Like cities (London is grey with red double-decker buses for accent.), stories have colors. You could think of color as the emotional theme of a book; everything supports, enhances, or accents and contrasts with the core color. Individual characters can have their colors, too.
Unlike abstract themes, color usage can be explicit and concrete because color is an important sensual stimulus in any landscape or setting. Make your colors murky for dark tales and clear and bright for romances. Play with color and hue as you shape the intensity or lightness of your work.
The overall theme of your book may not emerge until you’re revising if you’re a pantser or coming to the end of a detailed outline if you’re a plotter. From the beginning, though, you can identify a color to represent your theme and use it lavishly in your landscape while you accent and contrast with characters and action.
The Colors of Emotions
Georgina Reagan, a color healer from London who worked in Britain’s national health program, changed the way I saw and used color forever when I attended her weekend color healing workshop. The colors are related to each of the seven chakras or energy systems in our body, and the chakras are the emotional centers from which stories and characters grow.
Sonia Choquette’s “True Balance” and Ram Dass’s “The Only Dance There Is” demonstrate the connections between the human issues that shape our characters. Choquette includes exercises for balancing your own emotional issues, chakra by chakra, and I often recommend her book to writers who are writing in the midst of all those ways life happens.
Eastern and western texts use differing colors for the seven core chakras. For this article, I’m using the western colors because they seem more connected to the myths and themes of Western literature. If you’d like to explore the eastern colors, you may want to start with “The Chakras” by Charles Webster Ledbeater.
The core seven chakra colors and key words for their character issues are:
Red (root chakra) for survival issues. This includes the whole array of fight or flight issues, anger, war–and also the incisiveness of lifesaving surgery. Sex as the desire to procreate and leave a legacy (Close your eyes and think of England, Victoria!) is also red. Rape of course is a muddy, murky unhealthy red. Think of blood in all its shades and smells–but also think of the bright red skin of an apple.
Orange (spleen chakra) is a creative color. You’ll find sex as play here, but also all forms of adapting and creativity. If I-want-his-baby sex is red, then erotica is orange. (Okay, BDSM is at least red-orange; it’s okay to blend these colors and use all their variations.) Orange also cultivates courage and the will-to-succeed, helping characters overcome emotional paralysis.
Yellow (solar plexus chakra) rules our mental faculties, our ability to set goals, and supports the self-control to persevere toward those goals. Yellow also helps counteract emotional exhaustion. It would be a supportive color for any character striving to overcome bad habits.
Green (heart) is the color of the balancing center of our bodies. Red, orange and yellow are the vital and personal centers; blue, indigo, and violet are the spiritual centers; green is the emotional center that balances self-care and giving to others or the world. Green calms; one reason hypnotherapists use natural scenes to lead clients to tranquil meditations.
Blue (throat) raises consciousness and stimulates truth, love, peace, poise, and spirituality. Light blue is so peaceful that overuse of the color can increase the need for sleep or make depression worse. Blue is often used in jail holding cells to calm prisoners (although prolonged time in a blue space may bring out the desire to protect other inmates and cause its own problems). Blue lets us speak up for justice and truth and is often paired with orange to stir creative acts and works.
Indigo (brow chakra) stimulates intuition and inner vision. Writers who see before they write, for example, might find indigo helpful. Indigo is rumored to be the color of future ages such as the Aquarian age and is a fine environment (beginning with indigo skies) for speculative fiction involving other worlds or the world of the future.
Violet (crown) is the color of sacrifice for spiritual values or the love of others (or of humanity). It increases confidence without increasing the demands of the personal ego, so it’s often associated with power, such as charismatic evil that lures us to great good or great evil. Violet inspires us to prayer and meditation and leads to spiritual knowledge and understanding through meditation.
Today I routinely work with an eighth chakra, the earth chakra found about ten inches below your feet. It’s brown the color of earth. When I’m writing and want to focus on sensory details instead of intuitive impressions, I visualize light vitalizing that earth chakra to ground me. Your characters will be more grounded and live more fully in the moment and in their senses if you add some brown to your settings.
How We Absorb Color
Colors are only real to them through our five senses; we experience ultraviolet rays, for example, only as sunburn. We see the colors of the rainbow and shades of brown, black and white. Any experience we have with colors beyond our visual range must come from other senses or be the properties of fantasy and science fiction stories.
We draw color into ourselves through what we see, but also through the colors of the foods we eat. A flickering candle flame brings the color of the candle into our body/mind as swiftly as a bit of colored glass in a window does. Our bodies absorb the colors we wear. One of my artist friends used to meet with galleries wearing proper and basic black over intense hues of lingerie in colors to support her during the meeting. Dorothee Mella, author of “The Language of Color” and “Stone Power”, taught me to choose clothing for the day by running my hand along the clothes in my closet and feeling for the right colors. Her closet, of course, was carefully sorted by color to make the daily selection easier.
If your character is a mystic or healer, she’ll also see the colors in visions. Some see them in dreams.
When writers are sensitive to colors, I suggest they choose the colors around their workspaces with care. Indigo supports the breath and the imagination. Orange makes you hungry. Green keeps you in balance while you throw rocks at your characters.
Color references in writing are more effective if they’re subtle and well integrated into the setting: blue Concord grapes or green grapes will trigger the reader’s imagination in subtle ways that a colorless bowl of grapes can’t mimic.
Give the character what she needs or what works against her. The reader will “get it” in her own mind/body in subtle evocations of the mythology (or genetics) of the ages.
Four Elements of Creative Work
The ancient four elements provide an even simpler color scheme. When I was writing my doctoral paper on the four elements, I studied their use in ancient wisdom, including the Judeo-Christian Old Testament, and primitive cultures. As I’ve continued my studies, I’ve learned to use four colors as metaphors for the creative process and for the parts of a story as writers create stories and readers respond to them.
Red represents fire, and it’s the inspiration behind story. It’s the vision a hero experiences, the idea that triggers a writer’s imagination, and the inspired action a reader takes after finishing a book that empowers her.
Blue is water, swelling like the tides and the waves of the ocean. In the creative process, it’s the expanding concept that turns an inspired wisp into a logline and characters and the bare bones of a tale. For the reader, blue is recognized truth, what changes inside her as she reads.
Yellow is air, the intellectual framework of a detailed plot or storyboard. Yellow represents the factual details that allow the reader to suspend belief and stay within a story as well as the logic of a narrative. Mistakes in the yellow stage of creation distract the reader from the story.
Brown is earth. Some people see earth as having its own four colors: black, olive, russet and citrine. Either way, earths colors are blends of the three primary colors or their derivative colors. Earth represents the physical world. For the reader, earth is the sensory detail that grounds the reader’s imagination in the story and brings it to life. And for the writer, the rich brown of dark chocolate evokes the power of a finished work, the whole sensory-rich story in draft or polished form. Delicious.
Mary O’Gara, Ph.D., is a creativity coach/consultant who is also a published columnist, poet and short story writer. Mary’s lifelong study of the creativity process has led her into mind/body and spiritual paths, and she holds certifications in astrology, tarot, hypnostherapy, and neurolinguistic programming. Mary’s current research and consulting interests include how our creative minds develop and strengthen as we age and the interplay among ancient elements, story elements, and the stages of the creative process as writers experience it.
Mary’s interest in color began during her early work as a photojournalist and expanded after her training in color healing with Georgina Reagan and color workshops with Dorothee Mella.
Mary’s new Savvy Authors workshop, “Writing With Your Whole Mind,” starts September 30th. Register now at Savvy Authors.