Q. I’m introducing 7 characters simultaneously in a Civil War book. Some are white, some are people of color. I want to respect all characters and not resort to “s/he was white, s/he was a person of color.” How can I do this?
A. As well as observation of skin color, you can use station–what the character says about themselves, their treatment, their life. You can use their references, examples or perspective–commentary. If a character on stage speaks of their son, daughter, mother/father being sold, of being used by their owner, of being hunted down and whipped, of having no control over his/her own life, their heritage–things of that nature, it will be apparent whether they’re white or a person of color and the specific need not be mentioned. It’d be equally clear if a character said s/he did the selling, using, hunting down.
Remember that physical description and stating skin color is just one of many tools at your disposal. Dialect can characterize, as can demeanor, manner of speech (evidences education, etc).
The reason I suggest letting what the character says carry a lion’s share of the load is because it tells far more about that person in three-dimensional patterns than does just telling the reader the color of the skin. Not only do you learn heritage, but their feelings about what has happened to them, which goes into the other two dimensions, (emotional and spiritual) further developing each character as a human being.
An added benefit is the audience or Point of View character’s reaction to what the character says, which also does a lot to reveal his/her character.
It’s difficult to introduce 7 characters at once and the reader be able to differentiate and keep them straight. But it can be done with deep characterization when that characterization appeals to a reader on multiple levels (dimensions). To do this most efficiently, make sure that the character’s revelation to the audience is tied to a universal emotion.
Characters and readers bond through emotional attachment. So if what a character says reveals something about themselves that tugs at a universal emotion (one most of us react to), then that makes that character distinct and vivid in the reader’s mind.
For additional information on doing that, there’s an article in the library–Creating Unforgettable Characters–which goes in depth on deep characterization. (www.vickihinze.com) You might also find help in the other articles there on characterization.
I hope this helps. If you have further questions on this, yell, and we’ll work at it more.