Image: Matthew Loffhagen
Color, like time, will be present in your fiction whether you want it to be or not. It’s one of the grand defaults of human life; unless you’re writing fiction from the point of view of a colorblind individual or your plot takes place purely on some kind of Noir planet, color will be something implicitly involved in your story, even if you choose to pay no attention to it.
So why waste a great opportunity? Color has a lot to say, and humans are touched on deep psychological levels by color. Color affects mood; can communicate invisibly; is culturally, politically, and religiously significant; and can provoke a whole range of weird psychological reactions. There’s a reason artists like Mark Rothko, Helen Frankenthaler, and Paul Gauguin are celebrated: color theory is broad, complex, and ever-shifting, and is one of the first things any aspiring artist should delve into.Your writing already uses color – your decision is whether it uses color well.Click To Tweet
In fiction, color can subtly relay messages and communicate moods that the author doesn’t want to address directly. It can indicate character, build drama, thicken tension, and manipulate readers. It’s an indispensable tool, and its power should not be underestimated. Let’s look at what you need to know before tackling color in your fiction.
While there’s a lot of room to do your own thing with color, it’s important to be aware of the basics of color psychology. This differs somewhat from the more commonly considered color symbolism, which refers to the logical associations different cultures have consciously developed over time (for example, purple seems regal because it was an extremely expensive dye; green is a sacred color in Islamic nations because it is the color of the prophet’s robe).
Color psychology on the other hand has more to do with how human perception of color affects our brains, behaviors, mood, and biological functions regardless of our parent culture. Primarily developed in the 1970s and ’80s by academic Angela Wright, the theory of color psychology breaks each color down into positive and negative associated traits.
For example, Wright suggests that red is a strong physical color; it lacks nuance, and is basic, primal, lively, and friendly. Its positive associations include courage, strength, warmth, energy, vitality, masculinity, excitement; whereas its negatives are aggression, violence, and defiance.Writing color draws on both psychological and cultural context.Click To Tweet
Yellow on the other hand appeals to us on an emotional level. It’s essentially stimulating and appeals to us psychologically. Its positive associations include optimism, confidence, self-esteem, extraversion, and friendliness, while its negatives include irrationality, fear, emotional fragility, depression, and anxiety.
It’s worth considering each of the colors’ psychological profiles, even if you intend to ignore them all and go your own way. After all, it’s always important to know what you’re disregarding/avoiding!
More obvious than psychological associations are the associations we create within our own distinct cultures. In England, you’re green with envy; in the US, if you’re sad you’ve got the blues; whereas in several Arabic cultures you show someone a red eye – that is, you warn or threaten them.
These conscious associations can sit awkwardly on top of psychological associations or even displace them. But certain cultural associations draw from common human experience; it is difficult, for example, to separate red from blood, meaning that red is almost universally recognized as a color with ties to war, blood, and aggression. It’s why the following from Arthur Conan Doyle’s ‘A Study in Scarlet’ resonates outside of the UK:
There’s the scarlet thread of murder running through the colorless skein of life, and our duty is to unravel it, and isolate it, and expose every inch of it.
– Arthur Conan Doyle, ‘A Study in Scarlet,’ A Study in Scarlet
Other associations are more culturally bound. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter relies on the North American association of red with sex, defiance, passion, and power. Red has similar associations in India (where it represents ambition and desire), but in China it represents love and in Germany and Nigeria red is an unlucky color.
This means that you shouldn’t take cultural associations for granted in your fiction. While you may find blue an inherently sad color, someone from a different culture may not pick up on the idiom or intent. Instead, it can sometimes be better to set your own rules…
Go your own way
While it’s important to take psychological and cultural color associations into consideration, many writers, artists, poets, and filmmakers choose to make their own rules. There are whole theses written on how poets such as Frank O’Hara used color in idiosyncratic and novel ways, and films such as The Matrix and The Shining subtly use color to signify to an audience what is happening on-screen. Did you notice, for example, that a predominantly green and orange palette indicate when we’re in the Matrix, whereas blue and purple let us know we’re watching the real world? Certain writers will adopt this method and spell out their custom associations more directly. Consider this passage from Lauren Oliver’s YA novel Pandemonium:
A bird struggling through stickiness: a bird coated in paint, floundering in its nest, splashing color everywhere.
Red. Red. Red.
Dozens of them: black feathers coated thickly with crimson-colored paint, fluttering among the branches.
Red means run.
– Lauren Oliver, Pandemonium
Deviating from cultural and psychological associations can also help you surprise and manipulate readers. If your villain is introduced as a yellow-haired maiden decked out in pastel blues and pinks, it’s going to be all the more shocking when she stabs the protagonist in the back. On the backswing, if your hero is decked out in black (like The Dark Tower’s Gunslinger), they’re going to appear more ambivalent and intriguing.You can give colors your own context, but you need to sell that context to the reader.Click To Tweet
Of course, it’s important to have a rationale behind your choices. Our psychological and cultural associations are going to be potent and impossible to entirely displace, so your own rules should play upon those existing associations in interesting and thematically appropriate ways.
Craft, cliché, and pathetic fallacy
Part of the benefit of going your own way with color is that you avoid the pitfalls of pathetic fallacy and cliché. Yes, gray is moody, but we can only take so many slate skies during funerals, just as we can only stomach so many wise sages with piercing blue eyes.
Remember too that to call something merely ‘green’ or ‘red’ doesn’t say much – what type of green? What shade of red? A deep blue-green is going to conjure a rather different mood to a pastel green for example. Once you’ve made that decision, keep in mind that every shade of color has a specific name. ‘Deep blue-green’ lacks the sophistication of ‘turquiose’, and a pastel green is harder to visualize than ‘mint’.
Of course, the extreme alternative is no good either: we don’t need handfuls of adjectives, and neither do we want prose that sounds like it’s straight out of a paint catalogue. You can also omit the name of the color altogether – ‘porridge sky’ sounds much better than ‘porridge-gray sky,’ for instance. If you must precede a color with adjectives, make it unusual: ‘chili-red’ is better than ‘blood-red,’ and ‘lazuli-blue’ is better than ‘sky-blue.’
By pinning down your colors, you’re homing in on your imagery and hiking up the detail of your world and its characters. As such, you’re better able to police the mood and atmosphere of your narrative, allowing you to toy with readers’ expectations in novel and exciting ways. Look at the crushing juxtaposition Wilfred Owen sets up in the opening lines of his poem ‘Red Lips Are Not so Red’:
Red lips are not so red
as the stained stones kissed by the English dead.
– Wilfred Owen, ‘Red Lips Are Not so Red’, The Collected Poems of Wilfred Owen
Here, Owen uses the relatively trite image of red lips to lull the reader into a false sense of security before hitting them with the grim line-ending ‘English dead’. In this way, red’s many connotations are moved through at startling speed; we go from the love, romance, and passion conjured by ‘red lips’ straight to the war, blood, and violence suggested by the bloody marks of the soldiers.
Ready your paintbrush
Color is a perfect tool for enlivening descriptive scenes and for enhancing your book’s characters, world, and emotional undercurrents. As with many powerful techniques, color is easy to overdo and, if described tritely, it can do more harm than good; but, handled with nuance and skill, color can utterly transform a work of fiction, granting it new shades of meaning and feeling. You’ll never write in black and white again!Handled with nuance and skill, color can utterly transform a work of fiction. Click To Tweet
Which writers do you think write color brilliantly? How do you handle color in your own writing? Let me know in the comments, and check out Why More Authors Should Harness The Power Of Conceit and Why You Need To Know About Sense Writing for more great advice.