On reading and writing in colour

This is just going to be a short post, but something weird happened while I was reading a book the other day and I thought it worthy of comment because I think it might spark an interesting and thought-provoking discussion.

When I’m reading I visualise the story in very general terms. I don’t picture faces or body type. If anything, I’m more likely to picture places and animals with more clarity than I am people. People are more amorphous unless they have specific features that have been articulated in their description, ie hair colour or height or body type.

Anyway, I was reading this book and suddenly, at about 63%, the main female character suddenly describes herself as “a black American woman” and it completely threw me. Completely. I was jarred right out of the story because I had, mistakenly (obviously!), assumed she was white and suddenly I had to change my (albeit blurry) vision of what she looked like. It’s like a favourite book being made into a film and they pick an actor for a character that’s totally different to what you imagined when you were reading it (Danila Kozlovsky in VA is a prime example).

I went back to the beginning of the book and looked for descriptions and, as far as I could see, there was absolutely nothing that distinguished her as a woman of colour. The hair and eyes could have applied to a female of any race.

It just struck me as intensely fascinating that, as a white woman reading it, I assumed she was white and that the author, whom I happen to know is a lady of colour, clearly assumed that people would know she was “a black American woman” without it having to be specified.

I was interested enough to go to my own books and look at any descriptions I’ve put in of skin tone or race-specific features. I noticed that I’d described the vast majority of them in enough detail to be sure from the outset what they look like, but there were one or two characters that were ambiguous. I wonder now how others imagined them.

So, as readers and writers, do you feel like character descriptions should be that detailed? What or how do you visualise things when you read?

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