Writing By Design: Using Color Theory

Writing by design means using techniques from the visual arts to inspire and inform your writing. So far in this series you’ve learned how to use the constraints of space to give your story a shape. You’ve also discovered how to use the psychology of expectation to create—and artfully break—patterns in your writing. In this installment, we turn our attention to color.

Color is perhaps the most obvious—and in my opinion the most fun—aspect of design. It sets a mood and can inspire a feeling or set the tone for a piece of writing. You can use individual colors or a color scheme to capture the essence of your story without words. Think of it as a wordless summary.

I believe that each character in a story has a signature color that captures his or her personality. Truthfully, most characters will likely have palette of three or four colors to capture all their nuances, but to keep this analysis manageable let’s assume that there is one dominant color that best represents that character’s essence. In that case, you can use color theory to put your characters in situations that either create harmony or tension in your story.

Before We Begin, a Few Notes About Color

Associating colors with personalities makes sense, of course, because colors themselves have intrinsic meanings. Red, for example, means “stop” or “danger” in most western cultures. Orange is also an attention-grabbing color so it’s often used for warnings, like traffic cones or a crossing guard’s vest. Green suggests growth and life, and blue generally has a calming influence. If we want to use colors to represent our characters, we also need to consider that they already have a certain symbolism inherent in the pigment itself.

That’s hardly the whole story, though. Traditions and cultures also shape the inherent symbolism of color. In Western culture, for example, the color white implies innocence and purity. In other cultures, however, white—and not black—is the color of mourning.

Consider also how the words we ascribe to colors affect the symbolism. Green, for example, is a color that usually implies freshness or new life. Yet the phrase “green with envy” adds a more negative nuance to the color’s meaning.

When you combine a handful of colors, you get even more layers of nuance. For example, the color blue alone might symbolize peace and calm, but when you add red and yellow, and you get the primary colors, a palette that implies youth and is often used in preschool toys and products. If you take that same triad of colors and replace the yellow with white, you’ll get a patriotic color combination. When you pair colors together, their meanings can change or acquire nuance.

Introduction to Color Theory

Red, Yellow and Blue are the primary colors. They are called primary colors because you cannot mix any other colors together to get these three.

Not to get super-nerdy, yellow and blue are primary colors for pigment. When you’re talking about color and light, the primaries are actually red, green and blue but that gets us into the differences between the color of light and the color of pigment and that’s beyond the scope of this article.

Orange, Green and Purple are secondary colors. They are called secondary because you can make them by mixing two primaries. As we all learned in elementary school:

  • Red + Yellow = Orange
  • Yellow + Blue = Green
  • Blue + Red = Purple

Colors that are opposite each other on the color wheel are complementary colors. These colors might appear to “clash” but they actually complement each other well and provide contrast. Each of the primary colors has a secondary color as its complement. In fact, its complement is the color derived by mixing the other two primaries.

  • Red is complementary to Green.
  • Yellow is complementary to Purple.
  • Blue is complementary to Orange.

What does this have to do with writing?

If every character has a signature color that represents his or her personality, then one of the best ways to draw create tension is to put that character in a scene with someone completely opposite.

Let’s suppose your character’s signature color is a rich eggplant color. If you pair that character with another whose color is bumblebee yellow, then sparks will likely fly because the colors—and personalities—are so dramatically different. If, on the other hand, you want to create a more harmonious interaction, try putting your character in a scene with someone whose color is more analogous, like a deep emerald green or a feisty (but still compatible) fuchsia.

Years ago, I used to write extensive biographies, outlining every element of my characters’ personalities and obsessing over every obscure detail of their lives. The problem with that approach was that it took forever and when it came to bringing those characters to life on the page, monstrously long bios weren’t very effective.

I needed a more efficient method, which is why I started assigning a signature color to each of my characters. That color serves as a wordless bio. It is far less cumbersome than the written version and still captures the emotional nuances of that character’s personality.

Field Trip!

Take a half hour to go to a hardware store, and browse the paint aisle. Most stores give out free paint chip samples, so pretend like you’re repainting your house and grab a few. No wait, grab a handful.

Try to find the perfect paint color to represent the main character in your current writing project. If you’re really ambitious, pick out colors for each of your important characters, including your villain and members of your supporting cast.

Then lay out the colors you chose according to the color wheel. See where the contrasts are, as well as the harmonious combinations. Do you notice any tension or contrast you didn’t realize was there? What about relationships that are supposed to be in conflict, like your protagonist and villain? Are these characters aligned too harmoniously? If so, what can you do in the story to create a bigger rift between them?

If you’re really really ambitious, skip the paint store altogether and browse a fabric store instead, where you can play with color as well as pattern and texture. If you don’t have time to browse the stores, break out the markers, colored pencils or better yet, paints. Mix and match and play with color. The point here is to have fun and to use colors to capture the essence of your story.

If you prefer to play with color on a computer, Canva also has an interesting tool for that. Their Color Design Wiki explains different colors (including hex codes for digital design), the meanings of colors, and gives info about different color combinations. While this tool was created for graphic designers, it can also help spark ideas for characters and stories.

So far in this series, we’ve covered three design elements: space, pattern, and today color. In my next (and final!) post of this series, I’ll take a close look at one more design element: light. Watch for this final installment coming up in a few months.

Gabriela Pereira is the founder of DIYMFA.com, the do-it-yourself alternative to a Masters degree in writing. She is also a speaker, podcast host for DIY MFA Radio, and author of the forthcoming book DIY MFA: Write with Focus, Read with Purpose, Build Your Community (Writer’s Digest Books, July 2016). Join the word nerd community at DIYMFA.com/join.

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2 years ago

I am an artist. Your article inspires me more to use colors for my paintings. You write a good article on color theory. Thanks!

E.E. Rawls
2 years ago

This is brilliant, Gabriela! As I love working with paints and colors, this method really appeals to me. Plus it sounds like it can be a good time-saver.

2 years ago

This is such a refreshing way to look at characters. I particularly like your method of assigning a color to each character as a way of bypassing the lengthy bio. There will be details specific to the character, of course, but if you know what each color represents personality-wise, using a color can save you some time.

Gabriela Pereira
2 years ago

So glad you liked it! I totally hear you on the character bio thing, too. After spending WAY too many hours myself writing long character dossiers, it was a relief to find a way to capture their personalities more efficiently.

2 years ago

Thanks for this creative tool! My characters are developed enough that I knew their dominant color right after reading this. I am making plans for a trip to the paint and fabric stores.
The Canva Wiki Tool is awesome. Can’t wait to put it to use.
Aside from the obvious uses of this in clothing choices how else can writers apply the color theory to our characters?

Gabriela Pereira
2 years ago
Reply to  Rahma

Wow, that’s awesome! And the fact that you know your characters’ colors in an instant shows that you REALLY know your characters.

Just one word of caution with the Canva Wiki: be careful about not falling down the color wiki rabbit hole at the expense of the writing itself. I say this as someone who would TOTALLY go down that rabbit hole myself. (Actually I kinda, sorta already did.) With fun tools like this, I find that setting a timer for myself works wonders! 😀

2 years ago

Thanks for the word of caution. Been down plenty of those rabbit holes. 😜

Erika Hayes
2 years ago

As a former concept designer in the Paper Art Industry, I found this article very helpful!! I am going to have to pull out the Pantone color books and get some inspiration! I think this is a unique and fantastic way for me to connect with my characters too! I guess in some ways I have done this but now that it has been brought to my attention, I can put a bit more of my knowledge of color theory to work in my book! (Which makes me geeky happy). Thanks as always for amazing content!

Gabriela Pereira
2 years ago
Reply to  Erika Hayes

OMG I totally know what you mean! When I started playing with color and characters, my inner design geek did the biggest happy dance.

It’s funny, we often think that art/design and writing are such different fields, and yet there’s so much crossover between the two. Writing often boils down to the tension and relationship between characters and design is all about navigating the relationships between colors/shapes/objects. In the end, the two fields are not that far apart. 🙂

2 years ago

I love using universal symbolism for subtext and so color fits in really well with this. People make associations with different colors, and it is a subtle way to reinforce certain aspects of personality, beliefs, and even flaws, all through the strategic use of color. I love the idea of playing characters off one another–thanks for inspiring some new ideas, Gabriela!

Gabriela Pereira
2 years ago

Yay! So glad you found it useful, Angela!

2 years ago

Gabriela, this is a VERY cool approach! 😀

Gabriela Pereira
2 years ago
Reply to  :Donna

Glad you enjoyed it, Donna, and I hope color theory helps you discover some interesting new tidbits about your characters.

Natalie Shannon
Natalie Shannon
2 years ago

My character named JD loves red. He wears red, all of his cars have to be red. In fact his most favorite color is the color of his Chevy Corvair. One of the first things I knew about my character is that he loved the color red.

Gabriela Pereira
2 years ago

That’s so cool, Natalie! And this affinity for the color red definitely says something about the character. Red is powerful and eye-catching color, so just from the fact that JD loves red, that totally paints a mental picture for me.