, Driftwood, Pinecone, Acorn, Amber
- These ones are kinda odd. Perhaps because I’ve never seen these in comparison to skin tone, With the exception of amber.
- At least they’re common enough that most may have an idea what you’re talking about at the mention of “pinecone.“
- I suggest reading out your sentences aloud to get a better feel of how it’ll sounds.
“Auburn hair swept past pointed ears, set around a face like an acorn both in shape and shade.”
- I pictured some tree-dwelling being or person from a fantasy world in this example, which makes the comparison more appropriate.
- I don’t suggest using a comparison just “cuz you can” but actually being thoughtful about what you’re comparing your character to and how it applies to your character and/or setting.
W O O D
Pictured above: Mahogany, Walnut, Chestnut, Golden Oak, Ash
- Wood can be an iffy description for skin tone. Not only due to several of them having “foody” terminology within their names, but again, associations.
- Some people would prefer not to compare/be compared to wood at all, so get opinions, try it aloud, and make sure it’s appropriate to the character if you do use it.
“The old warlock’s skin was a deep shade of mahogany, his stare serious and firm as it held mine.”
M E T A L S
Pictured above: Platinum, Copper, Brass, Gold, Bronze
- Copper skin, brass-colored skin, golden skin…
- I’ve even heard variations of these used before by comparison to an object of the same properties/coloring, such as penny for copper.
- These also work well with modifiers.
“The dress of fine white silks popped against the deep bronze of her skin.”
G E M S T O N E S – M I N E R A LS
Pictured above: Onyx, Obsidian, Sard, Topaz, Carnelian, Smoky Quartz, Rutile, Pyrite, Citrine, Gypsum
- These are trickier to use. As with some complex colors, the writer will have to get us to understand what most of these look like.
- If you use these, or any more rare description, consider if it actually “fits” the book or scene.
- Even if you’re able to get us to picture what “rutile” looks like, why are you using this description as opposed to something else? Have that answer for yourself.
“His skin reminded her of the topaz ring her father wore at his finger, a gleaming stone of brown, mellow facades.”
P H Y S I C A L D E S C R I P T I ON
- Physical character description can be more than skin tone.
- Show us hair, eyes, noses, mouth, hands…body posture, body shape, skin texture… though not necessarily all of those nor at once.
- Describing features also helps indicate race, especially if your character has some traits common within the race they are, such as afro hair to a Black character.
- How comprehensive you decide to get is up to you. I wouldn’t overdo it and get specific to every mole and birthmark. Noting defining characteristics is good, though, like slightly spaced front teeth, curls that stay flopping in their face, hands freckled with sunspots…
G E N E R A L T I P S
Indicate Race Early: I suggest indicators of race be made at the earliest convenience within the writing, with more hints threaded throughout here and there.
- Get Creative On Your Own: Obviously, I couldn’t cover every proper color or comparison in which has been “approved” to use for your characters’ skin color, so it’s up to you to use discretion when seeking other ways and shades to describe skin tone.
- Skin Color May Not Be Enough: Describing skin tone isn’t always enough to indicate someone’s ethnicity. As timeless cases with readers equating brown to “dark white” or something, more indicators of race may be needed.
Describe White characters and PoC Alike: You should describe the race and/or skin tone of your white characters just as you do your Characters of Color. If you don’t, you risk implying that White is the default human being and PoC are the “Other”).
- PSA: Don’t use “Colored.” Based on some asks we’ve received using this word, I’d like to say that unless you or your character is a racist grandmama from the 1960s, do not call People of Color “colored” please.
- Not Sure Where to Start? You really can’t go wrong using basic colors for your skin descriptions. It’s actually what many people prefer and works best for most writing. Personally, I tend to describe my characters using a combo of basic colors + modifiers, with mentions of undertones at times. I do like to veer into more creative descriptions on occasion.
- Want some alternatives to “skin” or “skin color”? Try: Appearance, blend, blush, cast, coloring, complexion, flush, glow, hue, overtone, palette, pigmentation, rinse, shade, sheen, spectrum, tinge, tint, tone, undertone, value, wash.
Skin Tone Resources
- List of Color Names
- The Color Thesaurus
- Things that are Brown (blog)
- Skin Undertone & Color Matching
- Tips and Words on Describing Skin
- Photos: Undertones Described (Modifiers included)
- Online Thesaurus (try colors, such as “red” & “brown”)
- Don’t Call me Pastries: Creative Skin Tones w/ pics 3 2 1
Writing & Description Guides
- WWC Guide: Words to Describe Hair
- Writing with Color: Description & Skin Color Tags
- Describing Characters of Color (Passage Examples)
- 7 Offensive Mistakes Well-intentioned Writers Make
I tried to be as comprehensive as possible with this guide, but if you have a question regarding describing skin color that hasn’t been answered within part I or II of this guide, or have more questions after reading this post, feel free to ask!
~ Mod Colette
Hey there! This is a part of a series on pain and suffering in writing. Part 1 of the series, Writing About Pain (Without Putting Your Readers in Agony), appeared on the eminent and excellent blog WritersHelpingWriters. Thanks again to Angela for having me on her blog!
I got a great follow-up question the other day from a-nom-de-plume, who asked:
Do you have any tips on writing pain from an outside perspective? As
in, not the point of view of the unfortunate suffering character. What
external signs do people show when they’re in extreme pain?
I love this question, because it speaks to one of the “fundamental rules” of storytelling.
This is the show don’t tell
method of discussing and illustrating pain. It’s very useful for
demonstrating pain of characters outside the direct viewpoint of the
There’s also a medical terminology distinction to be made. Subjective things, like the actual pain itself, are symptoms.
They’re things patients feel, not what providers can observe. Anything
verifiable or observable by someone else is considered a sign.
example, in a first-person story, these descriptors (signs) would be
very useful for showing agony in someone who isn’t your protagonist.
Similarly, in a third-person-close perspective, this could describe your
characters who aren’t the current subject of the close point of view.
I’ll try to keep this to the same pain scale that I used in that article.
Signs of Pain
Mild: Rubbing a stiff joint, flexing a sore muscle, limping, massaging, moving stiffly
behavior that is often seen with pain is someone constantly moving the
affected area not to try to make it better, but to make sure it still
Moderate: Grunting, hissing, sharply
inhaling, wincing, guarding (protecting that area with a limb; for
example, using a good arm to cradle the bad, or holding an arm across
the stomach), severe limping.
Severe: Sweating, pale and cool skin, facial contortions, clutching the affected area, rapid breathing.
Obliterating: Everything from Severe,
plus lying on the ground, screaming, curling into the fetal position.
Patients in this amount of pain may ask for their mothers. I have
personally screamed “Why” and seriously considered the possibility of
demons when my gallstones have become obliteratingly painful.
Other Ways to Demonstrate Pain
are other ways to demonstrate a character’s discomfort that don’t
necessarily commit to any one particular level on the pain scale.
- taking pain medication, or asking if anyone has some in a group setting
- wrapping or re-wrapping an injury
- using a sling for an injured arm
- applying cold packs (new injury) or hot packs (chronic injury)
- massaging the injured area
- going for accupuncture or accupressure
- taking a break from an activity they could have otherwise completed
- calling a halt on a walk or stopping a current activity to “walk it off” or take a rest
- changing how they perform a task (like trying to write or change gears in a car with their non-dominant hand)
- constantly fidgeting and touching the affected area
may sometimes forget that they’re injured, try to do something, and
then immediately stop and wince and grab the part they moved (eg: with a
shoulder strain, they may try to reach out for something or turn their
head and immediately stop, wince, and rub the area)
There’s More Out There
This list is far from exhaustive. But it’s a good start to illustrating someone’s discomfort!
I hope this answered your question, @a-nom-de-plume, and I’ll gladly see you later!
xoxo, Aunt Scripty
If you guys haven’t heard about the Book Doctors, then
what have you been doing with your writing lifeallow me to educate you.
David Henry Sterry and Arielle Ekstut are a husband and wife couple who work closely with NaNoWriMo and are the authors of a fantastic book titled “The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published.” (get it and read it, it’s fabulous) These two wonderful people just did a YouTube livestream (it’s two hours long, watch it here) and at the tail end of it, David Sterry mentions the five elements of a really solid pitch…
- Research: Make sure that any facts you use in your pitch (as a hook or that are relevant to your novel) are accurate. It sounds like common sense, but you might be surprised how so many details can get overlooked. Unfortunately, pitches are all about detail. Suffice it to say, if you’re writing a medical thriller, then you’ll want to have intimate knowledge of medical procedures.
- Connection / Networking: One of the things that surprised me about pitching a novel is the “resume” part of a pitch. I thought that pitching was all about selling your book, but you have to sell yourself, too. If a well-known author has praised your book, mention that! If you’re writing a book for middle schoolers titled “How to Be A Loser 101″ then throw in a mention of how you were a loser for years and years (humor and connection. Double whammy). If you’re like me and you don’t have any credentials relevant to your story, then this humorous route may be the way to go.
- Writing: A pitch should be under 250 words. Every word needs to count, needs to be chosen, needs to be the best word to sell your book and yourself. You need to take time, slow down, and really think. 250 is a lot less than it sounds, so try not to get discouraged and keep at it until you feel that you’ve really summarized the essence of your book.
*Note: pitches for sci-fi and fantasy novels can be a little bit longer because they tend to need more buildup and explanation, but don’t go over 300. Just don’t.
- Perseverance: Writing the right pitch can take a long time. Heck, it took the Book Doctors months to come up with theirs, but now they can recite it in sync, with hand motions (skip to 2:01:38 to see it!). Condensing an entire novel down to 250 words is hard, even without considering that those 250 are supposed to convey why your book needs to be published. But take it one step at a time, and most importantly…
- Have fun with it! We all know that joy and passion should permeate our work, and that should be no different when it comes to your pitch. Let your pitch have style and humor and voice and cliffhangers, just like your book does.
Keeping all these elements in mind when you’re writing your novel pitch can be really helpful. And if you hit a wall? Step back, take a breath. Use your resources (like the Book Doctor’s video here or their book “The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published”).
And if you want to, send me your pitches! I’m not professional, but I’d love to hear about your guys’s books. Tag me in a post or send them to me in a message and I’ll help if I can!
Getting Started with Your Story
There’s no one way to start writing a book. For some people, it’s enough to just jump in and start writing to see where the story takes them. If you’re not too keen on that idea, then here is one process (as in, not the only process) that might help you move beyond your concept.
- Concept ≠ Plot
Many writers mistake concept for plot, but they’re actually two very different things. A world where everyone grows up with superpowers is a concept; the plot is what you decide to write about within that concept – the specific characters and what happens to those characters; who your antagonist is and what conflict arises when that antagonist goes after what they want. All of these things contribute to your plot.
So first, define what it is you actually have at this particular point. Do you just have a concept? If so, you’ll need to take the necessary steps to develop that concept into a plot.
- Concept >>> Plot
If you’ve decided that all you really have is a concept, then how do you take it and turn it into a plot? You brainstorm. All brainstorming really amounts to is expanding your ideas. All you’re doing is asking questions about the concept and delving deep into the answers.
The most simplistic way to start this process, especially if you’re struggling, is to ask one of two questions (or both, if applicable). These two questions: What could go wrong? What could go right?
Going back to my example about a world where everyone grows up with superpowers. If I were to ask the question “what could go wrong,” I’d end up with a whole list of possibilities.
- The powers suddenly disappear
- People start abusing their powers
- Someone figures out how to steal powers
- A hierarchy of strong vs. weak powers develops, creating superiority/inferiority dynamics
- Someone is born without a superpower
There are many more possibilities I didn’t even think of here, but any one (or more) of these could become a plot. Choose one that sounds interesting, and then ask yourself “and then what?”
Say I choose: Someone figures out how to steal powers. Then what does that person do? Do they recruit people to do the dirty work for them? Do they work alone? Do they hoard these powers and barter them for other goods? Do they attempt to enslave people? Do they attempt to take control of institutions? What do they do?
Your goal is to take your ideas and turn them into actions taken by characters. People doing things. And each piece you add will usually lead into another. If you went with the idea that this character is stealing powers and essentially selling them for other goods, you’d have to ask yourself follow-up questions. First, who are they selling to? Why would anyone buy a new superpower if they already have one? What uses would they have for additional ones? What is the key demographic that this person is trying to reach? Secondly, what are they selling them in exchange for? Money? Favors? Souls? What is this character getting in return?
Now that you’ve examined potential actions that the character takes, you’ve also exposed potential new characters.
- People they’re stealing from
- People they’re bargaining with
- People that try to police these crimes
- People that try to copy this character’s process
At the beginning of this section, I talked about using “what could go right” as another optional jumping off point. This is a good path to follow if your concept is already really negative. For a concept where someone is killing people for some pointed reason, you might ask “what could go right” and explore ideas where the killer is caught and brought to justice.
The point of all this is to think about change as a means of taking your idea from concept to plot. A concept is static – it doesn’t move, evolve, or change. By developing a plot, you’re forcing the concept to be challenged in some way. If you think about it that way, you’ll be able to formulate conflicts, and the people that orchestrate and fight against those conflicts.
On that note, I think we’re ready to move onto the third piece of my graphic above.
- Plot = Character Actions and Consequences
At this point, you have sketches for characters. You’ve got this nameless, faceless person that is stealing the powers, and all these other nameless, faceless people that I listed above. In essence, we have character concepts. And just like we turned our initial concept into a plot, we have to turn these character concepts into actual characters.
The basics are the easiest way to start. You figure out their name, their gender identity, their age, their appearance, some brief backstory and personality traits. I personally prefer the simplest questionnaire that I put together back in the early days because it hits on the poignant pieces of a character without overwhelming you with 100s of questions.
Now that you’ve given your character concepts names and faces and potential behaviors, you start to consider how one character’s view of the world inspires them to take certain actions, and you then think about how those actions affect your entire story.
We already kind of talked about the motives of the power thief in our example, but definitely delve deep here. On the surface, this character seems bad – stealing from people and then selling what they steal. But depending on what it is they’re getting in return, could we not argue that this character is a supernatural Robin Hood? Maybe instead of selling, they’re giving, and maybe the characters they’re stealing powers from are people that abuse and misuse their powers. Character motives can take a plot and turn it on its head, forcing you to reconceptualize everything. And that’s okay! That’s part of the process.
But separate from that idea, if we have a character concept of someone whose powers were stolen, and after developing their basic backstory, we discover that person’s name is Rose, and she has an especially close relationship with her brother. So when her powers are stolen, how does this affect her life? Was she using her powers to keep her brother alive and protected? What she using them to keep a roof over their heads? Was she using them as part of her job, as a means of providing? What happens to her life when her powers are stolen? And what will Rose do about it? Whatever Rose does will impact the story. If she does nothing to get her powers back, how does she solve her problems and does that make for a good story? If she does decide to act, then you’ve moved onto a new plot point to dive deeper into.
My point is, character concepts come from plots, but characters themselves often create plot, as their decisions and mistakes and successes create new outcomes. So if I could modify my original flow chart:
Before you develop something, you conceptualize it. You have a concept, then you make it a plot. You have concepts for characters, then you make them characters. And those characters end up driving your plot, to the point that this happens:
Plot inspires character. Character inspires plot. And it just keeps going around and around and around. Breaking it down into these pieces helps organize the process, but developing a story is rarely this neat and tidy. You’ll get ideas that don’t make sense, ideas that aren’t cohesive, characters you don’t need, characters that piss you off, problems you can’t solve, or plot points you’ve committed to that you no longer like…it will be messy. But it’s your mess, and the more you work on developing your own process, the more it’ll make sense to you. And it’ll become easier to know how to go about fixing it when something’s not right.
Have fun with this process! It’s supposed to be fun. When the pieces start to become clearer, you’re able to put them together in a rough outline. And once you have a rough outline, you can start writing, and really see it take shape.
A little talent is a good thing to have if you want to be a writer. But the only real requirement is the ability to remember every scar.
I’ve learned this method years ago and I’ve been using it ever since. The zigzag plot creator starts like this:
An crescent zigzag.
You can have as many up and downs as you want. I’ve drawn six to keep it simple. Alright, this zigzag is your storyline and every corner is an important event that will change everything:
Every down represents a bad thing happening to your main characters, taking them further away from their goal. Every up is a good event, taking them closer to their goal:
So, when the zigzag goes down, something bad must happen. When the zigzag goes up, something good must happen. The reason why we drew a crescent zigzag is because every down must be worse than the previous, and every up must be better than the previous. As the zigzag advances, events become more serious and relevant.
Let’s apply the zigzag method. My storyline is a detective trying to catch a serial killer in a futuristic city. Minutes later, this is what I’ve got:
Start: Detective, our protagonist, is just promoted
Down #1: Mass suicide happens in town, detective gets the case, the whole town thinks it might have been a religious suicide act, but detective suspects that someone single-handed killed all those people
Up #1: Detective finds clue about a possible killer
Down #2: A bigger mass murder happens, a true massacre, it’s a definitely a murder
Up #2: Detective finds the killer’s trail
Down #3: Thinking he is ahead of time, close to catching the killer, detective ends up dead in another mass murder
Up #3: Because of his notes and discoveries, the police is able to find the killer before they leave town
From this point on you can play with zigzag as much as you want. For example, changing the orientation of the zigzag for a bad ending:
Lots of ups and downs:
Or just a few:
It’s up to you (see what I did there?).
You can plot any type of story with the zigzag method. It’s a visual and easy process for a very complex task.