On Facebook, in the Suspense/Thriller writer group, author Pat Bertram (http://patbertram.com/) posted the following:
Color is an important part of life, and we should honor that importance in the stories we write. Although we can simply name any color for our characters’ bedrooms or the clothes they wear, by choosing a specific color, we can add layers of meaning to our stories and even to the personalities of our characters. We can add mood, symbolism, theme, even emotion. Do you pay attention to color in your stories? If so, how do you use color? Do you ever use color for any reason other than simply to describe things?
My answer to the question follows:
What’s there to say?
Well, there’s a lot not to say:
“I looked into her deep blue eyes.”
Blech. Even if such a line might actually work in a tale–for whatever reason–it’s never going to be thought of as a wowser. Nope. What about color with people? Say … hmm, Spanish people? What color are they?
Yeah, right. Spanish ranges from blonde and blue-eyed to charcoal black. So there’s a lot of play for the writer to … do what? Play off of prejudices, preconceptions … all that. Readers are readers. And odds are, that with whatever of yours they come across to consume, they’ve read before–a lot! And they’re good at filling in the blank. They love it. They love to be able to call a story. They love it when they go to call something, and the writer–without cheating the reader–comes up with a different path.
Many readers, for example, might easily presume that a character–if color and race is never mentioned–is white. Especially if given some bland Caucasian name: Henry, Steve, Bob, James, etc.
What a surprise, then, when things get revealed that they are of a different race.
Color is also a cool thing when it’s switched with other senses, even characters, and animate objects:
“Looking up, all I could see was Elizabeth Taylor blue, with clouds made up of cotton, soft and puffy.”
Back when I could run, and the best part of the day was cold cereal and watchin’ cartoons, girls didn’t care so much ’bout how they clothes looked. Least not round my parts. Wouldn’t've mattered, anyway, they alls looked the same: cloth the color of hand-me-down and po’ ass cropper. Whens we did gather, braggin’ rights went to who made what: my momma made this, or grams tor’ up her ol’ wedding dress and made this for the prom, or my auntie used to wear this, but now she’s given it to me, ’cause I’m her princess, seein’ as how she ain’t ever had no youngins.
People can go over the top with color, like they can with any singular aspect of writing: adverbs, adjectives, pronouns, take your pick.
What to look for? Without running into purple prose, it’s much like with any decision that has to be made concerning some aspect of description, the key is to find that telling detail. A touchstone, a reference, that special something that allows the reader, if not to actually re-visit something experienced, sensed, or felt, then at least something that allows them to identify with what’s going on, that allows them to fill in the blank, to become unwitting partners in the unfolding of the story.
Many times, simple words go a long, long way:
I looked in the mirror and decided enough. Why it had never clicked before, I can’t say, but the bruise on my face was spreading, getting darker, the color of nine-years-of-bad-marriage
“So … decided to bite the bullet, huh? Get that change of life car?”
“You caught me, you. You’re good.”
The salesman smiled, probably knew he’d caught a fish. That was fine with Bob; he wanted to be caught.
“Have you thought about it?”
Mary was going to kill him, though. She just wouldn’t understand. But it was going to happen. He’d earned it.
“… said, have you thought about it, what you want?”
Bob looked at the man. “Sorry, just thinking. What was that?”
“The car, what color you wanted.”
Bob had to admire the salesman’s stamina; the guy could probably wear a smile for 10-hours straight. “Yeah, gimme something that screams I-used-to-be-the-high school-quarterback.”
The salesman broadened his grin even wider. “Just the thing.” He flipped the catalog to a page. “What do you think of this?”
Bob nodded. “Perfect.”
Colors can be paired with geographical locations. Even if the descriptors don’t exactly make sense, they can certainly give off a feel, an ambiance, especially when the context that they sit in gives a helping hand. But look at what fun could be had with:
San Francisco red, New York gray, or Arizona yellow.
Translating color by using a visual comparison works well:
He didn’t know it, but I could see his aura. It was green. But not the healthy green of tall grass, but the green of running pus. His soul wasn’t just infected, it was infection.
In dialogue, nothing fancy needs to happen with color. Instead, it can be used as a springboard for characterization:
“I want the house painted white. I’ve told you that.”
Bob sneered. “Like why do you care? You ain’t no virgin.”
Another way to handle color, or any other aspect of writing that you really want to improve on? Start developing your own set of swipe sheets, files where you’ve lifted descriptions, snippets of dialogue, sex scenes, or scenes of violence, etc., from authors you adore. Keep them for study, not for plagiarism. Use them as a how-to, as a template, as an example of what’s possible, especially those sections that move you, make you cry, cringe, hold your breath.
And ultimately, work what you’ve learned in a balanced way with all your other ingredients.
Your face will turn Clinton-red, when your readers catch you kicking ass with your colorful prose.