Jeff O'Handley, Author

Jeff O'Handley

The Doubting Writer Finds His Voice

A Simple Question

…but perhaps not a simple answer.

When reading a book, if you are not specifically told or given really obvious clues to a character’s race, what do you see, and why?

I’ll go ahead and say it, when I read, white is the skin color I see. I’m white. I’ve lived most of my life in communities that were mostly white, and that’s what I tend to see. In fact, I got halfway through my first ‘Alex Cross’ novel before I realized that Cross was black.

I’ve always assumed that readers have a ‘default’, if you will, and will picture ambiguous characters as being of the same race as they are, but I’ve been informed by one person that I’m wrong, or that it may not be that simple. So, what is it for you? No judgments will be passed.

Have a pleasant weekend, everyone.

12 Responses

  1. Yes, I have a default and if the author doesn't give me a description pretty close to his/her introduction, my version of the character will stick, regardless of what I read later on.

  2. I like that–default. I think you're right. And if the book doesn't immediately give gender, I'll bet most people assume male. Unless there's a hunky, half-dressed man on the cover with a babe drooling all over him. lol

  3. I'm like you. I 'default' to my own race unless there are clues or a cover image to change that perception. That said, I'm more likely to do it with an MC than a supporting character.

    I like to be told, though. Being the visually-oriented person I am, I hate getting into a story only to find out some detail that significantly changes my visual perception of a character. Suddenly, I have to keep reminding myself, 'Oh, wait. She's a brunette, not a blonde.' Ugh. I've put books down over stuff like that.

  4. Good question I've thought about recently. I always picture my race unless told otherwise. When writing I always wonder the best way to introduce a character's race. Then if I do it for one race do I have to do it for all?

  5. Yeah, that happened to me once too with a novel, but I can't remember which one it was. I ASS U ME d the character was white by default.

    And this is something I had noticed before when I used to do security/deputy work, too. Whenever officers would send out a description over the radio of a suspect they would include a description of height, hair color, clothing worn, etc., but race was usually only mentioned if the suspect was black or hispanic, otherwise people assumed they meant white (default?). Just an observation.

  6. I do have default characters if there are no clues and I guess we see our own race. I'll add that everyone has brown hair unless otherwise indicated (or unless a real popular character, than it's blonde). Black hair is reserved for severe characters. I don't mind if a writer describes a character or not, but I hate when they decide to describe them after the first chapter and I have to switch actors mid-show.

  7. Default is a good way to describe it. I do tend to go by cover images & names first, but if there are no clues, I think I assume white (I'll have to pay more atention to this when I'm reading…). I'm going to try to remember to ask my students this next week. I teach in an area with a diverse population so it'll be interesting to see the answers!

  8. Thank you all for your comments and your honesty. I hope some others weigh in on this. It's an interesting topic and I have some further thoughts based on discussions I've had elsewhere that I'll hopefully share soon.

  9. Yeah, I think we automatically fall back on what we know and identify with most. For me, that would be white. But it depends on the voice, too. Interesting notion, though!

  10. I'll admit to having a white default, though as an Australian, unless the setting is specified, I will visualize an American because of the amount of American media we receive over here. Having said that, if I'm conscious of the lack of certainty about a character's ethnicity, I'll try not to form an image at all and stay on the look-out for clues; mentions of hair and eye colour might end up all I see of the character, and I'll shape them based on their personality and actions. I actually really hate it when it's ambiguous like that though! I never know what to do.

  11. The media influence was something that was brought up over at Absolute Write when I asked over there. And it surprises me a bit that American media is so pervasive Down Under. Judging by the state of much of it, I can only say, "I'm sorry!"

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