This is a piece of advice I made for instagram a couple weeks back in response to some questions about what is possible when it comes to natural character attributes for characters of different ethnicities.
Race has always been a hot topic issue in literature, but recently, the issue of genetics has been popping up. Asian characters with blue eyes, black characters with Caucasian features, and lightening of skin. Yes, I’ve heard the argument that “it’s my world…I can do whatever I want.” Sure, you can, but you shouldn’t. Unless you’re giving character naturally blue hair and purple eyes, then try to stick with reality. Here’s why.
As an Indian girl who grew up with no Indian protagonists to read about, I never saw myself in the media, I never read a story about someone who looked like me. The only person I had was Ravi from Jessie, and he was the butt of every joke.
Imagine a little girl who finally gets to see a protagonist from their race in a movie or a book. They’re bubbling with joy! Then, she turns and has blue eyes and slick, brown hair that is scarily straight and is told that that’s all natural. In that moment, you present someone who’s supposed to represent her in the media and give her typically Caucasian features, saying that that’s beautiful. Meanwhile, every where else, the realistic appearance of that race is mocked in the media. It causes loads of insecurities and feelings of resentment in a person.
That’s not healthy.
This process is called white washing, and I would advise staying away from it.
How genetics work
Genetics are complicated, but not at the most basic form. There are a couple key concepts that you need to know. These are oversimplified, btw.
Imagine that human genes look like one of these variations: RR, Rr, rr
Humans are diploidy meaning that we get two versions of the same gene. To simplify it, let’s say there’s a gene for eye color. You get a gene from your mom and one from your dad. Your mom’s eye color gene could be RRand your Dad’s could be Rr.
But what do the letters mean?
The R’s stand for dominant and recessive genes. Dominant genes are genes that show in a person’s appearance if they’re shown. Back to our example. Big R means brown eyes and little r means blue eyes.Your mom, who is RR, has two genes for brown eyes. Your dad, who is Rr, has one gene for brown eyes and one gene for blue. Since brown eyes are dominant, they express as long as they’re in the equation. Both your parents therefore have brown eyes.
A recessive is the “weaker one” meaning that two must be shown in the gene for its characteristics to express. Let’s say your Grandma has blue eyes. She had rr, which meant only recessive alleles codes for her DNA which is why she has blue eyes. That also means she passed on one of her recessive alleles to her son, your Dad.
Kinda make sense?
That means that when you’re created, you get two of the four combined alleles of your parents. This is where Punnet Squares come in.
The top is your father and the vertical column represents your mom’s DNA.
As you can see, you have 0% chance of blue eyes, but you have a 50% chance of being a carrier like your dad.
Those are the basics of genetics.
The next post will be more specific on what you should do to be realistic but have interesting diversity in your characters!
Now that you know the biology behind it, let’s get to the real writing part. I bet you’re asking…”if I can’t give my Asian character blue eyes, what do I do?”
Well, there are two answers to that question. Either you can settle with beautiful, common brown eyes that should be embraced more OR, if you really feel the need, you can give your character realistic but unique features. Typically, if your character is not biracial, staying in the common region is a safe bet. If you character is mixed or has a mutation, the rarer forms are possible.
Asian (including Indian Subcontinent) Ancestry
- Common: dark brown eyes, brown eyes,
- Rare: hazel/light brown, sometimes flecks of green, umber, honey.
- Unlikely: blue and green.
- Impossible (fantasy characters): purple, red, pink, etc.
- Common: dark brown, almost black
- Rare: light brown, maroon-black
- Unlikely: variations of blond, red, platinum
Hair texture East Asians
- Thin, straight, with a lack of frizz
- Can be curly, but typically not kinked or coiled. More likely to be wavy
Hair texture South Asians
- This also depends on the region. Typically hair from this region is thick, but natural variances can occur. For example, I’m Indian and I have thin, stuck straight hair.
- Thick, wavy, curly. It can be coiled. There is great variation in hair texture and types for this region, so take some liberty.
- Common: dark brown, near black eyes
- Rare: hazel, blue eyes, green eyes
- Common: black, curly, kinked hair
- This doesn’t mean that individuals with African Ancestry cannot have straight hair, but the ratio between curly hair and straight is drastic, and attempts to give your character that straight variation can come off as that the majority hair texture isn’t worthy of your character, or isn’t special.
- Obviously, you know your work the best, and you know your characters, but I would love to read about a badass character with typical features. It’s quite empowering.
Middle Eastern Ancestry
- Common: hazel, dark brown, light brown, blue and green depending on region (Lebanon, Israel, Palestine, Syria, Jordan, Egypt)
- Not common, but possible: blue, green, grey
- Impossible (fantasy characters): purple, red (unless with albino disorder), pink, etc
- Common: variations of brown, blonde (in some regions like Lebanon, Israel, Syria, Jordan, Palestine)
- Not common: red, blond in other regions.
- This region also has a variety of hair textures like the south Asian regions. Thick hair is VERY common.
- Common: brown, blue, hazel, green
- Uncommon: grey, amber
- Impossible (fantasy characters): purple, red, pink, etc.
- Common: variations of brown. Blonde varies. In Scandinavian countries, blonde is very common, but in other countries, the concentration decreases. There are typically always more brunettes than blondes in most countries. Also, realize there are variations in blonde. Dirty blond, platinum, strawberry, golden, muted, etc. Just like with any hair color, it’s important to look into the types of blonde in specific countries and decide based on that.
- Rare: red (some regions have higher concentrations like Ireland, but these places are not stacked with redheads). Pitch black is also quite rare.
- There is also much variation with hair texture, but typically, Europeans have straight-wavy hair. Thickness varies based on region and person.
Latin American Decent
The sheer amount of variation in this region is astonishing. There is the typical brown hair brown eyes but also blonde hair and blue eyes. My advice for this region is to look into specific places. For example, in Spain, blonde hair isn’t extremely uncommon. Blue eyes occur. Hair texture varies drastically. One could have curly hair while another has him hair as straight as uncooked noodles. Do your research by searching up actors, visiting quora. If your more dedicated, visit the country yourself. That’s always a safe bet.
I hope this was helpful for you all! If you have any questions, whether broad of specific, comment below or talk to me through my socials!