I wrote a post not long ago about how I didn't have a clear picture of my characters' appearances in my mind while writing them.
In it, I posted two pictures of two young ladies; I thought that those women looked the way I imagined the young daughters of my protagonist would look like when they became adults.
A good chunk of the plot of my WIP revolves around the girls having different mothers and therefore, looking different. That is, having different mothers and being identified as different races makes my fictional family an oddity in Georgian England. I should add that it isn't the fact that their father has two children with different women (lots of men did) or of different races (once again, lots of men did) that makes them peculiar; it's that their father raises them together, as equals their whole lives, that makes many of the villagers scratch their heads.
So of all of my characters, I had wanted to nail down the girls' looks as precisely as I, who can't bloody remember someone's face even though they only spoke to me two seconds ago, can do. All of the English characters remark on how similar (or not) these sisters look, which means I wanted to describe them well, which means I needed to know certain traits. How dark is their hair? What are their skin tones? What texture is their hair? What are the shapes of their eyes? Noses? Lips? Are their bodies similar shapes? How do they look the same? How do they look different?
Alexandra was easy--she's mostly white, with a dash of Native American throw in from her mother's side. Alex has brown eyes and uncontrollable, wavy brown hair. She also has high cheekbones and her father remarks, more than once, that she actually resembles his mother. Of course, Alex's great complication in life is not her race, but that she was born out of wedlock.
I knew that Madeline has black hair and brown eyes. I wondered for a long time about her hair--not as long or as straight(ish) as Alex's, but how African-textured and curly was it? She told me that her hair was all her mother's; in fact, for some people, it's in looking at her hair that they realize that Mady must be biracial. That brought me to her skin tone.
This is where I had an epiphany, as I was going to work the other day. It was two-fold.
1) Biracial people, even siblings, come out looking all sorts of ways.
I ranted about this in a previous post, The Rant About Race. I know this from personal experience. I'm half white and half Asian. I look mixed (my nose is not the cute button nose that my Asian cousin's daughters have, alas), but skewing toward the Asian side. But then, my cousin's son is Asian and white and I think he looks Caucasian most of the time. I've met a boy with an Asian mother and a white father who had blond hair and blue eyes.
Point is, the interaction of genes causes a multitude of colors, tones, textures and features. So I could make Mady look however I wanted to. That didn't exactly help me picture her as a little girl though.
2) It's all a matter of perception
That is, I don't want to get bogged down in having to precisely identify whatever shade of tan Mady is. To be completely honest, I find stories that hinge on a character's biracial struggle of identity--oh, my god, you are neither race and therefore are nothing, what am I to do?--to be deathly boring. I'm sure there are people who feel angst with their mixed backgrounds and I'm not denying that I had some moments during the general angst and crap of adolescence, but it's not that interesting.
Here's the thing when you're biracial---no one will guess your ethnicity correctly. Some say I look Chinese, Korean, totally Japanese. Others say I look French (I think it must be the ennui I give off). One person told me I look like Bjork, who is from Iceland. And practically everyone in my high school, which had a large Russian population, thought that I must be from Kazahkstan.
Also, one must remember that these perceptions are based on the viewer's experiences. Maybe they don't know anybody with my combo. Maybe they think that girl has dark skin, when objectively, the girl has an olive tone or is tanned. So I thought that instead of deciding exactly what Mady looks like, I'd leave it a little ambiguous. That is, to black people, Mady might look light-skinned, clearly half white. But to her father, she looks like a mixture of him and her mother. To her sister, she might look like their deceased Mama. To the English people she meets during the story, some notice right away that she's of African descent, others only notice because of her hair, others say "oh, she's not so very dark."
Others project things onto you. "Oh, you must be confused." Nope, not really. "Wow, that's so exotic." Seriously? I'm from Queens. There's nothing exotic about Queens. "Oh, she looks Asian, so she must identify with her Asian side." Well, yeah, but there's that Irish side, too.