Monday, March 14, 2011

Color Symbolism in your Writing

“Are you yeller?”

Bet from those three words you could tell me not only the connotation of ‘yeller’ but the genre in which this phrase would most likely be found. ‘Yeller”, or yellow, means a coward and the genre would be a western.

We imbue colors with different meanings. If you are green with envy, well, you desire what somebody else has. True blue, meaning loyal, is quite different from feeling blue, meaning sad. We associate red with passion and sin. That’s why Hester Prynne’s letter was scarlet and not purple, yellow or green. Black is evil and its opposite, white, is pure. In westerns, you can always tell the good guys from the bad by the color of their hats.

Sadly, many of the phrases associated with colors are clichés, and a no-no in our work. So as writers we must craft innovative prose to incorporate color symbolism into our creations.

Consider the following sentence:

In the light of the pale, wintry moon, her alabaster throat beckoned.

Pale, wintry, and alabaster are cold words and yet her throat beckons. Why? Because the POV character is a vampire and what he craves is the blood beneath her skin. Juxtaposing the cold words with the warmer word, beckoned, creates conflict and conflict, as we know, is good.

Another example, just for fun:

We expect a femme fatale to wear fire-engine red lipstick and an ingénue to choose sweetheart pink. But what if it’s the siren wearing the sweetheart pink lipstick? What does that mean? Is she trying to cover up her true colors? Aha!


  1. Welcome to the HWH blog, Magda!
    I hadn't thought about using color words to enhance tension, but duh! you are absolutely right. I need to pay more attention to this.

  2. Welcome to HWH, Magda!
    Colour symbolism is fascinating. Not just the differences in different cultures (e.g. red for brides in Asian countries and red for mournng in South Africa) but also within the same culture - red can be a symbol of danger but is also associated with love and passion e.g. red roses and Valentine's Day.

  3. Thanks, Ana! I'm always looking to find new ways to include tension and conflict into my work. As the great Donald Maass said, you must include tension on every page.

  4. Hi Magda,

    Welcome to HWH.

    BTW, great examples of colour symbolism!


  5. Great post, Magda. And good point, we want to avoid those cliches, but still add the sparkle and color to our writing.

    Love the vampire example...I'm a vampire girl!