Monday, December 26, 2011

Color and Mood

Do you use a lot of color terms in your writing? Do you do it with a purpose?

Robert E. Howard, the creator of Conan the Cimmerian, often used “black” in his fantasy and horror fiction. Some say he used it too often, but when you read his stories you don’t really notice the frequency of the word, you notice the mood the word helps create.

Howard also used shades of red a lot. I use them as well, partially because I write horror and adventure fiction and there’s always the color of blood to describe. Of course, words like dark and black and shadow appear in horror fiction a lot as well. As do their opposites, such as pale and pallid and white.

The proper use of color in fiction depends much on the environment/setting as well. In the summer woods you will have prominent greens and browns and grays, with only wisps of other colors. In the desert there will be sandy tans and, possibly, pale pinks and reds and oranges. If your work features skies and oceans, then certain colors follow naturally. If you are trying to create a sense of exotica, then exotic colors may help. Think about the strange colors of the foods and plant life that you see on many episodes of the original Star Trek.

Color is a powerful subjective experience for most people. If used carefully it can suggest much without weighing your prose down with multiple adjectives.

Do you have a color or colors that you depend on a lot in your own work? For me it’s probably black and red. If you do have a writing “color,” is it the same as your favorite color in the real world? My favorite colors are the dark reds, tending toward the maroons.

Let me close with a short list of some of the more interesting color terms available to writers. At least in my opinion.

Aeruginous bluish green like copper rust
Amaranth dark purplish red
Amethyst purple or violet
Argent silver
Cinereous ash gray
Cinnabar brilliant red
Cyan dark blue-green
Fuchsin purplish red
Fulvous dull reddish brown, brownish yellow, or tawny
Gules red as referred to in heraldry
Indigo a deep violet blue
Lapis Lazuli azure-blue
Lavender pale purple
Magenta purplish red
Mauve delicate purple
Niveous the color of snow
Ochre dark yellow
Onil a deep violet blue (indigo)
Puce brownish purple
Russet yellowish brown or reddish brown
Saffron orange yellow
Sepia dark reddish brown
Taupe brownish gray
Topaz yellow
Umber raw = yellowish brown, burnt - reddish brown
Vermeil scarlet vermilion
Vermilion brilliant red or scarlet
Violet bluish purple
Xanthous yellow or yellowish


oceangirl said...

Very interesting, informative and colorful. Thank you Charles.

BernardL said...

Good list to have on hand. I remember a striking example in the same vein. John D. MacDonald always had a color in the title of each of his Travis McGee novels, and I remember it staying with me as I read the story.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Color to set mood - never thought of it that way, but you're right. And I probably relied on colors far more in my second book than my first.

Charles Gramlich said...

Oceangirl, thank you. I appreciate you visiting.

Bernardl, I remember the McGee series with great fondness. That may be one of the things that influenced me to think about colors in writing.

Alex, I just always used a lot of color in my works but it wasn't until years after I'd started that I began paying attention to why.

jodi said...

Charles, as a hair colorist and painter, (wall and canvas)color is very important to me. I use color definitions for moods also. Chartueuse is a favorite!

Ron Scheer said...

I am partially color blind and rely a lot on white, black, and gray tones to make visual sense of the world. So you'll see reference to shadows in my writing, which in a "dark" piece contributes to the mood--at least I hope it does. Thanks, Charles. Good thoughts as usual.

Charles Gramlich said...

Jodi, I remember growing up how great chartreuse lures worked in catching fish!

Ron, shadows is a word full of resonance for many things. Great word.

sage said...

Nice list of colors there, Charles!

Charles Gramlich said...

Sage, thankee, man

JR's Thumbprints said...

I like shades of green, mainly emerald green, or forest green, or money green ... especially when depicting an ambitious character, a used-car salesman, or a banker, or a politician ... but yeah, definitely greens. said...

Sorry, Charles. I think you're off the mark a bit. Colour in writing is not about, say the color wheel, as for a painter.

For those of us in the trade for while, colour in writing is the unexpected, yea, glorious turn of paragraph, phrase or word choice that make a writer stand out from the crowd. It is not about actual colour. I opine that colour is just what is on the tip of your brush. Heh. Like maybe old Wordsworth quaffing a daff? But it's how he quaffs it.

I think sports writers use colour best. Even real writers, like Hemingway.

Or Damon Runyon. I kinda like"All horse players die broke."

But I think colour is especially effective when placing an emotion or event on the printed page, with elegance and tact.
Or hell, even no elegance.

For example there is a the scene of a cockfight in Nathanael West's brilliant novel, The Day of the Locust where the vituperativeness and killer instincts of fighting bantam roosters and their handlers is thoroughly explored. And Mr. West doesn't spare the blood.

Colour. Even local colour.

IMHO, colour in writing is not about colours, unless, maybe in whimsy, like, "Wednesdays are definitely blue.

(Durn Canadian smart asses...They can't even spell color right. :)

laughingwolf said...

lol@ivan... how i was thinking, too

only time i use a color, per se, is in describing something, as such... even then it's not what i give a lot of thought to, just happens

upon editing, i may have used the wrong description, then i change it to something more fitting...

a canuck thing? dunno

great list, though

X. Dell said...

Well, compared to the list you offer at the end of this post, I'm writing with the Crayola basic 8-pack.

Ty Johnston said...

Hmm, hadn't really thought of this one until you brought it up Charles. Much like Howard, I probably use black and red more than any other colors, but I feel those are naturals since I write mainly fantasy and horror. Blue is probably the third color to most likely be used by me, with yellow coming up a distant fourth and green fifth and brown/tan sixth. Of course I've not actually sat and counted because that would take too long, but am going from memory.

Charles Gramlich said...

JR, green was my mom's favorite color. I do like it, especially emerald tones.

Ivan, your journalism writing background is coming out there. Local color etc. I think that's certainly important. A bit different though. More complex.

Laughingwolf, Most of the time you probably don't need to think about it. But at times I do become conscious of why I'm choosing certain colors.

X-Dell, I don't often use all those colors either. I like shades of colors, though. Maroon, rust, etc.

Ty, I don't know if I use yellow very much. I don't use orange hardly at all. But they aren't frequent natural colors, except perhaps in flowers.

Jewel Amethyst said...

As a romance writer, I tend to use green. blue and silver a lot. They set the mood as I like romantic scenes set in natural settings with water. I also love moonlight scenes (silver). On the other end of the spectrum I use a lot of yellows and reds for those romantic sunset and sunrise scenes.

But since I write AA romance, shades of brown to describe my characters dominate my writing.
And believe me, there is a whole spectrum of brown that can be used to describe skin tone of African Americans.

What I'm trying to say in my longwinded way is that my use of colors in writing is more than just for description but for evoking certain emotions.

Charles Gramlich said...

Jewel, absolutely. Silver is great too. I use that one quite a lot. It's evocative.

Liane Spicer said...

Colour symbolism is indeed powerful and I tend to use it consciously sometimes, unconsciously quite often.

I'm aware that I use azure and indigo a lot for different tropical atmospheres, as well as sage, moss, citrine and emerald, as well as golden, tan, cafe au lait, teak and mahogany for skin tones.

Charles Gramlich said...

Liane, yes, the exotic colors are so great at setting an exotic mood.