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The Art Of Color Theory In Fiction

Writers have an abundance of methods at their disposal when it comes to giving their readers hints. These may be thematic undertones or used to foreshadow events to come, or they can just be little Easter eggs awaiting keen eyes. By playing with an element's already-established meaning or assigning a new one, these subtle cues can enhance and deeper the work.

A common example and one of my favorites to incorporate is color.

Although it sounds like a simple detail and one of the first things we may mention when describing the visuals of a scene, color in fiction can be manipulated in a number of ways. It can be used to enhance the setting, set the tone, or play into a character's journey among other things. It's as versatile as the box of crayons with the sharpener on the back that we all coveted in elementary school!

I'm no color theory expert, but I do have a handful of ways I use color as a writing tool.

Pop Culture Correlations

One of the most common ways of implementing color in fiction is to use the symbolism that is already there. This makes it easier for readers to pick up on.

Green with envy. Having the blues. Ticked pink.

These colloquialisms might be silly, but they're already rooted in the reader's head. That's why you'll often see color theory explored in setting the scene.

Sadder scenes are often moodier in tone. Think grey, overcast skies and dismal blues.

If we're touching on mourning or depression, black and dark colors may be worn by characters. Red is a more sensual color, think crimson lipstick and rose petals scattered about. Whites are more often linked to purity and innocence. Lambs and angels and all that.

Color can amplify the tone of a scene or overall story.

That said, you can also turn these meanings on their heads and subvert expectations. Maybe your character is in a bright pink dress but at an emotional low. They could sprinkle yellow flowers over the sheets ahead of sexy times because that's their love interest's favorite color. Your villain might drive a white car instead of an imposing black one.

Colors can be given new meaning within the context of your story. Readers might come to recognize orange as a bad sign after repeated run-ins with the antagonist have highlighted that color in some way. A character almost always seen in greens may undergo a drastic shift in the vein of Sandra Dee and show up to class the next day in red.

Don't be afraid of delving deeper into color and playing around with the meanings.

Setting The Scene

Word choice matters when you're introducing readers to a new setting. The way you describe certain aspects of your story's world can influence the tone and, as a result, the way your readers orient themselves.

The colors you use when painting the scene can play a role here.

A silvery sky might be different than a slate sky. Even though silver and slate are shades of gray, one feels more dismal than the other. The same can go for a night sky that is the color of the ocean as opposed to the color of a blueberry.

The colors used to describe your settings can also help readers tell them apart in both matters of space and time.

We've all seen those TV shows where everything is normal during scenes set in the States but suddenly have a greenish-yellow filter when the characters are on the other side of the Mexican border. I've always thought it looked a little goofy to me, but it does inform audiences that they are in a different place.

While your book is not a media that works with filters, you might assign specific color schemes to major locations within the story. The city might be cooler and chrome, whereas the woods are warmer, full of vibrant greens and browns.

Similarly, some shows and movies will use a different tint to separate the present and past. In flashbacks, things might be more grey and blue while the current events are warmer. In a story with a dual timeline, Character A's scenes could feature oranges and yellows, while Character B's scenes could see more greens and pinks.

Color can be very telling of when a story takes place, too. Trends come and go. There's always a new color of the year. The materials available for dyes and paints vary greatly between places and time periods. Heck, folks are scientifically engineering a pigment to get the blackest shade of black humanly possible (Vantablack is wild to me and highly worth looking into).

This is why you'll see me referencing colors that were popular in my stories' historical settings, such as Pomona Green. Think of it like the 1810s equivalent of the 2020s rose gold aka Millenial Pink.

Color has the ability to do more than simply state what an object or a place looks like. While you don't want to go overboard and spew words at your reader as if you were spilling a box of markers in their lap, the specific color names used can elevate your writing.

Colors And Characters

Character and color can mean a few things.

I've heard some writers use colors to denote personalities. Auras, one might say. A "red" character might be more outgoing than a "blue" character. Again, this goes back to the correlations that have been long established in culture or society.

Some color names can also be people names.

Anybody else remember Amber Brown Is Not A Crayon?

Rose might be fitting for a sweet and dainty character. Jade may be a little more cunning but also wise. Scarlett may be headstrong and feisty. A character with the surname of Black may be seen as a rebel or bad boy.

Color may also be used to make a character stand out among their peers.

It's common in anime for the protagonist to have an unnatural hair color like orange or purple while everyone else's is either black, brown, or blonde.

You might take a Mighty Morphing Power Rangers approach and have your characters wear a color scheme exclusive to them; for example, Billy, the original Blue Ranger, was the only protagonist who wore blue during his time on the team.

On The Fairly-Odd Parents, any object Cosmo and Wanda transform into are most often green or pink, respectively.

The colors used throughout Encanto embrace the vibrant backdrop of Columbia but are also there to help orient the viewer. Julieta's side of the family wears cool tones while Pepa's is in warmer tones. With a family as big as The Family Madrigal, it's helpful to have these visual reminders of how everyone's related.

Changing the color scheme can also be impactful.

In Midsommar, Dani's clothes start out dark and loose as a way of symbolizing her emotional state, but she is later given a white dress that fits her better after she begins finding her place among the Hårga.

The colors associated with your characters can play into how your reader perceives them as a person, and it can just as easily mark turning points in their journey.

Recurring Motifs

The repeated use of color can give readers a sense of continuity—and draw attention to when change occurs.

Inside Out shows Riley's clothes gradually becoming more muted as she struggles with her mental health and the changes uprooting her life.

Bridgerton has a pattern of linking colors and characters. The Bridgertons are mostly seen in cooler tones, especially blue, whereas Simon is more often seen in reds; he and Daphne both begin wearing shades of purple towards the end of the first season, symbolizing their coming together not just in marriage but in an understanding of one another. Penelope, meanwhile, is predominately seen in garish shades of yellow but stills promoting the upcoming third season show her in a pastel blue gown hinting at her romance with Colin.

Color-coded motifs can have your reader feeling more familiar with your story. They'll be able to pick up on things and might have an easier time following along. But these patterns can also make significant plot shifts all the more noticeable. They might begin to wonder why your protagonist's love interest is suddenly wearing gold or feel totally shocked when they, like the antagonist, sport a violet hat.

Writers have the immense task of bringing what they envision to life in the reader's mind. Sensory details are crucial in accomplishing this, and sight is typically the first we employ.

Color is a detail that goes deeper than observations. The meanings collectively agreed upon by society and those invented within the story itself can influence how a reader interacts with its characters or settings.

Color not only brightens things but makes things stand out, be it bold thematic elements or subtle hints highlighted only in retrospect.

There is no limit to the way you can use color in fiction. It's just a matter of finding the right words to paint the image in your reader's mind.



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