Describing skin color

So lately I’ve been thinking about how to describe skin colors and I’ve decided I’m unhappy with the way I do things now. Typically I use “pale-skinned” or “dark-skinned”, but particularly in cases with people who have medium brown skin, I tend to gravitate towards food words, like caramel. And describing skin with food has started to seem weird to me for reasons I can’t quite put a finger on.

As I thought about it, I came to conclusion that maybe it could be helpful to the COG community, particularly other writers. Or it could get a couple good replies with some sound advice. Either way I’m happy.

I’m looking for possible descriptors/methods of description that:

  1. Are value neutral. (Value meaning words that automatically have connotations of beauty, desirability, ugliness, etc.)
  2. Are short and easy to visualize
  3. Preferably aren’t extremely ambiguous, which is an issue for words like “bronze”

Hi @QuixquillianParadise – while there are other threads related to this topic, I feel this is something that will be of use to a lot of writers here, so let’s get down to the brass tacks.

The following resources were pointed out to me by @Fiogan, so be sure to credit them for their awesomeness.

Here is a two part article that answers the core of your concerns:

This article covers hair:

Overall, the site that hosts these articles is a very valuable resource for those looking to represent all people as positive as they can.


Oh, thank you. I do appreciate the resources, though in my case I can’t visit tumblr because of my particular device (usually not an issue for me as I don’t use social media, but it does sometimes cause some issues, like right now). Nevertheless, I do think it’s good to have them posted here anyways to help other people having the same issue. :blush:

EDIT: I also managed to find the same article posted outside of tumblr with a simple google. :+1: :grinning:

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Great; I’ll still quote a “basic primer” section from above that also provides further resources… perhaps these can assist as well.:


You’ve already recieved complex answers, but if I were to add my grain of salt, be wary of words that could make think of colors different than the intended one.
It can get very confusing to people, especially non-native speakers.

I’m always primely confused when I read a text based game, and then one of the skin tones is “olive”, and I never fail to imagine green skin.


Wha- olive is more yellow than brown! Well, what do you know.

On my case, I went true to-the-color color. That is to say, a literal name of the color. A spectrum of pale-lightbrown-darkbrown-black. Like the 2nd article linked above, but more to the basics. It’s easier to conjure the imagery and also straightforward.

I very agree with the article’s first pointer, but I’d figure, in a fantasy-genre, you’ll eventually describe race with color regardless. Especially if your fantasy contains human.


Depending on maturity, olives are yellowish green, brown or black. So yeah, it makes for three totally different colors.
But for most people, at least in the parts of Europe I’ve been, green is the main color you think of when you say “olive”. I mean, there’s literally the “olive green” color.
So yeah, I always think of that when someone says olive.
Brown olives are literally the rarest, I think…

But that’s becoming off topic - it’s not about olives :rofl:

My point was to be careful when a word can describe more than one color.


Honestly, I’d just say whatever color it is. “Medium brown skin” paints a much clearer picture than “caramel” or any other food word (how dark is the caramel??). Also, you can just say where they seem to be from. I don’t think it’s offensive to say “He looked South Asian”. Other people may feel differently about that, but that’s my 2 cents on the matter.

I thought Indonesia and the Pacific Islands were considered to be part of Southeast Asia? In any case, you’re right, there is more variation than perhaps I originally thought. I still do think, however, for the most part giving a general region gives a clear picture of what the character looks like. There’s obviously exceptions to this, but that’s the case with most things I think.


This can mean anything from India to the Pacific Islands and from Tibet to Indonesia – I believe there is more variation in an “area” of the world than many think there are.


For me personally, as someone of partial middle eastern descent, I always choose “olive” when it’s an option - I thought it was just the standard term for a neutral undertone. If I were to describe my own skin color, yeah I could say “tan” but a quote unquote “white person” (as I would also consider myself white) with a tan has a very different skin tone than mine. I guess that I don’t personally mind the food-description for my skin tone specifically because I can’t really think of a good alternative that is just as specific. I guess you could say “tan with a neutral undertone” but that’s just awkward and also would be hard for me to visualize. When other people describe my skin tone I hear a lot of “you’re white, but not really…” so I would much rather hear olive lol

(and also there are purple olives! so we can add that to the confusion factor of the term)

I also agree that area can be hard to use as a describing factor, because there really is a ton of variation in any area of the world.


“Olive skin” is about the undertone (along with warm, cold, and neutral), and literally means that you have a certain green pigmentation that people with the other undertones doesn’t, so it kinda makes sense.

But undertones tell you nothing of the skin’s pigment saturation, so you can have people with very pale olive skin (like me), and through the whole spectrum to very dark skin.
A lot of people seem to use “olive skin” to just mean a certain medium-light brown tone, but that’s a bit reductive, and sometimes not even correct.

We don’t really see undertones being mentioned in CS games, probably because you’d need four times as many skin colour options! :laughing:


Yeah, I wouldn’t mind if it was actually described as “light brown skin with olive undertones”, but that would imply waaay too many choices and way too specific, and also, I see the “olive skin” pretty often, in selections that are around 6 to 8 choices. So really, it’s hard not to think of green skin.

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I’d consider myself more part of the SEA. South Asian would be India, Pakistan, and its surrounding.

And what the hell is “undertone”? Do you have 2nd layer of color on your skin? What about uppertone? Reeeee–

I think the best approach both as writer and player is a short but inclusive list. Not going too deep into the details but present just enough it covers all possible color in the history of men.


I totally understand this and respect your feelings. My assertion is more regarding historical references that are hazy and sometimes include the same geographical location into more than one “region” and I made my boundaries the furthest, outermost references I’ve seen in my research.

My point was to emphasize that even if you say: Persia for example… that a Persian can have pasty-pale skin, tan skin with olive undertones or any number of variations. Many in America have a stereotype of Persians based on those that emigrated to the US or from “history” texts that are chock-full of errors.

An undertone is a shade that compliments or contrasts your skin. Using myself as an example: My coloring is such that “cool undertones” go well and compliment me: light pinks, light blues, light green, etc.

@Konoi and others discussing the “olive” coloring: olive is an undertone … as @slizard indivates, you can be shaded many different ways and have olive undertones.

Here is an article that might help everyone visualize things better:

Why this matters: It helps those of us that wear makeup and that might need help when looking for new clothes …

For writing purposes: Using tone is a way to make your characters more unique … if your NPC character has “Olive tones” then you know to dress them in warm golden colors … this might be different than a NPC who uses “cool undertones” making it easier to connect to the character.

For the MC… this is a great position to have … although if an author wants to say something like:
___ #My skin is a porcelain color with veins that pop through and I wear cool undertones…

it can be a way to easily customize both skin color and wardrobe colors easily.


I don’t refer races in English because I don’t understand the terminology and cultural differences English culture uses. It doesn’t make sense to me. Like undertones, probably someone here with taking it very badly if you say That they have undertones.
My option has put a list of normally used tones in American and A input your own skin tone.

For fixed Characters, I try to keep it varied

Edit: Read the undertones thing you can be punched in the face if you say that to someone here


Usually when we talk about the colors of thing broadly, we sort them into basic shade categories. However, with most colors there are other less-dominant colors that contribute to what it is.

Say we start with a base color of red. If you mix your red with some yellow, it becomes more of an orange-red, sort of like a fire-engine red. The base color is still red, but it has a yellow undertone. If you mix your red with some blue, you end up with more of a burgundy leaning color.

The principle is the same with skin colors. While the base shade might be sorted into categories like light, medium, tan, and deep there are other colors that make up one’s skin tone. Skin color is traditionally described as having warm, cool, or neutral undertones. Neutral would be like our pure red, warm would be our fire-engine red, and cool would be our burgundy red.

That said, unless you need to write a detailed scene about someone trying to match their foundation, undertones aren’t going to be super helpful in the narrative of most stories for reasons that have been previously covered.


Oh but I understand the undertones - in theory.
But while I could tell you what they are and so on, I’m totally unable to visualize it on a character. That means if I don’t have a visual reference of the character, my mind goes to what the color is per se, hence the green for olive skin.
I hardly think I’m the only one who’s like that - it gets really confusing sometimes - that’s why I like it when games stick to simpler terminology when it comes to skin tones.


Try to describe the colour from the POV of your character.
A dentist from XXI century California and a soldier of Alexander the Great would describe the skin colour of an Indian person in a very different way from each other.

Or, if your character is racist, he would probably use a derogatory term and so on.

I don’t think many people enjoy playing actually racist MCs, at least when dealing with actual, real world racism. Personally, I think I would get uncomfortable real fast if my MC was forced to hate people of a real world race. Or if the story is set from a more detached narrator point of view, having people be described with racial slurs might come off as self projecting.

That’s not to say that racism can’t be included in IF, in fact I think that IF is uniquely suited to such stories. Just remember that it is difficult as all hell to write racism well. It’s a fine line between being overly preachy, overly cliche, or legitimate glorification.


Ah, it makes sense now. I see.
Now I understand how a skin undertone is important, especially in regards to fashion and the field of beautiness.

Sorry if I came out as dissing skin undertone. Didn’t intend that. I suppose you can call me as playing the role of generic men who don’t (care?) understand things like color grading, dog breed, and wardrobe to wear on date.