Years ago, when my discovery of The Lord of the Rings seduced me into reading almost nothing but sword and sorcery fantasy (something I eventually got over) I remember noticing how often the good guys were described as wear white while the bad guys were always in black. This wasn’t limited to fantasy either. How many classic westerns over the years portrayed the hero in a white hat and the villain in a black one?
It has become such a standard that hackers are deemed “white hats” or “black hats” depending on how their efforts related to the law.
I’ve always questioned this motif. What does a young reader, who happens to be black, think of the color black always signaling evil? Does it mean that they are also, by definition, bad? Why can’t the good wizard wear black?
The problem here is that color is highly symbolic and the symbolic values differ from culture to culture. Thus, in western cultures, those left behind wear black to funerals to symbolize loss and mourning, while many Buddhist cultures will wear white to a funeral. Different cultures will often associate different emotions or traits with different colors.
Why is this important for us as writers? Because colors and the emotional traits we associate with them are important tools we can use to illicit responses in the reader. We can use color to manipulate the reader. We can reveal character through the colors they choose to wear, the colors they choose to decorate their home, the color of their vehicle.
And what is good writing, but a successful attempt to manipulate the reader’s thinking and emotions?
But, in order for this manipulation to work, we have to be accurate in how we use color within the culture at large. For if we don’t use color correctly, like any tool, the result will not work in the mind of the reader. They may not even know what is wrong. Something just didn’t set right with them. For instance, if you describe a character as meek and lacking in self-confidence, then describe him coming to work in a lemon yellow suit, the reader will have trouble believing it. Bright yellow clothing, for the most part, is not the sort of thing a shy man would pick out for himself to wear. (But he might buy it intending to come across as more assertive, then never have the guts to take it out of the closet).
So it is vitally important that, as writers of fiction, we get the symbolic color correct for the trait we want the reader to see. How do we do that? A large part is instinctual. We, after all, are writing to our own culture most of the time, so we know these associations in our gut, to one extent or another. But it can be dangerous to rely too closely to our own intuition, because sometimes our intuition is wrong.
So we research. Or, to be more accurate, we turn to the research others have already done. And, not surprisingly, most of the research on the emotional and cultural values embodied in color has been done by marketing firms. After all, marketing is really the science of manipulating the public into feeling better about your product than that of your competitor. So marketers have done all sorts of research into how people react to various colors and color combinations.
Below is a summary of various values associated with some of the colors (for this article, white and black are considered colors too. Yeah, yeah, I know).
Is the color of fire and blood, so it is associated with energy, war, danger, and power, as well as passion and love. In heraldry, red is used to symbolize courage and is found in many national flags. Widely used to indicate danger.
A very emotionally intense color. It increases viewers’ respiration rate and blood pressure.
Light red represents joy, passion, sensitivity, and love.
Pink represents romance, love, passivity, feminine qualities
Dark red vigor, anger, rage, courage, malice
Brown stability, masculine qualities
Reddish-brown associated with harvest and autumn
Combines the energy of red and the happiness of yellow. Represents enthusiasm, happiness, creativity, attraction, success, encouragement. In heraldry, orange is the color strength and endurance.
The color of harvest and fall.
Dark Orange can mean deceit and distrust
Red-orange indicates desire, passion, pleasure domination
Gold means illumination, wisdom, prestige, and wealth
The color of sunshine. It symbolizes happiness, intellect, and energy. In heraldry, yellow indicates honor and loyalty. Later it came to mean cowardice.
Men often perceive yellow as a very lighthearted, childish color.
Dull yellow represents caution, sickness and jealousy
Light yellow is associated with freshness and joy.
The color of nature, it symbolizes growth, harmony, freshness, and fertility and is strongly associated with safety. It can sometimes indicate lack of experience, as in “greenhorn.” In heraldry, indicates growth and hope.
Dark green often associated with money, greed, and jealousy
Yellow-green can mean sickness, cowardice, and jealousy.
Aqua associated with healing and protection
Olive green the traditional color of peace.
The color of the sea and sky, it symbolizes cleanliness, trust, loyalty, faith, truth, and stability. In heraldry, blue symbolizes piety and sincerity. A masculine color.
Light blue associated with health, healing, tranquility
Dark blue represents knowledge, power, seriousness.
Combines the stability of blue with the energy of red. Is associated with royalty, symbolizes power, nobility, luxury, and ambition, as well as dignity and magic. A very rare color in nature.
Light purple evokes romance and nostalgia
Dark purple suggests gloom and sadness.
White is associated with light, innocence, purity, and cleanliness. In heraldry, white depicts faith and purity. It is the color of snow.
Black is associated with power, strength, prestige, elegance, and formality. But is also the color of night, so is also associated with fear, the unknown, grief, death. In heraldry, black symbolizes grief. Often has a negative connotation: black humor, blacklist, “black death.”
By reading the list above, you can see that nothing is written in stone. It is a guideline and nothing more, a place to begin. And sometimes, in your effort to manipulate the reader, you can mislead them by giving them false clues. A man approaches a woman wearing a bright yellow dress. She looks happy; she’s wearing yellow. Only he finds out, after talking to her, that she’s a widow, mourning the death of her husband. The yellow dress was the only thing clean she had to wear. Or maybe she was consciously trying to cheer herself up.
Or you can have your hero, the good guy/girl always in black because he/she thinks it makes them look more slim.
Color is just another tool you can use to give information to your reader. Like all of us, it is up to you, the writer, to decide how best to use it.