3 Tips for Using Color Theory In Your Writing

Some like it hot, but I like it RED.

In September I bought a red house. I know what you’re thinking, who does that? Someone with a secret barn obsession? Turns out lots of people love red houses and Pinterest is full of people lamenting their lack of red house. Why? Because red triggers emotions. It’s a color that invokes power, vitality and well … life. It is the color of blood after all. No, I’m not being ghoulish in homage to Halloween, it’s a fact. Red makes people feel something powerful. It’s the color of excitement and danger. It’s also the color of love and sex. As colors go, red is pretty hard to beat for evoking a strong response.

Advertising executives have known about psychological properties of color for decades. When creating company logos and ad campaigns they always chose colors that help trigger consumer’s buy-it button. For example, blue signifies a company is trustworthy, while green shows they’re natural and/or earth friendly.

You can do the same thing with your fiction writing. Here are 3 tips for adding more color to your pages.

1. Learn the basics of color theory.

You don’t need to go all Mad Men and memorize the meaning of every color, 2013-01-20-Color_Emotion_Guide22just get the basics down. Finding a good chart to keep near your writing space will help. Lucky for all of us there are a number of good articles and infographics on different aspects of color theory, like this one analyzing company logos by color from the Huffington Post.

Some paint companies will also have charts available to download. Home decorators know that wall and furniture colors help control mood swings and can increase a person’s creativity and work level. You can also hit home improvement stores for some paint sample cards. They really come in handy for keeping a key color in mind.

2. Give all your lead characters a personal color palette.

It might be hard to decide your character’s perfect colors. So take this test: Without thinking too much, imagine your protagonist reaches into his or her closet and takes out a favorite jacket. What color is it? The character that just reached for a brown leather bomber is nothing like the character that reached for the same jacket in lime green.

You may want to check out the color thesaurus from Bored Panda. This is a great reference tool for determining the names of colors in some key color groups. Here’s the panel for red, my favorite of course.This-Color-Thesaurus-Chart-Lets-You-Easily-Name-Any-Color-Imaginable8__605

You can also think about the traits you want your lead characters to embody. If you want them perceived as stable and confident pick blues as their main color. If you want the reader to perceive them as artistic but friendly, choose shades of orange. If your villain is always in black (like almost every other villain in the world) you might want to rethink that. Color done right can be intimidating and it exudes a high level of confidence.

You will need to remember that every color has a positive and a negative aspect. Yellow is sunny and happy, but it’s also the color of betrayal and cowardice. Green is peaceful, but also the sign of greed and envy. Also remember all color theory is culturally influenced – white signifies purity in some countries but not others. You will need to know the cultural rules of your target audience before choosing your character palettes.

3. Include colors in your plotting and settings.

With a pop of unexpected color you can surprise your readers, or make them understand something big in the story is about to happen. If you create a setting that follows your protagonist’s main color palette you keep them stable and happy. But by using clashing or contrasting colors you will take your characters out of their comfort zone.

Heather is the authority on all things Hunger Games, but for me the Capitol is always about color!

The edge of Effie’s dress against the backdrop of neutrals.

When Effie arrives into the story she brings a blast of color. Her hair and bright clothing is shocking in the coal dust-covered drab world of District 12. Everything about the Capitol’s wealth, extravagance, pageantry, and excessive vanity is all wrapped up in brash and garish color. While the soldiers and tributes are often in neutral tones of white, black and tan. This helps to create more physiological distance between the groups in power and those serving them.

Using color to trigger emotions is a great tool for every storyteller to know and it’s a trick most film makers already understand and use with great effect. Think about the girl in the red coat from Schindler’s List as a classic example. Learn by studying how other writers and artists use color to change the mood, or by experimenting with your own work in progress.

Use color wisely and watch how it changes the intensity of your scenes, shakes up the status quo and revs up your own creative juices.


Author: Robin Rivera

Robin trained as a professional historian and worked as a museum curator, educator, and historical consultant. She writes mystery fiction, with diverse characters and a touch of snark. She's currently working on two new manuscripts that started off as NaNoWriMo projects. You can follow her on Facebook(https://www.facebook.com/robin.rivera.90813). However, Pinterest (https://www.pinterest.com/RRWrites/) is where her inner magpie is happiest of all.

4 thoughts on “3 Tips for Using Color Theory In Your Writing”

  1. My first career was an artist and art teacher, so color continues to play a significant role in my stories. Thanks for the warning about cultural differences in color attributions, something I will consider in my work.

  2. Not a bad idea but be warned. And you are right olour theory does not translate well across cultures. For example in many south american cultures. Purple is a danger colour, used to denote death.

    In the east White is a funerary colour. I.e the dead are clad in white.. As opposed to the west where it is seen as a colour of purity. This also carries into affrican cultures . White as a ghost.

    Also it can be very cliche. A better way to go is think about ‘why’ the character feels an affinity to the colour.

    1. Hi Simone,
      Cultural differences are very important. Each writer should try to understand their audience and what each color means to them. If they don’t do the research they risk sending the wrong message, and your examples are great examples of that. Thanks for sharing them.

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