You’ve all seen the meme that slams English teachers and literary analysis.
Student: The green drapes symbolize….blah blah blah.
Writer: I just wanted green drapes.
Not every descriptor an author uses is symbolic. Often color only provides imagery—giving color to the scene, if you will.
But sometimes color is important and relevant. Color can convey emotion, characterization, and cultural/religious/political significance that provides nuance, subtest, and emotions that we respond to on an instinctive and visceral level.
Color is linked to a spectrum of emotions, and is fraught with ambiguity and duality, making it a vibrant way to:
2. reveal character
3. provide contextual depth
4. provide irony
Warm colors like yellow, red, and orange are considered stimulating.
Cool colors like blue, indigo, violet are soothing and peaceful.
Remember, Western and Eastern color symbolism is different.
- passion and lust
- anger and aggression
- war and revolution
- fire and flame
- gold (the metal )
- enlightenment and wisdom
- flowers and warmth
- envy and treachery
- luxury and splendor
- a renunciation of earthly pleasures—think Buddhist monks garb
- sky and infinity
- the divine—the Egyptian god Amun and Hindu gods, Rama, Shive, and Krishna are blue
- tranquility and reflection
- sexual proclivities. Example, blue movies
- socio-economic status—from blue-collar to blue blood
- In ancient Egypt, blue was the color of truth.
- The Virgin Mary’s blue robe signifies her purity
- Indigo is the color of the Third Eye of spiritual knowing and intuition
- spring and new life
- fertility and nature
- youth and inexperience
- hope and joy
- envy and jealousy and decay
- recently connected with safeguarding our planet’s resources promoted by the Green Movement
- royalty and wealth
- power—ancient Roman senators were identified by the purple stripe on their togas
- religion—Catholic clergy don purple vestments during Advent and Lent
- baby girls
- gay pride
- despair and death and mourning
- anonymity or inconspicuousness or namelessness
- old age
- uncertainty and unreliability and risk
- purity and innocence
- In China, Japan, and India, white is associated with death and mourning.
- surrender and peace
How can you use color to strengthen plot, characterization, and conflict?
Does your character wear a red dress? What shade of red? Red—beyond the western symbolism of lust, power, and anger—doesn’t really tell a reader all that much—which is fine if that’s your intent.
But if you do want to add a symbolic punch here’s a few examples.
- A rose-colored dress conveys ladylikeness or love
- A cherry-red dress is suggestive of sexual prowess or desire, or…ahem…a woman wishing to be deflowered
- An apple-red dress suggests something forbidden or idyllic
- A blood-red dress…well, when you mix two symbolic words that can be a punch in the symbolic face!
- A woman with ruby lips is sultry and/or high maintenance
- A woman with candy-apple lips sounds like a damn good fun time
Consider how a fabric described as bone evokes a much different emotion than one described as snow.
Consider the following before using color symbolism
- Genre: Sweet romance novels might use more romantic colors. For example, caramel—sweet and gooey, like love—instead of light brown. Historical fiction authors need to be mindful of using colors that didn’t exist. A lipstick-red dress won’t work if there was no lipstick back then. You’re better off using a descriptor like ruby, pomegranate, beet—colors aligned with the historical setting.
- Revealing character: Is your character a murderer? They might see their world in shades of viscera. A gardener or florist may see their world in the colors of blooms and flora. A chef or a woman on a diet might describe the world in shades of food.
- Jewel tones convey preciousness, worth, royalty, or rarity.
- There are city colors, desert colors, forest, and harvest colors. There are youthful and ‘old’ colors, fun colors, mysterious colors, clean colors, and dirty colors, evil and good colors.
So before writing the green drapes pause to consider why YOU wrote that color.
I love questions! Leave a comment here, tweet me at @AutumnBardot ( where you’ll get the quickest response), or hit me up on Goodreads! I’ve been teaching college-level literary analysis for 14 years, and enjoy helping new writers understand and incorporate all the tricks and techniques of the trade.