Blue eyes, grey skies, red lights, and black nights.
Colours are always surrounding us, in life, nature, and fiction.
And they have become very cliché over the years and centuries in which they’ve been used to describe appearances of people, the world, and everything in between. They’ve also been used as symbols and pathetic fallacies, and they often hold more meaning that one might first think.
Here are a few examples from some of my favourite books at the moment:
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
“But above the gray land and the spasms of bleak dust which drift endlessly over it, you perceive, after a moment, the eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg.
“The eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg are blue and gigantic—their irises are one yard high. They look out of no face, but, instead, from a pair of enormous yellow spectacles which pass over a nonexistent nose. Evidently some wild wag of an oculist set them there to fatten his practice in the borough of Queens, and then sank down himself into eternal blindness, or forgot them and moved away. But his eyes, dimmed a little by many paintless days, under sun and rain, brood on over the solemn dumping ground.”
These eyes come into play many times during the novel. They are ever watching in an area where many important, and some seemingly insignificant, scenes take place. The landscape is lonely, sad, and barren, and the colours used to describe this area as well as the eyes match that. The grey, blue, and faded yellow help convey the lack of happiness, joy, activity, and excitement that runs through this setting as well as set a backdrop for future events and their significance.
The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
“There was the smell of a freshly cut coffin. Black dresses. Enormous suitcases under the eyes. Leisel stood like the rest, on the grass. She read to Frau Holtzapfel that same afternoon. The Dream Carrier, her neighbor’s favorite.”
This one is clear even without context that it is a funeral, even without blatantly stating so. The simple wording, the colour black, the continuation of life. The emotions of the characters, and the readers, are known from just these few lines.
A Series of Unfortunate Events: The Austere Academy by Lemony Snicket
“Each tin wall was bright green, with tiny pink hearts painted here and there as if the shack were an enormous, tack Valentine’s Day card instead of a place to live, and the Baudelaires found that they would rather look at the bales of hay, or the small crabs on the floor, or even the light tan fungus on the ceiling than the ugly walls.”
Obviously, the children didn’t want to stay in the Orphans Shack. But the colours of the walls and fungus that they were surrounded by definitely didn’t help. They not only cause but help convey the frustration and annoyance of the children. Bright colours are often seen as obnoxious, and that was certainly the case for the Baudelaires’ new home.
However, I truly enjoy the stories that break the colour clichés. So I thought that I might give some examples as well as potential advice for changing it up and doing something more with your story.
I adore when scenes in movies or books have a stark contrast between what is occurring around a character and what that character is feeling. In my opinion, it gives the sense that life is always continuing around you and what you are feeling may not be experienced by anyone else. It can also just provide a deep difference between characters, emotions, situations, or environments.The contrast can also be between colours on/of various characters, found in the small details, or be as large as you can get. Whatever the case, breaking the boundaries of colours and their usual meaning can bring a new dynamic to your writing.
Last of the Memory Keepers by Azelyn Klein uses this effect.
“The entire City of Light, encased in dust and sand from years of neglect, hummed with a gentle energy and darkened lights—shades of purples, blues, reds, and greens—that crawled along the buildings, surging and retreating but never fading away, like the embers of a dying fire.”
In this scene, the characters are finally arriving somewhere that they weren’t even sure exists. They are filled with exhaustion, fear, stress, awe, and hope. The colour of the lights from the City of Light, however, bring in notes of mystery, relaxation, and wonder. There is a little bit of overlap between their emotions and those evoked by the colours, but the contrast built between the mysterious, relaxing glows and the tense fear and stress that the characters are feeling helps to convey the differences in their state of being and the world that surrounds them, as well as the world that they are entering.
Azelyn uses it again in a different part of the book, creating contrast in a different way.
“But the real fight that drew my attention was Jahan as he wielded a curved scimitar to ward off the snapping jaws and the huge claws of a lithe, white-scaled dragon, three times the size of a horse.”
White usually suggests purity and hope, but in this scene, it means the opposite. It means betrayal and distrust. It means less of a chance that the characters will succeed in their desires and mission. It creates a small contrast between what was expected and what is occurring.
Setting the Mood (Kind of)
Figuring out how to set the mood of a scene can be really difficult, with or without using imagery and colours to describe the various emotions that may be building up to the crux of a scene, chapter, or book. Many authors will turn to colour, weather, and lighting to do this. I suggest taking a similar approach, but putting a twist on it.
The Book Thief does a phenomenal job of this all throughout its story.
“First up is something white. Of the blinding kind.
“Some of you are most likely thinking that white is not really a color and all of that tired sort of nonsense. Well, I’m here to tell you that it is. White is without question a color, and personally, I don’t think you want to argue with me.”
Zusak does it again and again, like in this quote:
“The last time I saw her was red. The sky was like soup, boiling and stirring. In some places, it was burned. There were black crumbs, and pepper, streaked across the redness.”
These are just two quotes about colour from the beginning of the book, narrated by death who sees the world in drastically different ways from humans. The colours are used to set the mood for each scene, but it’s done in such a different way from any other book that I’ve read. It sets the scene, and in a sense, it describes the setting, but it often looks far, far different from what the environment surrounding the characters actually looks like.
Billy and Me by Giovanna Fletcher sets up a bit of the mood for a scene a few different times, but very subtly.
“I, however, am the same as usual—wrapped in a red apron, wearing chunky black boots, skinny jeans and a plain white vest top. My frizzy brown hair is whipped up and pinned underneath a massive red polka-dot hankie with a big roll of hair sticking out of the front (I’m still in keeping with the fifties look that Molly loves, I’m just slightly more low-key with it). The finishing touch to my look is a nice dusting of flour from the morning’s baking session. Yes, forever glamorous. The white powder sticks to my clothes and my already pale skin and refuses to budge no matter how much I wipe myself down. It’s a look I’ve grown accustomed to over the years, even if I do appear quite ghostly.”
The scene is set by describing how some of the villagers are dolling up to impress the cast and crew for a movie that are arriving in their village that day. It’s followed by this description of Sophie and how she hasn’t changed her appearance. She isn’t one to care much about impressing or being impressed. Later in the chapter, however, she quickly becomes flustered as one of the cast comes into the tea shops where she works. She goes from carefree to “I can feel my cheeks burning again and I have to drop my gaze to the floor so that I can continue.”
So frequently colours are used as ways to focus on specific emotions and moods in scenes. However, they can also be used to add accents to the existing narrative and the emotions that are driving it. It is often a small thing such a mention of contrasting colour or the colour of the curtains in a room, a book on a table or in someone’s hands, or a pin stuck on a bag or shirt.
All That She Can See by Carrie Hope Fletcher does this in chapter six.
“On the right-hand side of the road was a bright red and yellow shop. White window stickers in the shape of crystal balls, open palms with lines zig-zagging across them and several constellations were scattered on the glass. The window display was made up of crushed velvet red cloth and a real crystal ball. From a distance it looked as though the crystal ball was hovering magically in mid-air but when Cherry got closer she could see that there were strings holding it up.”
The combination of the red crushed velvet and the crystal ball gives a sense of slightly manipulative and staged mystery. Yet red, yellow, and white tend to lean towards giving a hint of passion, happiness, and purity. The combinations of the colours create a contrast, but they also provide a glance at the two perspectives of the characters who interact with this storefront: cynicism and belief. The colours used simultaneous set the mood of the setting as well as debunk it and provide multiple perspectives.
The Boston Girl by Anita Diamant does this in an even simpler form.
“One thing hadn’t changed: the cemetery was just as bleak as I remembered. The trees had grown and they had planted bushes, but it was January and hard to believe that anything would ever be green again.”
This simple line helps bring the reader into the sadness and surrealism that going to a funeral involves. The mention of finding it hard to believe the trees and bushes could be green again helps to reveal the hopelessness and numbness that Addie feels in that moment. And it’s a feeling to which many of us can relate.
Les Misérables by Victor Hugo adds an accent to not just a situation, but to a character.
“Behind Feuilly marched, or rather bounded, Bahorel, a fish in the water of the émeute. He had a crimson waistcoat, and those words which crush everything. His waistcoat overcame a passer, who cried out in desperation:
‘There are the reds!’
‘The reds, the reds!’ replied Bahorel. ‘A comical fear, bourgeois. As for me, I don’t tremble before a red poppy, the little red hood inspires me with no dismay. Bourgeois, believe me, leave the fear of red to horned cattle.’”
This scene starts of with some frustration on the characters’ sides about the planning of the revolution. However, the mention of red sparks the thought anger not just in Bahorel but also in the readers.
Like these authors and examples, you can break colour clichés to add character, detail, emotion, and depth to your story. Whether it’s a sunny, yellow sky with a character crying or panicking or a blue book in a cheery character’s hands after a rough day, adding these notes of colours and hues can change the feeling of your story.
What types of colour imagery, symbolism, and pathetic fallacy do you most enjoy?
What are some of your favourite colour-based quotes?
Leave a comment below!
Literary References: The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, A Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket, Last of the Memory Keepers by Azelyn Klein, All that She Can See by Carrie Hope Fletcher, Billy and Me by Giovanna Fletcher, The Boston Girl by Anita Diamant, Les Misérables by Victor Hugo