Word by Word

Practical insights for writers from Jessica P Morrell

A painterly approach: more on using colors in your writing

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Sep• 30•19

I’ve been studying the history of the English language and am fascinated by the period after the bubonic plague of the 1300s.  After the Norman invasion and occupation of England in the 11th century,  French came to be the language of the  nobility, courts, and education.  English, much of it based on Anglo-Saxon origins, was considered lowly and inferior, and was most often spoken by farmers, herdsman, and commoners. Then the pandemic, or Black Death, wiped out 75 million people, or about one-third (some experts say almost one-half) of all inhabitants of Europe between 1340-1400. The plague began in China, traveled along the trade routes, and landed in Italy aboard merchant ships, then spread throughout Europe and moved onto Russia. The devastation meant that it took about 200 years for the world to repopulate.

Oddly, this was a boon for the English language because many of the French-speaking noblemen and women, knights, tutors, scholars, clerics, and  government officials succumbed to the hideous disease.  This was also the era of the Hundred Years War between France and England (1347-1453) and societal structures were shifting and breaking down. For one thing, there were no longer enough farmers and laborers, so they began demanding higher wages. As the serf-based system deteriorated, the lower classes started owning land. Prices soared, unrest reigned, and amid these shifting tides, the upper classes in England struggled to maintain power and the class system.

One odd result was  a law  that restricted the fabrics  the lower classes were allowed to wear—wool, hemp and  linen. Meanwhile, the upper classes could wear silks, satins, and velvets; fabrics that would take dye and produce vibrant shades. Restrictions were even made about what furs the commoners could wear–they were allowed rabbits and fox, for example, while the nobility were clad in ermine. Purple and sable could only be worn by the royal family.

Color is everywhere. Color hides beneath the ocean’s  roiling surface, creates a new canvass with every sunrise and sunset, adorns every season.

Color inspires, affects mood and emotions, and communicates meaning.  Color ranks among a writer’s most effective  tools to create subtext, symbolism, and resonance.

There are obvious uses and associations: when characters blush when flattered or pale at bad news. The ubiquitous dark and stormy night associated with gloom and danger is a much-used trope as are cheery blue skies, verdant green forests or pastures, and  red for passion.  These associations are centuries old and yet still effective. And a lack of color– bleachedpale, pallid, ashen– also communicates.

Suggestions for using color:

Give your main characters their own color palettes. If you write fiction know why your character wears earth tones or primary colors.  How does your female detective dress in her off-hours? Would she wear a deep wine-colored dress to a holiday party? Black? A tuxedo? Does she ever wear pink? Doc Martens?

Also, you can distinguish secondary and minor characters with color. What colors would her arty neighbor Rosalee wear? What colors does Rosalee use for decorating her apartment?

Along these lines, one of the most fascinating depictions of a character arc happened in AMC’s Breaking Bad series. In this hard-to-define series, seemingly mild-mannered chemistry teacher Walter White transforms after a cancer diagnosis into a meth-producing drug kingpin. All in the name of supporting his family. One way the show’s creator, Vince Gilligan showed his dramatic arc was to change the colors White wore from nerdy khakis and earth tones in the opening season to villainous black as he delved deeper into criminal activities.

Another TV series that created powerful associations between colors and characters is the period drama Downton Abbey. The fashion designers not only created sumptuous period costumes that reflected their status and the occasion, their wardrobes reflected temperament, and personality traits. Here is a link that discusses the early seasons and the Crawley daughters’ wardrobes. Each sister was given their own palette season by season, shifting as the characters evolve.

Since social ranking was extremely important in this era, the many characters’ color palettes and jewelry also reflected their position.

Color in your settings. Here’s the Crawley’s drawing room where they often gather before dinner. The hues, gilt, ornamentations,  and bejeweled chandelier create opulence and luxury.

The family’s dining room where so much gossip, backbiting, and witty repartee happens.

In contrast, here’s the servant’s dining hall. It’s simple, located in a lower level and serves as their dining hall, gathering place, and break room.

The decor, and textures couldn’t be more different from the upstairs dining room, including the lack of color. And then there’s the wall of bells that summon them.

Anchor your whole story world via color.  Colors give readers substance, reality. They inform, reveal if  it’s overcast, wintry, a pink-hued dawn or a sultry August afternoon. And you know something? Coloring in bedrooms and ballrooms, classrooms and boss’ office is fun. Even more fun: gardens, parks, enchanted forests, castles, state fairs and amusement parks, light houses, echoing caves, and impenetrable jungles. Learn to describe the hues of each season, rain, oceans, river, lakes, starlight, and skies in many moods.

Choose analogies and riches from the natural world. Golds and orange are linked with harvest and autumn.  Then there’s emerald, dandelion, lilac, moon glow, sea green, honey, egg shell, shadow black, poppy red, marigold yellow, iceberg cream,  champagne, pumpkin, grassy, sapphire, strawberry, bone, peacock blue, olive, smoke, moss, sea green, plum, blush.Moonlight is pearly, ocean colors are often ever-changing and can range from steel to turquoise. As can sky. A raging fire will blaze in red, orange, yellow, and white.  In fact, the dominant colors in a flame will change with the temperature.

Take care with skin tones and eye colors. While green eyes are rare (about 2% of the population) fiction is filled with green-eyed temptresses and the like. And if your character has green eyes, then you need to know how he/she got them–some DNA combinations will not produce green eyes. Mostly if you’re mentioning skin color, it’s done for a reason.Freckled skin could mean a character has a Celtic background. A mixed race character in the US in the 1700 and 1800s will have a significant backstory.

Use cultural, historical,  and gender associations. Brides in the West wear white because it connotes purity and white while Indian brides wear red because it’s a celebratory color. White is also recognized as truce. In Asian cultures white is funereal associated with death, mourning, and bad luck. In Western cultures red is linked to passion and excitement, and Christmas (along with green). It’s also coupled with danger as in stop signs. Chinese New Year is linked with red and it’s often associated with religion throughout the world.

Mourners at a funeral wear black or somber colors in North America while in the Middle East orange is coupled with loss and mourning. Westerners link orange to autumn, Halloween and harvest, while in Ireland orange is tied to protestants.  Purple has long been associated with royalty in Europe and North America, while in Asian and Eastern cultures  the color is yellow. In the West blue is considered masculine, while in Latin America it’s most linked with religion and the Virgin Mary’s robes. Black is often connected to masculinity and formality as in black tie events.  Black is also equated with bad luck, illness, magic and mystery. Green is the color of money, is linked to the Irish, jealousy, and the natural world. It suggests spring, fertility, and freshness.

Find fresh associations that create mood and emotions.  Clues can be found in advertising and design–there’s a reason why Golden Retrievers appear in commercials that suggest health, security, safety. Product packaging can also offer clues such as greens for natural ingredients. Pinks and bright colors can suggest a less serious product while yellow can suggest optimism and freshness. Silver and gold are linked to prestige, sophistication, elegance.

Keep writing, keep dreaming, use colors

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