Arguably, no single descriptive attribute can bring a scene to life as quickly as color. We can spend hundreds of words laboring over a description of a springtime meadow or a shipwrecked boat, when a single color is all it takes to burst the scene upon the reader’s eye with perfect clarity. Consider the following quotations:
Then, still like a star, I saw them winding up, scaling what seemed impossible steeps, and quicker every moment, till near the dim brow of the landscape, so high that I must strain my neck to see them, they vanished, bright themselves, into the rose-brightness of that everlasting morning.—C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce
Something hung and glinted in the air beneath us: a bird of prey, hunting slowly along the pinnacle walls, suspended like a drifting flake of copper.—Elizabeth Kostova, The Historian
Swirls of bile and blood, mustard and maroon in a pail, the colors of an African flag or some exuberant salad bar: in the bucket—she imagines it all.—Lorrie Moore, “People Like That Are Only People Here”
Try removing the colors from each of these examples, and we find that suddenly the passages are no longer quite as vivid as they once were. Indeed, this vibrant effect upon our visual imagination is so strong that the mention of a color, even when the color of the object being described is already understood, still injects a richness that would otherwise be lacking:
She could remember moonlit waves on Caladan throwing white robes over rocks…—Frank Herbert, Dune
Snow, falling in great white blossoms to disappear as it touched the sea.—Madeleine L’Engle, An Endless Ring of Light
It was an afternoon like any other in midsummer, hot and quiet and the sky blue except for the piles of silver thunder clouds resting upon the green mountains.—Pearl S. Buck, Dragon Seed
Fortunately, color is one of those few of a writer’s gifts that are difficult to abuse. Any dab of color, however mundane, can add a splash of life to a description. Most of the time, adding color to a scene is as simple as throwing in a little red, a little yellow, maybe a dab of pink. That’s all it takes to ignite the reader’s imagination. But transform those same colors into “...blood the color autumn dahlias...” (Sandra Cisneros, Caramelo), a “toast-colored” hat (Flannery O’Connor, “Good Country People”), and a “sun ... like the pink tongue of a thirsty dog” (Isaac Babel, Odessa), and color and metaphor mate with brilliant effect.
Colors can signal character personalities, setting moods, even symbolism. Because, to our subconscious minds, colors often indicate certain moods (red is angry, blue is tranquil, yellow is joyous), authors can use them to subtly influence how the reader experiences a novel.
Authors can often categorize characters (or sometimes the characters categorize themselves) through the colors with which they surround themselves: the clothes they wear, the paint and carpet they choose for their homes, even the essence of their moods. In their excellent primer Fiction Writer’s Handbook, Hallie and Whit Burnett expound on the idea:
Actual emotions are helpful in expressing emotions, placing emphasis where human behavior becomes exceptional. The use of red—red face, fire in the eyes, and the like—will express anger, or possibly embarrassment. Green is a color which tranquilizes on a summer day; and the late Louis Bromfield, in a long-ago novel, spoke of an aura of color around the heads of his characters, which somehow added to their individualization and gave clues to their behavior. Research has been done by experts to determine moods expressed in colors, the various results being used in advertising to attract the eye of a buyer. So the novelist may add depth and convey meaning if he himself sees a scene as natural as the life before him, contrasted in tone and shade and values of the color spectrum.
While writing Behold the Dawn, a novel set in what is now Syria during the Third Crusade, I discovered that the “lighting” in a scene had a surprising effect on the tone in which I wrote it. For much of the story, the main character, a world-weary knight, struggles against guilt, anger, and emotional and spiritual defeat. However, because the action is set almost entirely in the sunny Middle East, I struggled with finding the right tone. My character demanded I write about the inner darkness against which he was wrestling. But the natural setting—bursting with colors of yellow and green and blue—refused to let me delve into the proper state of mind. As soon as I realized this—and consequently began setting most of my scenes in the black and gray shades of night and overcast days—my problem was solved.
Colors can also be used to weave the subtle thread of symbolism. This is something that should usually be left to develop instinctively; often, our subconscious can create much more fitting symbols than we can produce deliberately. However, upon completing a first draft, it’s never a bad idea to run back through your manuscript with an eye open for any colors (or any other illustrative or descriptive repetition) that crops up frequently. Once you’ve identified any symbolism you may have unconsciously attached to a character or setting or theme, you can then go back and strengthen it.
Story by K.M. Weiland