Writing in Colour

Yesterday, as I was typing up a scene for my novel-in-progress, I realised that I had included a lot of descriptions/use of colour. The scene itself is set indoors, in a rather dimly lit room, so all the colours were dark and kind of “grimy”. I described an antagonist’s ink-black eyes, a non-human bodyguard’s clay-coloured skin and the blazing hearth which seems to glow a murky grey-brown. It’s the first draft still, so I didn’t look back over it, lest I realise that it’s utter drivel and consign it to the Writing 2012 folder on my desktop. I knew the descriptions were not up to par and I was just getting the images in my head down on paper. I also immediately thought: Wow, that’s a lot of colours I’ve just written about.

A Dimly Lit Room

But then, this morning, I got thinking. Colours are important. I know that in fiction sometimes less is more, but I enjoyed describing these different colours and working them into the scene. After reading it all the way through, the reader should have a fusion of black, rust-brown and copper in their head and they’ll paint everything else that they read about in the scene with those colours. Everything except the protagonist, of course. This is where the power of colour comes into play…

Think about Lord of the Rings. Gandalf the Grey merges into everything around him. He’s a neutral colour in the world of Middle-earth and nobody really considers him anyone to be amazed by. Then he becomes Gandalf the White and suddenly he’s transformed. Now he’s an infinitely wise prophet who rides a white steed and blinds the enemy with his pureness. He stands out, because nothing else in the world is white, until you get to Minas Tirith, which is then led in its defence by none other than Gandalf. When you first meet Saruman (at least in the movies) you see that he has hints of black in his beard and his robes are kind of cream/dull white–there are hints of his corruption by Sauron already.


In my own story, my protagonist’s primary colours are midnight blue and a vivid red. Nobody else in the story dresses in those colours–they are rare, foreign and reserved for my protagonist. I like to build colour themes around certain groups of characters. My antagonist and his henchmen, for instance, constantly suggest at black, muted browns and oranges. Another character is strongly accompanied by dark green and fiery orange-red. See, there’s the kicker: she has some elements of the antagonist’s colours and the protagonists–is she a friend or a foe? Can she be trusted? The green elements suggest she stands on her own, that she’s wild and independent.

What do you think? How important do you feel colours are when writing?

6 thoughts on “Writing in Colour

  1. Candace Knoebel 24-Jul-2012 / 13:26

    Very important. They help build the world for the reader and send subconscious messages about the tone of the scene. Dark colors used to imply fear. Bright colors used for happiness.

    Good topic!

  2. mqallen 24-Jul-2012 / 15:23

    Nice thought provoking piece.

    I wonder about the difference in media between a movie and a book though. For instance in LOTR, their are certain key colors: the wizards, Rohan’s green and white, the Citadel guards Black and Silver, the white tree, gray havens but scene to scene the use of color is more limited, maybe suggested more by the things in the room than explicit color attributes. This seems different from a movie where the director can clearly work from a color pallete.

    Put another way, is it better to “show” the color of a room or to “tell”: dark and shadows are told by the fact that the only light in the room comes from a hearth in coals. THe rooms denizens are drably attired because they are described as coming from the fields in their work clothes, that sort of thing.

    Enjoyed the post.

  3. Satis 25-Jul-2012 / 02:03

    Strictly speaking, Gandalf the Grey and Gandalf the White aren’t exactly the same person. But, point well made.

    I always feel very cautious with color. In my experience, excessive character description is the domain of romance novels. I usually try to consider what are absolutely key descriptions that must be conveyed – the things that make a character or place unique. Minas Tirith is described as the White City, because it is. The livery of Rohan and Gondor is described; all of the Rohirrim have blonde hair. These are the things that define those parts of the tale. Little else is described, however, and left to the reader’s imagination. I personally appreciate this – I usually forget the excessive description anyway.

    So yes – color, and description in general, is important – but only to a point. Don’t be afraid to leave some of it up to the reader. The words ‘grimy’ and ‘dim’ are enough for me to paint the scene in greys and shadows and flickering firelight.

    • James 25-Jul-2012 / 07:43

      Fantastic advice! You caught me out on Gandalf–can you tell I haven’t read the books in a while? 🙂

  4. debyfredericks 25-Jul-2012 / 02:26

    I enjoyed your post, and I’d suggest you take it a step further. Not just dressing your heroes, but the whole world. Green of forest vs. desert gold, wallpaper, carpets and drapes. Pavement. Buildings… One white house amid houses made of brick. That sort of thing.

    • James 25-Jul-2012 / 07:45

      Definitely! It can often be a difficult thing to juggle every skill and technique as a writer. Sometimes all you need is someone to remind you to bring them all to mind.

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