One of my earliest post on this blog was about how to effectively use connotation in writing. I am happy my readers still find it useful.
However, I only touched on part of the concept. Anything can have varying connotation. Clothing, gestures, architecture, and even different animals have certain interpretations in the right context…
This post will focus on the application of color connotation in shaping your narratives.
Color brings life to the story. The right colors can set the mood and push the plot in the right direction. The shades and hues of the setting build tension… or relieve tension.
The sights and sounds of the picture have to match the expectations of the audience.
Remember the age old wisdom: show don’t tell.
Here’s how to paint the scene in storytelling with color:
The Psychology of Color
Music and color play a huge part in creating a good horror film. If they don’t match the theme, it’s more a comedy. You cannot help but chuckle listening to Spongebob music over Nazi zombies. You should have a consistent theme that matches your color descriptions.
Our minds automatically filter upbeat and happy sound and colors as “good”. While, on the other hand, we interpret slow, deep sounds with dark shades as “bad”. Why does the brain jump to conclusions? Maybe it’s part biological. Our ancestors knew predators hide in shadows, and thus our instincts tell us to avoid them.
Then, the danger of colors is partly a learned behavior. You might have heard of Jack the Ripper in school. The unsolved murders did occur in dark alleyways. So it’s possible right?
Collective memories like those create associations in our society. Some are healthy. Others foster prejudice. It’s important to understand the psychology of color and its effect on the readers.
Just like any adjectives, the connotations of colors change the interpretation of the scene.
Masculine vs. Feminine Colors
The culture says blue is for boys and pink is for girls. Why? It’s mostly a marketing scheme. Nevertheless, it’s ingrained in our world that colors should match our sex.
Assigned colors represent traditionalism. Rejecting “girly girl” color blends could show the chick is a free thinking rebel. Metros and other androgyny trends have a certain appearances that have characterized their identity throughout the decades… Overall, fashion is kinda weird, but people find experimenting with colors and shapes liberating.
If pink is feminine and blue is masculine, perhaps purple connotes a melting of the opposing sides, like a ying yang symbol.
Breaking the mold is empowering. How will you use color connotation to affirm or reject gender norms in your characters?
Historical Connotations of Colors
Colors could have parallels to a certain historic event or movement.
Communism loves the color red. It’s no coincidence in the Butter Battle Book that Yooks wear blue and Zook red.
Colors of national flags are full of symbolic colors, many with religious and environmental connotations.
Think also of crests of heraldry. The white and red represented the two opposing sides in the War of the Roses. During the early modern era, Protestants had orange to represent themselves after their protector King William III, originally ruler of a small town called Orange.
Purple has a royal connotation. The robes of emperors and kings would have expensive lavender dyes woven throughout.
During the Second World War, the Nazi stormtroopers were known the “Brownshirts”. The armies of the American Civil War had the blue and brown uniforms.
Since the Roman times, a surrendering armies have waved the white flag.
Then, in at least American politics, red and blue representing the two major political parties. In elections, “red states” are Republican, while “blue states” are Democratic. Purple on political maps shows a mixed or undetermined outcome, what they call a swing state like Florida.
Colors have been symbolic in various revolutions, such as the people’s Yellow Revolution in the Philippines.
I could name off tons of other examples, but you get the idea. Colors can, in the right context, connotate ideas of historic or religious value. Your audience will interpret the spread of colors in a story according to their upbringing and culture.
Colors can also have strong connotation with certain brands.
7 Colors Connotation Meanings
Here’s a brief overview of commonly held ideas associated with colors:
(1) – White
White shows purity and innocence.
Worshippers from many different faiths wear white clothing during their services and rituals. Traditionally, here in the west, brides wear white dresses in weddings as a sign of faithfulness and virginity. However, in eastern culture mourners wear white gowns at funerals to show reverence.
English is full of idioms involving white, such as a white knight, white list, whitewash, etc…
Pure white is not common in branding because it’s hard to read the information and the physical ad will show dirt more than other colors. However, most companies will have a black and white version of their main logo. Color is expensive.
Wikipedia has a mostly white primary design.
(2) – Black
Black connotes mystery, evil, death, or authority.
The color black absorbs all light and other colors of the spectrum. Sounds ominous, right? The unknown is usually hidden in dark shadows. White light reveals things, but blackness conceals.
Authoritarian regimes and the occult have used black color to instill dominance and uniformity.
It’s not always the case that the villains wear black. Sometimes a writer may choose to have the hero dress in black to connotate their rebellion or hardened personality, like Batman.
Something dark and hidden would actually be more desirable to the average person. We want the elusive and rare more than the mundane.
You might have heard idioms like blackmail, black sheep, or blackout.
I notice black in many luxury brands, such as Apple, Nike, and Puma.
(3) – Red
Red is strong color that can mean anger, love, sexuality, and assertion.
The color has powerful emotions that could be either very positive or negative. Red means stop in traffic and flashing red indicates an emergency. If your teacher gives back your essay covered in red, you need a lot of edits. On the other hand, red is the theme of Valentine’s Day with its many flowers and hearts.
If you’re “in the red” you’ve fallen in debt. Then a “red carpet” event is a formal occasion. If your character is “seeing red”, he’s enraged.
Probably due to its connotation with desire, red is used in a lot of food brands, like Pizza Hut, Arby’s, and Coca-Cola.
(4) – Blue
Blue is a very calming hue that shows creativity, intelligence, and trust.
Like the endless waves of the ocean, studies have shown blue to relax and comfort us. If you have an interview or important meeting, I’d say a blue tie is the best choice.
Blue might be the most divine color. The first humans looked up and saw the sky as the home of the gods. They also spiritualized the artistic use of lapis lazuli stones. Then, in 431 AD, the Catholic Church made blue robes the official color for Mary.
The dyes used to create blue have always been expensive, making blue clothing a color of the upper class.
Blue is also a term for sadness. I always feel blue going back to work on Mondays.
Many technology companies and programs use a blue design. Windows, Facebook, Skype, and Linkedin are digital examples.
(5) – Purple
Purple usually is associated with youth, creativity, and royalty.
The color rarely appears in nature, but you might see it in lightning, quartz, and some flowers. To create purple dyes, the Romans had to extract the pigment from shellfish. The expensive process meant only the rich and powerful could wear a purple toga.
In modern times, we can see purple wavelengths in x-rays and other scans. Thus, we can connect purple with energy and the supernatural.
Purple is often used in creative products or items aimed at children. Twitch and Discord are both gaming programs with purple designs. Wonka’s candy and the search engine Yahoo also has purple logos.
(6) – Green
Green symbolizes nature and health.
Life in nature is green and often incompases the cycle of regeneration and rebirth. Green is very positive and show approval and growth, as in having the “green light”. We also associate green with money, after the American dollar.
In Ireland, green is the symbol of Catholicism and particularly St. Patrick. The ancient Chinese saw jade stones precious as icons of nourishment. Green is also the color of the prophet Muhammad and most Muslim countries include a dominant green in their flags.
As a negative, green can show greed and envy.
Someone having a “green thumb” means they especially care for nature. Green products are from recycled material. You could describe someone new to a job or skill as green in experience.
Many health and environmentally conscious companies use green designs, like Starbucks, BP, and Iam’s.
(7) – Yellow
Yellow indicates wealth and happiness.
Gold is yellow. You might remember the myth of King Midas.
Smiley faces are usually yellow! Thus, it’s usually seen as a childish color along with purple.
Because the color is easily visible, school busses, taxis, and road signs are usually bright yellow.
On a negative note, yellow can mean a warning, like in sports. Yellow street lights means it will soon turn red.
Calling someone a “yellow jack” means they are a coward. Yellow journalism is shameful reporting that usually stretches the truth (like modern day “fake news”)
Most people would be turned off by pure yellow as it’s too overwhelming. It blends well with red, green, or black. McDonald’s famous has their yellow arches with the red background, reminiscent of their delicious fries and ketchup. Subway, UPS, and Best Buy also use a yellow mix.
Hope you found this article on color connotations useful! Find creative way to incorporate symbols in your writing to add some depth to it. You don’t need to overanalyze though. Sometimes, blue just means blue.
What’s your favorite color? What’s it mean to you personally?
If you need any help adding color to your writing, feel free to contact me.