Monday, January 4, 2016

Prose Blip – The Importance of Color

Welcome to the first of my Prose blips, short posts about my opinion on a certain aspect of prose or some related writing theme. I’ll be keeping them short and to the point, including pointers for how to write [insert topic].
Because these posts are opinion more than anything else (actually… all posts are opinion, are they not?), let’s discuss afterward. Give me your thoughts on the subject and we can talk.

Now. I said short, so let’s get right to it:

Today we talk about colors.
Now, in writing, there are five senses you can use to engage your reader, right? There exceptions for those novels which create a sixth or seventh or eightieth sense, but until then, you have five.
Of these five senses, sight is the most commonly used, and perhaps the most important. If we can’t see the scene, then smell and taste do us nothing.
If you feed me a piece of something that tastes like rootbeer and smells like a lilac, that means nothing if that something looks like a burnt sausage and a can of orange-colored baby food had a monster child.

Colors bring sight alive. If all we see is black and white and a tad of gray, then your story begins to look like a movie from the 1940s.
But we can’t just throw in any colors and assume it makes our novels better. No, we need vivid imagery and contrasts to bring out the details we want to bring out.
If the wall isn’t important, don’t spend five sentences of prose on describing the exact shades of ocher and sepia blended to bring out the rough texture of the mud bricks and cracked seam-filler.

Colors have power. As we often perceive “evil” to be dark and brooding and “good” as bright and courageous, so we associate emotions, morals, and more with color.

For instance, red is nearly always associated with anger – a reddened face is rage, not anger. Pink or flushed would indicate embarrassment.
Purple is often seen as a royal color; ergo, peasants don’t usually own purple.
Oranges and yellows (except yellow-green… feel free to shudder) are perceived has happier and healthier colors than a pale green or even a teal.

What do you use color for in novels?
Beyond describing things like walls or grass or trees or cloth, a simple color can begin to describe an entire person.
That is the power of color.
You show us that someone has the slight reddish-tan coloring of a Native American and we begin to fill in the blanks with our more “generic” Native American set our minds have (in Psychology, this is called having a Prototype for a mental set): black hair (potentially long or braided), wide forehead and nose, prominent cheekbones and chin, strong hands, and darker eyes.

I created an entire portrait off the color of this character’s skin.
Sure, there will be deviations (perhaps this character has short black hair and lighter eyes because of some non-Native American ancestor), but the basic “prototype” our minds create is the beginning of a vivid picture.

I realize some people might be… offended by this idea. They might claim “you’re stereotyping!” or “don’t be racist!”.
This isn’t about which race is better, or how all people of the same race look the same, okay?
I’m talking about how a simple color can create a whole person in your reader’s mind.

Show your character has black skin; your reader will begin to fill in the blanks with bits and pieces of their own experience. They’ll take what they know of black people (through friends or family members or even themselves) and paint a mental portrait.
That is the idea here.
Show your character has white skin; your reader fills in the blanks.
Show your character has olive skin; your reader fills in the blank.
Show your character wears a purple robe; your reader fills in the blanks with royalty and palaces.

Show a color; your reader fills in the blanks.
That is my point.
As writers, it isn’t our job to fill in the blanks. It’s our job to get the proverbial ball rolling. Once the boulder has started tumbling down the slope, it does the rest of the job.
Give your readers something to work with, and they’ll work with it.
Color is one of those ways to do it.

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  1. Great post! Color isn't (and probably won't ever be) one of my strong suits. Thanks for helping break it down!

    1. My pleasure, Brandon!
      Color was something I always overlooked, until I started to realize how important it can be. Now I -probably- spend TOO MUCH time on it.
      Balance is hard. ;)

  2. Never really thought that much about colors. As the writer, I think I picture the colors automatically, but then never actually /write/ them in. Oops. Good post. :)

    1. Ehehe, I do that a lot actually, so writing this post really made me think about colors in my own writing. Quite enlightening. O_O