Jul 20 2008

Writing Tip of the Day: Color is the Weakest Form of Visualization

Published by at 5:28 am under Character Development,Writing Articles

Beginning authors usually try to visualize objects by describing their color. Their characters have brown eyes and black hair and inhabit a world of green bushes and brown tables and grey clouds. Or, if they have a thesaurus on hand, maybe the grass will be emerald and the sky will be azure.

 

Color hardly ever suggests anything interesting about the character or object. For example, let’s say that my villain’s eyes are blue instead of green or brown. Who cares? Do blue eyes suggest anything about the character or advance the plot? If not, then the the detail is irrelevant and should be removed. Most color usage is irrelevant.

 

One more effective way to visualize your characters is by describing forms and shapes. Build associations and emotional connections for us. For example, instead of saying that my villain’s earrings are blue, maybe she has sickle-shaped earrings and an icicle of a nose. Those two sinister details help portray what kind of character she is. Why waste time with the color of her earrings, eyes, hair or dress? What do those say about her?

 

To help you portray your characters more effectively, I have a brief questionnaire for you.

 

1. Name one or two traits you want your character’s appearance to demonstrate. (Some popular examples: inviting, scary, friendly, dangerous, conservative, tasteful, uptight, superficial, whimsical, morose, upbeat, tough).

 

2. How might a person’s body reflect that trait? For example, a tough person might have callused hands and leathery skin from years of sun-damage.

 

3. What are some shape associations you could draw to illustrate the trait? For example, if you want to show that someone is comically jolly and pleasant, you might describe their nose as the shape of a candy-cane.

 

4. How might a person’s choice of attire reflect the trait?

 

5. How might the person’s posture or stature reflect the trait?

 

6. What about his gait?

 

7. What about his hygiene and/or any smells/odors/fragrances?

 

8. Hairstyle? Accessories?

28 responses so far

28 Responses to “Writing Tip of the Day: Color is the Weakest Form of Visualization”

  1. Katieon 20 Jul 2008 at 8:18 pm

    I don’t know if I agree on the whole color being irrelevant thing. What if you want the reader to “see” the room with you? Maybe it’s important, then, for the person to be sitting in a red leather chair as opposed to a brown one. Maybe red reflects on the character’s… character, and the author would like the reader to subconsciously think “red” when the character is in scene.

    Just saying.

    Looooove the list of questions, though. I’ll be sure to use them in my own writing.

  2. Rebeccaon 13 Sep 2008 at 7:01 am

    I’m with katie on this. Sometimes color can be more important. If you’ve got your character in front of a building owned by the richest man in the world, tall and pointy does NOT cover it. On the other hand when their screaming for their life I don’t think that they will be worrying about the color of the chaser’s outfit. People read books to escape but you even said that details are important. Now if your character is blind or something likewise you can worry about it then.

    Thought I’d put that in.

  3. chaos amoebaon 01 Dec 2009 at 11:37 pm

    I think that the subject matter here are characters rather than objects, although I would guess that it applies to objects as well. That said, I would largely disagree with the disagreement.

    For example, what am I supposed to learn knowing that the chair is red? Are we saying the character is ostentatious (it’s an ungainly-colored red); iconoclastic (the only red chair in the room)? blood-thirsty (it’s the color of blood)? It’s not to say you can’t tie a color with one of these ideas, but color — in itself — is insufficient. You can also describe any of those characteristics without the use of color.

    Likewise, with the building… If tall and pointy does not cover it, does “grey” cover it? I would agree that “shape” may be the second weakest after color, but that doesn’t mean it’s your second choice. How about it’s condition — is it austere, with sharp, unrelenting angles? Garishly ornate, with statues of cherubs flanking Corinthian pillars that were made of mass-produced marble and reek of new money?

    Just thought I would contribute.

  4. Maxon 04 Oct 2010 at 6:30 pm

    I think that hair and eye colors have their place, as long as they’re just mentioned in passing or add to the story (they can). Like a character might notice another’s hair color or a facial feature and use that to recognize them later. Or two young women trying to hide in a dark alley, and one gets kidnapped because her bright blonde hair gave her away.

  5. B. Macon 04 Oct 2010 at 6:41 pm

    In an article I wrote recently, I mentioned that eye color or hair color could be used to create an impression of a character that helps develop the plot and/or characterization.

  6. kenya wrighton 28 Jun 2012 at 1:33 pm

    I respectfully disagree. As a reader, I love knowing the color of things. It helps me get deeper into the story. As a writer, I use color in my books a lot. Granted, color symbolizes elemental witches powers and also the magic system in my book is based off of Santeria. The religion’s gods and goddess all have their own specific colors that are used to give them tribute…. so if a character soleyl wears a certan color they are giving tribute to a particular god.

  7. YoungAuthoron 28 Jun 2012 at 8:02 pm

    I agree with you kenya. color, for me, is a strong form of visualization. It makes it much easier to visualize the object or whatever.

  8. aharrison 28 Jun 2012 at 8:14 pm

    I think you should mention the color when it’s relevent and makes a point. For example, if I have a character in a business suit and I want to drive home that this person is dressed conservatively, I would potentially throw out that the suit is black or navy blue to help drive that impression home.

    Or with the example of the chair above, you need to know the color because it’s out of the ordinary. Now the color by itself may not be the whole story, but it’s an important part of it and shouldn’t be left out. After all, how many of us would ever have a red leather chair? And, now we would need to know why …

  9. Anonymouson 29 Jun 2012 at 11:33 am

    Well, some authors spend paragraphs describing the character’s eye color, hair color, and clothing color. This may help visualize what the character is wearing and to some extent what they look like, but don’t tell us anything interesting or new about the character. What makes a character interesting is their personality.

    Passing mention wouldn’t be a problem, as long as we focus on what’s important to the character or plot. To use a recent example, in The Hunger Games, Katniss describes how colors in the Capitol are so vivid compared to what she’s used to in District 12. The colors let us visualize the splendor of the Capitol.

  10. aharrison 29 Jun 2012 at 2:41 pm

    It’s worth mentioning that extreme description and detail used to be the norm in writing though. Try picking up the original Legend of Sleepy Hollow and see how much attention to detail is lavished just on the description of the VanTassel family farm. Color was as important to it as the rest of the detail. Basically, in those days books were TV so authors painted a picture with their words. It wasn’t color or texture; it was color and texture and everything else.

  11. B. McKenzieon 29 Jun 2012 at 7:58 pm

    “Passing mention wouldn’t be a problem, as long as we focus on what’s important to the character or plot. To use a recent example, in The Hunger Games, Katniss describes how colors in the Capitol are so vivid compared to what she’s used to in District 12. The colors let us visualize the splendor of the Capitol.” That struck me as very effective, judicious use of color. 1) The colors are unexpected and could not easily be filled in by readers. 2) They help develop the scene/characters/plot (in this case building a contrast between the extravagantly wealthy Capitol and the destitute Appalachians).

    “For example, if I have a character in a business suit and I want to drive home that this person is dressed conservatively, I would potentially throw out that the suit is black or navy blue to help drive that impression home.” I see your point, but unless dressing conventionally is an unusual choice for this character or his choice of attire is plot-relevant*, I think most adult readers could infer that the suit is a standard color rather than, say, lime green or neon blue. (In your life, how many suits have you seen that aren’t navy or black/charcoal?)

    *Some examples: 1) The character is a hippie facing a major conflict with relatively formal in-laws that want him to wear a black suit to the wedding and the decision to wear a black suit is plot-relevant. 2) The character is looking for undercover federal agents at a hacker convention, perhaps because he wants to earn a I SPOTTED THE FED shirt. Conservative attire choices (including color) might help him spot the fed and would definitely be relevant. 3) The suit is discolored in some way (e.g. one patch is darker than the rest)–in a murder mystery, this might be a blood stain. In a comedy of errors, it might be a ketchup disaster and a point of embarrassment.

  12. Mogu^2on 29 Jun 2012 at 8:35 pm

    I agree about THG, the colors drove the point home about how outlandish the Capitol is.

    In one of my stories I mention how the colors vary among the main 3 regions from muddy, to pastel and then muted.

  13. JVKJRon 05 Dec 2012 at 5:56 pm

    If having yellow/ goldish eyes means a character is a wizard/witch, then is it worth mentioning?

  14. B. McKenzieon 05 Dec 2012 at 6:12 pm

    Being a wizard/witch is probably relevant to the plot, so I think you definitely have some cause to incorporate it.

  15. JVKJRon 05 Dec 2012 at 6:24 pm

    Yeah. The whole eye thing has a bit of backstory. Pretty much the yellowish color is like the dominate color for witches and wizards, but nonexistent in anyone else. Because of events several centuries prior, now almost all of the magical families with other eye colors have either died off, or merged with the others. So pretty much all witches and wizards have that color.
    This is an indication early on for one of the characters.

  16. Yuukion 09 Jan 2013 at 11:21 pm

    Greetings, I have a tentative description for Teri Meadows, one of the main characters and love interest.

    1) The two qualities I want to demonstrate with her appearance is her rebellious and. Hot temper.

    2) this was a hard one. Maybe when she stares, her eyes are like a barracuda.
    Any suggestions would be helpful.

    3) Her nose is short and shaped like a spear tip. Does that illustrate aggression?

    4) Given she’s in a private high school, she wears a uniform. But maybe she rolls up her sleeves towards her elbows and leaves the collar button open. She Also had short flame shaped earrings.

    5) her stance is upright and alert, as if she was ready for a fight.

    6) very brisk, though balanced as if being deliberate.

    7) none.

    8) this one was tricky as well. Maybe she has blood orange highlights and a single lock of hair that drops in front of her face.

    That is all. Any other suggestions and comments would be most appreciated.

  17. creativemetaphoron 15 Feb 2013 at 2:09 pm

    I don’t think the article is saying never use colors to describe anything, I think it’s talking about using color to highlight what is important, not to make color itself important. Red blood is redundant. Green blood is of interest. Blue sky might better be described as clear or cloudless, whereas a red sky conjures warnings at sea (if your story is taking place at sea). A villain in black is so cliche it’s painful, and white isn’t much better, but a villain bedecked in a sequined, purple sweatsuit is worth noting.

    If the color is relevant/unusual enough to warrant being stated, then state it. If the color is only reinforcing the normalcy of a situation, it should probably be dropped in favor of better descriptions.

    “She was surrounded by colors only she seemed to notice, others passing by without a second glance. But she had never seen orange trees before, orange leaves in fall yes, but not the trees themselves; and the water a shade of green so unnatural she had to touch the surface to convince herself it was real.”

    Contrast with

    “The pale brown roots laced through the black, muddy banks of the crystal blue river.”

    wow, brown trees, dark mud, blue water? You don’t say. I’ve *never* seen those before.

    However, if the color of something is mentioned because it has a color, that’s not the same as mentioning it because it’s something another character specifically noticed.

    “She gazed into his bright blue eyes” is reminiscent of romance novels and teen fan fiction. Still, if she has a particular reason for noticing his bright blue eyes – perhaps the same color as her twin sister’s husband’s eyes – then it might be worth mentioning, but only if there is a reason to mention her twin sister’s husband’s eyes as well. Is this really her twin sister’s husband in disguise, and he can hide all but his eye color?

    One example above was the business suit. Business suits are *generally* black or navy, there is no need to reinforce this. However, “All eyes were on the door to see what John would be wearing today. No one was disappointed when he entered, chest puffed with pride in his lime green, pin-striped business suit,” gives the use of color relevance and helps paint a rather ridiculous mental image of John.

    Color is like everything else, great and sometimes necessary, but easy to overdo and can often be dropped in favor of better descriptors, but not always.

  18. B. McKenzieon 15 Feb 2013 at 5:06 pm

    “All eyes were on the door to see what John would be wearing today. No one was disappointed when he entered, chest puffed with pride in his lime green, pin-striped business suit,” gives the use of color relevance and helps paint a rather ridiculous mental image of John.” I really like this. It does a really good job characterizing John. More impressively, I think it goes beyond his taste in color (e.g. his attitude and unusual approach to business will probably be more important than his bizarre taste in clothes moving forward, unless the main plot is somehow connected to clothing).

  19. Mon 12 May 2013 at 10:08 am

    I both agree and disagree. It is pointless to go into long, excessive description on things as irrelevant as color, but at the same time I personally find it frustrating if absolutely no mention is given. I read a lot of online fiction where authors try to omit color description, and the result is usually that I spend several chapters picturing the protagonist as a grey blur, scouring the pages for anything that might clarify the image, before giving up and moving on to something else.
    The fact is that eye and hair color are important to our visualization process, which is why so many authors resort to describing nothing else. This is obviously a mistake, and there are many other more interesting things to describe, but leaving out the basics unnecessary. It feels like something is being withheld from you – why, if you are going to go through so much effort creating a beautiful descriptive paragraph on how the woman’s hands are long and delicate, her skin milky white and covered with a tentative smattering of freckles, dancing playfully over her neck, can you not include a single sentence telling me that her long brown locks brushed her shoulders in tantalizing swirls, blue eyes shining with repressed anticipation? It doesn’t cost much, and if mentioned in passing, we can all take a deep breath and relax. I find it just as annoying as withholding the characters name – I can’t picture him/her at all. Leaving out those two things may seem like a good idea for withholding cliches and improving your style, but most people I know who care for literature would be thoroughly peeved.

  20. Lemonaryon 12 Jul 2013 at 1:26 pm

    I understand that color may not be the MOST important thing, but in my story I have an albino character. The best way to describe a character like this is by saying she is white with pink eyes. She is evil BECAUSE she is albino and was kicked out of her home. In this case, color is very important.

  21. B. McKenzieon 13 Jul 2013 at 11:19 am

    “She is evil BECAUSE she is albino…” Uhh… I’m not sure albinism works that way. I’d recommend focusing instead on the other aspect (her being kicked out of her home and generally being shunned).

  22. Jade D.on 15 Sep 2013 at 12:53 pm

    In a line from my story (names have been changed):

    ” ‘Jim’s’ emerald eye blinked as I noticed their emptiness, his head was cocked to the side, hands behind his back, a pearly white grin on his face, the same position ‘Dina’ assumes when she trys to look innocent. The eyes remind me of her.”

    Is color an important factor here?

  23. B. McKenzieon 15 Sep 2013 at 4:36 pm

    “Jim’s emerald eye blinked as I noticed their emptiness… a pearly white grin on his face, the same position Dina assumes when she tries to look innocent. The eyes remind me of her.”

    Jade: “Is color an important factor here?”

    Unless the eye color is somehow relevant to the plot (e.g. if mutants tend to have green eyes or MAYBE if the green is a cue that he’s somehow related to Dina), I feel “emerald” could be removed. However, I think “pearly white” is effective for the teeth. It creates a contrast between his perfect smile and his empty eyes, which could be plot-relevant foreshadowing (e.g. if he’s pleasant on the surface but dangerous underneath).

    Also, I think “emerald” is a pleasant and deep color, so it might undermine what you’re trying to do with the eyes’ emptiness.

    Does Jim have only one eye? (“Jim’s emerald eye blinked…”)

    PS: Minor phrasing suggestion: The narrator can generally cut phrases like “I noticed” (or “I saw” or “I heard” or something similar) because we’ll know it’s from the narrator’s perspective.

  24. Jade D.on 15 Sep 2013 at 6:03 pm

    Thanks B.McK
    About the eyes, they are more symbolic, because it shows the similar mind ‘types’ of Jim (a former antagonist, work for the protagonist creating a mistrusting relationship) and Dina ( a protagonist that is just as unstable) Dina is a very respected character in the story, so comparing Jim to her shows there could be a chance for Jim.

  25. Wolfgirlon 23 Mar 2014 at 6:00 am

    I don’t know if this has been said already, but what about hair dye. In one of my stories, I have a crazy principle. He had dyed his hair orange on a whim several years prior to chapter one. Does that count for anything?

    Also, about eye color, I have a character that was the grim reaper but was turned into a twelve year old mortal. He has jet black eyes that can show you your worst. I picked jet black because it is supposed to be very dark and scary.

  26. B. McKenzieon 26 Mar 2014 at 6:47 am

    “He had dyed his hair orange on a whim several years prior to chapter one. Does that count for anything?” Unless it somehow connects to characterization or the plot, I wouldn’t recommend spending more than a sentence on it. For example, him choosing a very flamboyant color may help establish his personality (also, it’s an exceptionally unusual decision for a guy to dye his hair for a reason besides undoing graying — most men aren’t into cosmetics).

  27. Clip-Clopon 02 Aug 2014 at 6:37 pm

    Hi! What are some physical traits that imply
    Stubborn
    Honest
    Challenging
    Loyal
    Blunt
    Nerdy

  28. Tomason 11 Apr 2016 at 5:37 pm

    I think you should be very careful when using 3. It can be easily overused and misused, leading to a whole cast of cartoonish and stereotyped characters. When it is correctly applied, it is a valuable resource to highlight a personality trait, but it should be handed with care.

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