Friday, January 10, 2014

Colors in Worldbuilding - a "Dive into Worldbuilding!" Hangout report

Boy, did we have a lot of fun at the hangout this week. Either everybody was in the mood to start the year with a hangout, or colors was the perfect topic, or both, because lots of people came, and we even had folks discussing in the comments. Thanks to everyone who attended!

I began by explaining that we are accustomed to associating colors with certain kinds of values, certain kinds of emotions, and certain kinds of objects or situations within our culture. These associations come in "sets," but in fictional worldbuilding it's often valuable to try to break up these sets. Of course, as Cliff Winnig noted, the problem with using unfamiliar color values is that you can confuse people. He described a situation in which a bride wearing white was misinterpreted by Chinese viewers because white is traditionally a funereal color in China. Of course, our knowledge of other cultures' color values will depend on how much exposure we have to them through various media including TV and movies.

The author's task is to manage the associations brought into the mind of the reader as much as possible so that they can feel the understanding we create in the text.

Chandra rightly noted that readers are bringing associations with them to the text that may come from diverse microcultures. Thus, we can't assume that all readers will come to the text with the same sets of associations, anyway, and it behooves us to take the time to draw the color value associations so long as they improve the book, the character, the world, or a practice or doctrine in that context.

Colors can have religious, social, or magical significance. They can also be used for symbolism in the background of a piece. The movie Hero used colors wonderfully as a background emotional effect.

Because we'd been discussing the significance of white in Chinese culture, I spent a minute explaining its significance in Japanese culture, which is somewhat different. In Japan it means purity, and it's worn for weddings (brides wear white in both Shinto and Christian traditions, and male wedding attendees often wear white wedding ties). At New Year's, red and white are very important but they are also associated with female and male qualities. There is a TV song contest with a "red team" that is all female and a "white team" that is all male.

Glenda pointed out that when we are worldbuilding and wanting to change a color system, we shouldn't just translate our own system and switch a few of the values around, but really dig into the cultural reasoning behind specific changes.

Fashion and paint colors have a lot of complexity in their names. Where might colors have similarly complex patterns in another society?

Chandra told us that Egypt and Burma use yellow for funerals, because I had mentioned that my Varin world also uses the color yellow (moon-yellow) for funerals.

Cliff remarked that he'd enjoyed the moment in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire when Peeta and Katniss discuss their favorite colors - in particular the use of the sunset orange, which gave an additional emotional feel to the scene.

Cliff mentioned that in secondary worlds we can really manipulate colors - the colors of the environment - to interesting effect, because of the emotional associations that colors have. He has a world with a white sun and everyone has white skin and hair, so that everything looks bleached. People begin to wonder how long the trees will be green, and he uses dogwood because of its white bark and flowers.

Glenda mentioned that if we are using aliens, those aliens may be able to see other colors, including colors on the spectrum that are beyond human perception. Chandra brought up the predominance of green and red in Klingon ships and their color schemes, contrasted with the blue and white of human spaces. Apparently this has been linked to some kind of physiological trait of Klingons as well.

Of course, if aliens perceive extra colors, they would also have words for them. This isn't even exclusive to aliens, however, because even human words for colors differ across the world. Russian has something like six words for different shades of blue, and in fact, Russian speakers become better able to distinguish between these shades. Stina Leicht wrote in with a comment remarking that Irish has two words for green - one for the green found in nature, and one for other non-natural shades of green.

Color words throughout the world have been studied and compared by linguists, who note that there appear to be universal patterns based on our visual system and on how many total words for color the language has. If a human language has only two color words, those will basically mean "light" and "dark." (For example, Pirahã)  If it has three, the third word will be "red." If it has four, the fourth word will be "blue-green," and if it has five, the fourth and fifth words will be "blue" and "green." After that, there is more variation in the colors that follow.

We listed a few unusual uses of color in description. Apparently gold (the metal) was described as "red" in Beowulf. In Japan, traffic lights are "aoi," meaning blue (blue-green). While in the US, traffic lights are described as "yellow," in the UK and in Australia they are described as "amber."

Many languages associate the words "warm" with red, yellow, and orange, and "cool/cold" with blue, green, and violet. (Harry Markov confirmed that this is true in Bulgarian, for example.) So there are temperature associations as well as emotional associations. Colors can also be used for subtle, almost subconscious associations, as in the movie The Matrix when shades of the color green were used to indicate that the characters were operating inside the Matrix, and blue and white were used outside. Cliff noted that in the film Oh, Brother! Where Art Thou?, the filmmakers radically changed the background colors in the film from gorgeous green trees to sepia tones. Pitch Black portrayed a place with a bluish sun and a reddish sun, and changed the colors of the environments according to which sun was in the sky - which also changed the sense of atmosphere. A filmmaker establishes a color vocabulary that is mostly unconscious. Aidan Elliott McCrea added in the comments that Elf Quest made an interesting reversal of traditional color associations, when the nocturnal denizens of the world associated warm colors with danger and apprehension instead of cold colors, and associated the cool nighttime colors with safety and happiness.

In the same way that filmmakers establish their color "vocabulary," authors can establish their own color associations in text and teach them to readers.

Chandra mentioned the film Sin City, where the villain was yellow but all other parts of the film were in gray scale. He particularly noted the use of light for emotion in that context because of gray scale. Learning from this could be useful if you are working with characters who don't see in color.

The Wizard of Oz created a big surprise for its viewers by going from black and white to color partway through. We talked about the yellow brick road (oh, boy, my US History teacher had a great time associating various aspects of the Wizard of Oz with Gilded Age politics!) and the green glasses worn by the people in the Emerald City. Apparently there was even a version of the book that included a pair of green glasses, and if you wore them you would see more different images in the illustrations than if you didn't.

Cliff mentioned the book In Praise of Shadows by Jun'ichiro Tanizaki, a series of essays that begins with a discussion of the difference between Japanese shadowy bathrooms, and American bathrooms which are white and full of light.

To pursue the question of Chinese color associations, you can always start with the wikipedia page:

Thanks again to Harry Markov, Karen Rochnik, Reggie Lutz, Chandra al-Alkani, Anthony Sullivan, and Cliff Winnig for participating, and thank you also to everyone who watched and commented!

I hope to see you next week for our discussion of Misunderstandings.



  1. Radiolab had a great episode about color, both the way different creatures perceive it, and why descriptions of color in Homer were so unusual. REally worth a listen: