So I was revising this story, which is supposed to be set in an imaginary country where people have very dark skin. One of the characters in the story is a traveller from another place, where people tend to have tan (not really pale, more like Mediterranean) skin. At some point, this traveller is seen through the eyes of a native of the country where the story is set. And that’s where I realised I was incapable of finding the right word to describe his skin tone.
The viewpoint character is black. As far as he’s concerned, his skin colour is the normal one, meaning that anyone with lighter skin would seem relatively pale to him. Problem was, I didn’t want to use the word “pale” as it would probably have implied something quite different for most readers (namely, a character with really white skin). Using “tan” felt problematic as well, as I thought it implied “tan as compared to default”; yet “default”, in the case of that particular viewpoint character, was already supposed to be very dark. Also I didn’t want to use the option of comparisons, because at that point in the story, the protagonist has absolutely no reason to wax lyrical about what exact type of food or precious stuff the skin colour of random strangers makes him think of.
This basically led me to wonder if that was a characteristic of the English language (only being able to express nuances in skin tone in the form of “this is more/much more/somewhat less dark than the default white), or if my limited command of it was at fault. Many people have remarked (and some have been kind enough to explain to me) that in fiction, extravagant comparisons with various materials, like caramel, ebony, coffee and whatnot, are most often used to mark white skins as default and darker skins as a deviation from that norm. But do non-metaphoric words (e.g. “pale”, “tan”, etc.) function in the same way, each of them expressing a “this much darker/parler than normal” nuance, rather than simple points on a continuum?
Any input on this is much appreciated. I wonder how it might work in other languages too (it certainly feels this way in French as well).