Friday, January 29, 2010

Using Creative Colors in Fiction

Fiction means bringing characters to life with action, dialogue and also with description. Readers want to envision them physically, and so authors try to paint a picture of the main characters or of the setting with words.

One issue I’ve struggled with is finding ways to describe color. Dark brown eyes doesn’t capture the reader’s imagination as well as dark chocolate eyes or Cordovan eyes, which is one I recently used for a character. We describe skin tones, hair, eyes, and the look and hues of clothing. Settings can be enhanced with color descriptors as well.

Primary colors work for fine for the male POV. Unless a man is an artist or designer, blue is blue and occasionally a male character might relate the color to something familiar, such as: The same color as the lilac tree blossoms in the back yard. But women like to know which shade of blue. I recently went on-line to search for color charts that would provide me with the names of color. I found 24 shades of blue from light cyan to indigo. Now I can describe her eyes as cornflower blue or deep sky blue without struggling to find the color I want.

I was able to copy the chart to paper, so I have it near my desk. Visit this link and see the huge area of colors to use for description in your fiction

While this color chart is limited on shades of brown. I found this chart very helpful. It’s where I found the color Cordovan

These two color charts will become larger with one click of the cursor and color names are easy to read.

Bring your descriptions to life with hues that connect with readers’ imaginations.


Des said...


I mean no disrespect, but I don't think this is a good eye. In my personal opinion, brown is just better as brown. Otherwise many writers (especially fan-fiction writers) spend too much time just looking for synonyms of brown, some of which end up showing your a character who's eyes are three or four different shades. Besides, what if you don't know what a cornflower looks like? I come from a place where they dont grow, so cornflower blue just falls flat on me. Besides, if it doesn't work from the viewpoint character's...well...viewpoint - what if, for example, the character is a non-artistic male who doesn't care, or someone who like me has never seen a cornflower? Just my opinion. I think too much description of a character's eyes, unless important in the story, falls flat on me. Give me a plain 'blue' and then tell me what the character does, anyday.

Michael said...

Great resources, Gail. They'll be great quick-reference charts for me when I'm in a hurry. I viewed and saved both of them. Thanks for the links!

Martha Ramirez said...

Thanks Gail for sharing the links! Great sites. It'll sure help when trying to find the right color.

Gail Gaymer Martin said...

Hi Des - Thanks for dropping your note. I think each person enjoys something different so my suggestions are for those who like to be more specific in colors. Brown is brown to me but chocolate brown means something different from milky brown. Cordovan is brown that's brighter.

I totally agree that men men use primary colors - blue, red, yellow, green, purple, etc. If you reread the article, you'll see that statement. Women tend to be more specific, and they relate to things they know.

A cornflower is a blue weed that grows along the roads in many states. Perhaps not where you live, but if you look through clothing catalogues, you will see that as a shade occasionally. It's not uncommon.

Naturally a character rarely describes their own eyes or looks. This comes from the opposite character. So the POV character might step into a room and grimace at the pumpkin orange of someone's walls, but they would never say their eyes are peacock blue. That's bad writing.

I write women's fiction, romanctnic suspense and romance -- so romance is a focus for me. In romance, colors and description are part of what readers expect. Other genres might care less, but thanks for your input and I'm glad I had an opportunity to reiterate what I meant in this blog.


lynnmosher said...

Thanks so much for the links, Gail! Very helpful!

Gail Gaymer Martin said...

Hi Michael and Martha - Thanks so much. I'm glad you found the charts helpful. I actually made copies of them and keep them handy so when I'm describing a scene, I have any color references I need handy.

Take care and good writing.

Gail Gaymer Martin said...

Hi Lynn - You're so welcome. I love to share handy links with writers.


K.M. Weiland said...

Very helpful! I've bookmarked the sites. Thanks so much for sharing!

Anonymous said...

Lovely blog addition, Gail. As the daughter of an artist (my father was an exceptional portrait artist who painted governors, senators, and whose work still hangs in state houses across the country) seeking the 'correct' color name comes naturally to me. To describe the colors of a sunset, or the ocean, or even a plowed field is all the more vivid for a simple descriptor 'tag'.

As writers we are taught to always use the 'best' word...and that should include colors.

Besides, without them, my fantasy hero's skin color could be construed as Smurf blue as opposed to a 'wash of palest cerulean'. Sometimes details do matter :)

Thank you for the charts, and giving writers another tool in their arsenal.

Gail Gaymer Martin said...

Thanks K.M. and Pamela for letting me know you like the links. I agree Pamela. My mom was an artist and I love art as well as decorating. Color means a lot to me and I like to use vivid description when they're meaningful to provide readers with vivid word pictures. Having a sense of color is helpful and the charts help me to pinpoint the colors I see in the "movie in my head."


Ken Rolph said...

Sounds like you need a copy of:

Write Colour
A handbook for writers and others who use words and colours
Peter Renner
Moonchpa Publishing, 2000
ISBN 0 9578408 0 2

It's a small booklet with lists of colour names and descriptions. Beside each one is a smal oval printed in that colour.

The best thing about the booklet is that it starts you off in different directions. For example, it doesn't have jacaranda, which is a colour I would use in Sydney. It demonstrates the limitations of colour names, by having only one patch for ochre. For me this could be a range of colours.

Gail Gaymer Martin said...

Ken - Thanks for the info about the book. I looked on Amazon and it's not listed there. I tried author and book title and both. Nothing. Too bad it sounds like a great book that would be very handy for writers. How did you hear about this book and where did you get it?


Jan Cline said...

What an awesome concept! I write historical romance so I'm thinking I should research popular and indigenous colors from the era. Think that's possible? Any suggestions where to look?

Scott said...

While I agree that being specific about colors can help to bring out detail in fiction, there are at least two caveats. First, if you get too specific, your reader won't necessarily know what color you mean without having the same chart. Second, if you're deep in a character's POV, whether first person or third, you have to use colors that character is likely to know.

Especially in a kid's story, though, a character who knows all about color could be fun to write.

Gail Gaymer Martin said...

Thanks, Jan. Glad you like the links. I really don't know how you'd check on colors for historicals. I'm sure colors were more simple and probably related to know things -- like rose, straw, etc. but that's a guess.


Gail Gaymer Martin said...

Hi Scott - Thanks for dropping by and expresing your ideas. Yes, I agree on the POV issue. I assumed people would be bright enough to chose color descriptions appropriate to the character, but it's good you pointed that out since new writers might not think about that.

Second I agree that an author can't go over the deepened on colors, but it's so difficult as an author to guess what your reader knows for sure on anything. If an author names a specific car in his or her novel, I identify cars by color. Models means nothing to me except perhaps one that looks like mine. I know what I drive. : ) And I know very little about sports, but someone who's writing a story about that might use terms I don't know. I think we're always in that kind of bind. Nonetheless, we have to be responsible to our readers and try to relate them in the best way we can.
Thanks again for commenting.

Lee Ee Leen said...

best description I read for blue eyes is 'delphinium' blue

Gail Gaymer Martin said...

Delphinium blue sounds very nice, Lee Ee. I love the color.


sanjeet said...

They'll be great quick-reference charts for me when I'm in a hurry. I viewed and saved both of them. Thanks for the links!
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Saleema said...

Thanks so much, Gail! I was in the process of finishing a poem and I needed something other then "just green." Your links have been very helpful. THANKS!

Gail Gaymer Martin said...

Saleema - I'm pleased the color chart helped you find something appropriate for your poem. I know when I want a specific color this kind of tool comes in handy.