Colors, Culture and Writing

Colors may seem like a small thing. But, when you think about the cultural implications or meanings behind color, you begin to realize the significance of something that we often take for granted. Colors matter. Colors have meaning. Colors can change perceptions.

Here’s an easy example. When you think of wedding colors, what do you typically think of? For many of us in the western hemisphere, you may think of the bride wearing white (or given a more modern twist, some version of white: ivory, blush or champagne). But, if you jump to different locations around the globe, you’ll see that different cultures ascribe meaning to different colors for weddings. I did some quick internet scouring and came across the following information about wedding colors in different places.

In China, red, yellow and green are the primary colors for weddings. In Japan, it’s red and white primarily. In Macedonia, brides wear red, white and gold. In Pakistan, women wear red, pink and purple. To read more about wedding customs and colors around the world, check out this article I found from Business Insider.

Okay, so what’s the writing implication here? As storytellers, world builders and students of culture and society, writers should be aware of colors. We should be thinking about what colors matter to the society in which our characters live as it helps us develop a strong and believable world.

As you know, I’m currently between projects until after my wedding this fall. But, that doesn’t mean I’m thinking about my next book. My planned project for 2020 is my novel about Sappho (so I’m switching from Fantasy back to historical fiction). When it comes to color and Ancient Greece, there are two significant points I’ve learned over the years. First, the color purple is highly regarded and regal (just like many other cultures). It was precious, expensive and coveted. Second, the Ancient Greeks didn’t recognize the color blue. I learned this back in college while working on my minor in Classics. The academic theory about this involves the idea that there was no blue dye. Since blue wasn’t a color they could create, it wasn’t one they had a name for or really recognized.

You may be thinking, but the sky was blue then like it is now! And the ocean! And, you’re right, they are on most days. My reading has suggested that they didn’t describe things as blue because there was no blue in their minds. But, they described it in different ways. A particularly common way for Sappho to describe the sea is “the wine-dark sea.” Of course, this is how the scholars have translated it and I don’t read Ancient Greek, so I am unable to look at the origin text and come up with my own translation (an important part of literary studies). The phrase “wine-dark sea” makes me think of the ocean at sunset when it gets that deep purple color. Or, when the sunlight sparkles on the surface on a somewhat cloudy day, the sea is dark like wine in glass (they would have had clay dishes of course) with those hints or prisms of shimmer.

When I write my Sappho novel, I plan to never use the word or color blue in an effort to be true to the culture and experience of my characters and the world I am borrowing for my story. This will be difficult. But, with more research about the culture and period, I think it is doable. My main question is, what did they do with people who had blue eyes? I suppose I wonder this because I have blue eyes. Blue eyes were likely a rarity given the heritage of the Greek people. But, they may have encountered people with blue eyes in their travels. I expect, they found other ways to describe blue eyes, just like the sea.

The use of color (or the absence of it) in your writing is a great way to make a statement, bring your readers into your story, and develop a robust and believable world. Taking the time in your research phase to understand colors and their cultural implications and then applying those learning to your story will serve you well on your writing journey.

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