Depictions of Color in Fiction

Writing with a Crow’s Eye

Recently, I saw online images comparing how the human eye sees the color of a crow’s feathers with how crows see them. To our human eyes, crows appear very black, indeed completely black. To the crows’ enhanced vision, their flock appears swathed in brilliant shades of color that are invisible to the human eye. Crows’ superb vision also allows them to detect tiny colorful insects and berries.

Thinking about differences in how color might be perceived, made me think about how I am using color in my writing. Am I using various hues in a thoughtful way or simply sticking in “blue” or “black”? Am I helping my readers “see” the scene or am I neglecting to stimulate their imagination?  In other words, am I writing with a human eye or with a crow’s eye? Consequently, I decided to focus more on how I am using color to enhance description in my writing, but l am aware that to do so requires an understanding of color and the symbolism surrounding color.

Color Symbolism in Buddhism

Every year I donate to the Campaign for Tibet, which explains the collection of small prayer flags hanging over my desk. The colors of Buddhist prayer flags are blue, white, red, green and yellow, each of which has meaning. Blue refers to purity but also references the dome of the sky above us. Thus, when one positions the flags, blue should be on top. White denotes longevity but also suggests the air surrounding us or the wind blowing around us, thus it is second in line. Red stands for the life force with its fires that warm us physically or those that consume us emotionally, thus red sits in the middle. Red also represents the sacred, so monks’ robes are a reddish color. The color green symbolizes movement and the ever-flowing waters in our rivers, lakes, and oceans, while yellow stands for humility and our dependence on Mother Earth. Thus, if I were to write a story about Buddha, I would need to integrate these specific colors.

The Colors of the Chakras in Yoga

When I started doing yoga, originally a Vedic practice, I learned that in Eastern philosophy, the colors of the chakras—the energy centers of the body—correspond to the colors of the rainbow. The colors of the rainbow are those of the light spectrum visible to the human eye when light shines through a prism. It is difficult to imagine the body as a prism, but in yoga, the chakras begin at the base of the spine and end at the top of the head. The root chakra at the base of the spine is red. The sacral chakra which is slightly higher is orange. The solar plexus chakra is yellow. What surprised me most was that the heart chakra is a deep emerald green, so love is associated with green unlike in Anglo-European culture where green stands for jealousy. I was also intrigued to learn that the heart has parallel chakras. The higher heart chakra—the thymus chakra—lies to the right of the heart and radiates pink energy. In European tradition, red is associated with the heart and love, consequently, we share red hearts on Saint Valentine’s Day. The throat chakra is blue. The third eye chakra is indigo and the seventh chakra, the crown chakra radiates violet energy. If I were to write about India, the colors of the rainbow would be essential. Perhaps crows in India can see an even more colorful rainbow than any I have seen here in Colorado!

Colors in the Western Christian Tradition

In my experience, color as a symbol is not commonplace in American culture—except for the red, white, and blue of the American flag, which stands for valor, innocence, and justice. Being American, when I think of religious colors, I immediately think of the Puritans who wore black or navy blue and white, as do priests, ministers, and nuns of certain orders. In the Catholic liturgy, priests, on a daily basis, wear a black robe with a white collar, but they wear a variety of colors—red, red, white, black, or purple—for ceremonial functions.

Christian symbology is common in paintings for example, as well as in literature and in the visual media. In paintings, Christ is almost always depicted in a white robe meaning purity, although sometimes he wears a red shawl to symbolize martyrdom. His mother, Mary, is often painted in blue, representing the heavens and white for innocence, although there are also paintings of her wearing blue and red or green and gold.  If I were to write about religion in the United States, I would need to focus on the particular group. For example, the adult Amish wear dark shades of blue, brown, grey, and black.

Is Colorless Prose Possible?

As I reflected on possible uses of color in fiction, I began to wonder if colorless fiction is possible. I immediately thought of Waiting for Godot, which is a play rather than a novella. I decided to reread it and examine the use or lack of color in the text. In its 110 pages, reference is made to black and white five times each; to the colors green, yellow, brown, redheaded, and silver once each; and to blue and red twice each. While I can’t say Waiting for Godot is completely colorless, it is a monochrome script spoken by characters stumbling around the stage overwhelmed by the impending darkness of night.

Color for Good or for Bad?

Color as a symbol of character has always fascinated me. Viewers all know the good guy wears a white hat while the bad guy wears a black one. The symbolism is so strong and so widely acknowledged, that it is difficult to reverse. I suppose Batman is a good guy despite his scary black outfit, but perhaps it works because bats truly are black and are not particularly associated with evil, but rather with the night.

However, it is important to address the societal malfeasance that occurs if this symbology is applied to race or more accurately to human skin tones. In fact, the original Lone Ranger was a Black American named Bass Reeves. Just imagine how the American imagination and possibly current reality might have been different if the Lone Ranger had been depicted as a Black American.

As a writer, my goal is to avoid stereotypes and to write without reinforcing cruel associations that damage large populations. I want to write with a crow’s eye—not using color as a label but as a device to enhance shades of character, scene, dialog, and meaning to help readers experience the reality of my imagination.

Writing Goals for 2020

This year my writing goals are to:

1. Continue to refine my first two novels, working on two chapters of each per month with the goal of submitting them for review:

In January, I managed to rework nine chapters in my first novel. Since I didn’t reach my goal of finishing this first edit by the end of December 2019, I really wanted to reach it by January 31, 2020. However, again life intervened. I still have five chapters to move through my first edit. My second novel has been an orphan since December.

On the other hand, I have concentrated this past month on rewriting one of my short stories. Thanks to the expert editing a writer friend applied to my draft, I think I have accomplished a successful rewrite. I plan to submit this short story to a writing contest this month.

2. Complete a draft of my third novel by December 30, 2020 by participating in the RMFW NovelRama:

RMFW’s first NovelRama of the year takes place March 20-23, 2020. Participating last year was fun and productive for me, so I am looking forward to the challenge this year of writing 6250 words per day for a total of 25,000 words. I plan to draft the chapters of my third novel.

3. Document my writing progress through my blog to be posted on the seventh day of each month, writing 12 blogs in 2020:

Today is February 7, 2020, I am posting my second blog of 2020. Writing my blog has revealed to me into how writers around the world are looking for guidance and inspiration. As of this month, writers from 28 different countries have read my blog. I wish all my readers the best of progress with their own writing in 2020!

4. Continue to develop a network of kindred spirits in the world of writing and publishing:

In January I attended a social event at the Denver Woman’s Press Club. Clarissa Pinkola Estés was present because she is judging DWPC’s 2020 Unknown Writers fiction contest this spring. Dr. Estés spoke about the number of rejections she received when she was submitting Women Who Run with the Wolves to publishers. Her book eventually ended up on the New York Times Best Seller list for more than three years.

On January 5, the Boulder Writers Alliance writers’ group discussed the architecture of On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, by Ocean Vuong. In an interview with Vuong at The Strand in New York City, he discussed an Asian stylistic form that he used in the book. It is called kishōtenketsu. I am going to try out that format in a short story.

In January, I presented a Boulder Writers Alliance workshop on Achieving Your Goals. To prepare, I reread goals that I have set in the past. Ten years ago, I wrote that I wanted to “write to publish and publish to sell.” Interestingly, this is the name of the BWA workshop series, hosted by Rick Killian, president of BWA, in which I was presenting my workshop.

 

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