But how will the reader know that they are really evil? Or, maybe shortcuts have no place in your writing
I had no trouble believing this anecdote, because I have gotten into more than one argument over the years with people (almost always cisheterosexual men) insisting that just because a character in a particular movie or television series or book raped someone, it doesn’t mean that he’s bad.
What’s most appalling about the anecdote is that a really large number of men think that kicking a puppy is ten-thousand times more evil than sexually assaulting a woman.
But on a less intense level, it’s also pathetic that a number of movies and stories without any rape at all have chosen to show the villain kicking or shooting or otherwise attacking a dog/puppy just to drive home the point that this character is really, really evil. It isn’t just dogs. In the original Terminator, for example, one of the ways the director hammers home that the titular character is a heartless killer is to show a close up of the robot callously stepping on a child’s toy, destroying it.
Puppies and toys aren’t the only kind of shorthand which lazy writers have used to indicator a character is not just a bad person, but despicably, unredeemably bad. One of the other ways that has been used a lot is queer-coding of villains. Queer-coding is where certain behaviors, mannerisms, or means of talking that hint that the character isn’t heterosexual (or possibly not cisgender). It frequently has been used with villains. People often point to villainous characters in Disney films (Jafar, Ursula, Scar) but it’s been around longer than that. Alfred Hitchcock’s movie, Rope is a frequently cited example.
And some works don’t even bother with coding. For instance, Frank Herbert’s novel, Dune, (and the sequels) explicitly depicts the most depraved and evil characters as gay. There is one character who slowly develops bisexual curiosity as she is corrupted, and then goes full queer as her moral corruption reaches its pinnacle.
Full disclosure: I didn’t even notice the correlation between queerness and evil in the Dune books (which I have loved since my early teens), until someone pointed out to me in my mid-to-late-twenties that I, a queer writer, was doing the same thing in stories I was writing at the time. It’s a pervasive culture notion, coming out of the homophobic belief that simply being non-heterosexual is a deep moral failing.
Queer-coding and overt queer-villaining still happen, but more people (and not just queer people) in the audience are willing to speak up and object when it happens. But the sort of writers/directors/et al who feel they need to hammer the depravity of their characters home seem to have switched to a new shorthand: incest.
In my review of a recent episode of Star Trek: Picard I blamed Game of Thrones for this problem. I stand by my explicit statement (as well as the implicit one) that the series (television and books) commits a huge number of literary and ethical sins, but I do have to admit that the encroachment of the incest meme as shorthand for very evil goes back further than that. In Cora Buhlert’s review of the same episode of Picard she points out the incest=villain trope goes back at least to 1974’s movie, Chinatown.
And obviously incest has been mentioned in fiction and folklore for a long time, including the Greek story of Oedipus, Arthurian legend (Mordred sometimes being depicted as the product of an incestuous tryst between Arthur and his sister or half—sister), and more than a few times in the Old Testatment. Though it is worth mentioning that one of the times it happens in the Old Testament the narrative is less than condemning of it.
But in most of those tales the incest plays out as a tragedy. Real life incest is also almost always tragic (since most often it is part of an abusive relationship). So, I’m not saying that incest should be off-limits in narrative fiction, because real human failings are fair game for your fictional works. I’m just annoyed that it seems recently that it’s being thrown in as a lazy way to show that a character is particularly twistedly evil. And it’s not necessary.
You can show the character doing evil things. Physically choking her subordinate tells me plenty about the character of the evil sister of the Hot Romulan, for instance. Sending death squads after people shows us that the character is evil. The narrative didn’t have to make them siblings for any part of the story to work. There are millions of ways you can have your villain behaving cruelly or coldly or viciously to demonstrate that they are a despicable, vile, dastardly, abominable, loathsome person.
Don’t use shorthand to indicate a character is evil. Write the story in such a way to show us the character is evil. But keep it in character, make sure that everything you show the reader also moves the plot along, and so forth. And if a reader is the sort of person who doesn’t recognize that coldly ordering someone’s death (or whatever things that happen in your story that are in character for your villain) is a bad person, maybe your story isn’t for them.
I think the first time I ever read a story when the author described a character’s skin as “coffee colored” I was about 12 or 13 years old. And I remember pausing and thinking, “Is it plain coffee, or coffee with cream? And if it’s with cream, how much?” Because, for instance, I had one aunt who put almost a half a cup of milk or cream in her cup if she had it before pouring the coffee in, whereas one grandmother who made coffee only put a small dollop in hers, so the coffee was very dark. The description completely bounced me out of the story for several minutes while I puzzled over that. I eventually went back to reading the tale, but I had a difficult time visually the character, because I couldn’t decide how dark her skin was supposed to be.
I don’t remember the story, so I can’t go back and check, but don’t think any character other than her had their skin color described.
A few years later I was reading another story where the author described a character’s skin as coffee-colored, and also described another character’s skin as the color of cream. And I immediately imagined the second woman as albino, because I had a few classmates with that condition, and it was the only skin I had ever seen literally that color, right? I only thought that for a few minutes, then realized the author was being a bit metaphorical.
Anyway, a little later in the novel I noticed that most of the male characters had not had their skin described. One guy had been described at one point as “bronzed” and there was a reference to another man as being “red-faced” but their physical descriptions were not as detailed as the women. I was fifteen or sixteen years old at this time, and midway through the book I had started developing a crush on one of the male characters (though I didn’t quite realize it, since I was still deeply closeted and in denial about my own sexuality) and found myself being actively annoyed at the author for not giving my more of a description of him. Which I wanted to know purely for accuracy, and not at all for any lustful reasons, ahem.
Even with the frustration, it would be a few more years before I finally realized there was a pattern in lots of books, particularly when written by men: describe the women’s looks using various food metaphors, but virtually never describe the men in detail, unless those characters were supposed to be comical or villainous or otherwise disliked. Then, of course, the men would have various physical features that emphasized their inferiority to the blue-eyed hero.
And the hero was almost always blue-eyed, wasn’t he? Which should be another clue. Of course, I was a pasty-skinned blue-eyed cisgendered nerd myself, so it took me longer than it should have to notice just how skewed all these treatments, in the narrative, of characters of various genders and races were.
To answer the question in the title of this post: What does it mean when an author describes a character as having coffee-colored skin? Well, it means that the author is falling back on a cliche that is deeply steeped in racism. And since these descriptions are almost always reserved for women in those narratives, and the women’s characterizations all center on how attractive or unattractive the women appear to men in the story, it is also steeped in a whole lot of sexism and misogyny.
So you should avoid doing it.
And this isn’t about political correctness. It’s about bad and cliched writing. Seriously, I am not the only reader who will come across a description like that and stop to wonder what kind of coffee. Or if you use another food, no matter what it is, there will be some readers who are unfamiliar with it.
But it’s also pretty creepy to describe characters as food, as if they’re meant to be consumed—as if their appearance is the only thing they have to contribute to the narrative.
I know that I sometimes under-describe. I’m a more minimalist storyteller where my focus is on what the characters say and do; I only include description when I feel I have to. But, nothing should be in your story if it doesn’t advance the plot, develop or reveal a character’s personality, foreshadow events to come in the plot, and so forth. And 99.9% of the time, a character’s appearance has nothing to do with those things. Yeah, you need to set a scene, and you want the reader to imagine the character while reading about them. But how much detail does someone really need to follow your story?
Let the reader fill in the details that don’t matter to the plot.
And don’t perpetuate cliches, whether racist, misogynist, heteronormative or not.
One of my favorite news sites posted an article by Ryan Boudinot, an ex-MFA (Master of Fine Arts) teacher, about writing students. The article is an incredibly good example of both clickbait and elitist BS. And the writing blogs have reacted in a manner which is just increasing the traffic to the article, making it likely the site will put up more of the same. If you haven’t seen it, yet, here’s a link using the excellent Donotlink.com service: Things I Can Say About MFA Writing Programs Now That I No Longer Teach in One – The Stranger, which will get you to the article without increasing its search stats.
A lot of people have posted rebuttals, I provide regular links to some of the best at the end of this post. The point I most disagree with is Boudinot’s definition of “serious reader.” Read More…