So, I’m writing a story (not that this is news) and I was looking for a way to describe someone who has dark skin without coming right out and saying “this dude is black” because, well, that has specific cultural connotations and this culture pre-dates the Big Bang. This led me to what is probably the most convoluted Google search I have ever conducted.
Hint: if you’re looking for a way to describe skin tones, Googling is usually a bad idea. You will waste about three hours filtering through irrelevant crap before you finally find something that is close to, but not quite, what you were looking for. I learned more about foundation, face powder, how to pick the best color for any given complexion, how to hide freckles, how to highlight freckles, which color eyeshade goes well with which color iris, and where I can get contact lenses that will make my sclera (the whites of the eyes) black.
By the time I finally found a suggested list of ways to describe skin color, I was beginning to doubt my own sanity. However, I finally stumbled on this Tumblr post and got exactly what I wanted.
I will say this: it is difficult to describe skin colors when one of your Rules is “This Is Not Earth — Don’t Use Historical Earth Descriptions.” That meant that unless I wanted to say that someone’s skin was literally black — and I’m talking onyx black here — I had no quick reference to use. In my world, if a character were to say “the best wine-maker in the city is Prenia — she’s black with long hair” people would assume that her skin color was somewhere between pitch and coal. If Prenia actually has warm brown skin, no one would recognize her from the description as “black.” The trouble is that “brown” skin can describe (for us) anyone who is African, Indian, Amerindian, Arabian, or even Caucasian with dark hair. Fair skin is easy to deal with — you can’t have fair or pale skin tones without implying that the person is further down the “pink” end of the skin tone scale. But describing people who aren’t fair skinned without making any Earth-culture reference is actually a bit tricky. I can’t say “Mediterranean” or “Asiatic” or anything like that. I have to give the literal color and tone of the skin. Figuring out how to do that without just playing Crayola is not easy.
So, for those of you who are considering doing the same, I composed this somewhat helpful graphic to aid you in your endeavors. It’s nowhere near exhaustive — there’s a near-infinite number of ways you can mix overtones and undertones or deal with shades of the seven groups I’ve put here.
Do you have some suggestions for words that could be added to this list? Feel free to let me know either here or on Facebook. If I use your suggestions, I will give you credit for them!