Tuesday, February 05, 2013

Posted by Laurel Garver on Tuesday, February 05, 2013 37 comments
I'm delighted to have special guest Jessica Bell here to talk about how she develops and uses colors symbolically in her work. I love this of this sort of leitmotif in fiction, especially after doing a grad school paper on color motifs in Willa Cather's fiction.

USING COLOUR TO ACCENTUATE THEME
by Jessica Bell

I like to use the symbolism of colour to strengthen a common theme(s) I want to explore in my writing. I am fascinated by symbolic references in the books I read too (even if they do not have anything to do with colour), and believe they bring a richness and depth to what we read, even if it is not immediately evident to us. So let me tell you a little bit about how I utilize the combination of colour and theme in my work.

For THE BOOK it was GREEN.
Green symbolizes self-respect, well-being,  learning and harmony. It suggests safety and endurance, lack of experience, growth and hope. THE BOOK is about a little girl named Bonnie who is thought to have learning difficulties, but really is quite the genius. Her insights into the adult world are astounding, as she tries to "make logic" of the behaviour of her mother, father and step father regarding a journal ("the book") that is turning their family upside down. Her constant attraction to the colour green was a way for me to explore her subconscious need for security, stability and her desire to learn.

Some examples of the way it is used:
You saw Father Christmas at the mall and sat on his lap. He asked you what you wanted for Christmas and you said you wanted green lebküchen! (lebküchen are a German buscuit)

Dr Wright: Mummy tells me you that you miss Daddy. Do you want to talk about it?
Bonnie: [scribbles on paper with green crayon]
...
Dr Wright: How come you don’t like any of the other colours, Bonnie?
Bonnie: Daddy said green is a colour of being safe.

Dr Wright: Do you want to be a doctor when you grow up?
Bonnie: No, I want to give medicine from a shop with a green cross.

Bonnie: [shifts in seat, pushes hair from forehead] Well, my Ted isn’t very smart because I tolded him to fix it so all the greens could be on the same side and he sat with me on the flying carpet, and I made us go up in the air, so there could be magic around us, so he could fix it for all the greens to be on the same side.

And you are a gift no man could ever buy. Two beautiful ladies, and two shining souls, through one set of radiant green eyes.

“Now, if you have a little patience, my dear, I can show you how to make some green. Do you have a little patience?” I nod. But I can’t tell if this is a Daddy type question or a my Ted type question. But it doesn’t matter. If Mrs Haydon can make me some green, then I can paint some trees.

For STRING BRIDGE it was BLUE.
Blue is associated with freedom, strength and new beginnings, optimism and better opportunities,  loyalty and faith, power and protection. No colour is better fitting for this story about a woman named Melody who has let her passion for music die for the sake of her family, but tries to bring it back into her life without it affecting those she loves. In String Bridge, blue things are always deteriorating, symbolizing the fact that Melody feels helpless, and that it's going to be struggle to "start again".

Some examples of the way it was used:
I stare at my bag’s wrinkly, flaking, blue-vinyl exterior. It looks how I feel. Old. Poorly constructed. Depressed. Cheap.

“Oh, I don’t know,” I say, scrubbing the stain from the only decent dress I own. Blue dye comes off on the sponge.

Her fingers rose through her inward sigh, hovered above the keys, searched them for the correct notes like Braille. She began to play Joni Mitchell’s  “Blue.”

I steal one of Alex’s Camels and grab a box of matches. Sit on the floor in the living room, up against the wall. I strike a match, let it burn half way down, watching the blue base of the flame crawl along the stick as if lured by oil—kerosene candy.

I have another novel that is not yet published, called BITTER LIKE ORANGE PEEL, where I use the colour and flavour of orange to symbolize the bitterness, distrust and sexual desire my protagonists feel. Again, orange crops up in all sorts of shapes and forms such as rotting oranges falling from a tree, orange-flavoured lip gloss, an orange vinyl couch, an orange mohair sweater, photos tinged orange over time, and an orange scrub cap ...

And my lastest work-in-progress, WHITE LADY, (which stands for the drug speed) I have already shown signs of utilizing the colour white to represent tainted purity and cold, sterile environments.

As you can see, there is quite a lot you can play around with in the colour department. If you check out this link, perhaps the meanings of different colours might inspire you too.

Do you like to use symbolism in your writing? Give me an example. Do you notice symbolism used in the books you read?

Want to connect with Jessica Bell? Learn more at the following links:


37 comments:

  1. Definitely. In my current work, I'm making each character a different color, both physically and symbolically. I'm sure that link will come in handy. Thanks for sharing!

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    1. What a fascinating way to weave in symbolism. Thanks for coming by!

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  2. I haven't read The Book yet, but the color symbolism was powerful in String Bridge and Bitter Like Orange Peel.

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    1. It's on my TBR, too. I do remember blue coming up a lot in String Bridge, as you said. You're one of the lucky ones to see Bitter before the rest of us.

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  3. Thanks so much for having me today, Laurel. :-) And thanks for dropping by, guys!

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    1. Thanks for the thought-provoking post. Great stuff here. Sounds like you may have an entire crayon box as you continue developing your ouevre. :-)

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  4. Great post--I love the use of color as metaphor and symbol. I haven't read any of Ms. Bell's books, but I am definitely intrigued. They'll go on my TBR list.

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    1. It is a cool concept. I definitely have a big love of symbolism (you were one of the first readers to comment on that in a review).

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  5. I think there is a lot more of it in literary fiction than the stuff I write, but I do find certain colors evoke certain feelings. I don't use them thematically, but at a scene level I occasionally do. Though more often it seems color is tied to humor for me. Then again, that is sort of me.

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    1. I've definitely seen colors used to evoke certain emotions in fairly commercial work. Some genre writers use symbolism too, there to be found and enjoyed for readers attuned to it.

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    2. I'm pretty sure symbolism is utilized in work that you least expect it in. Funny thing about it is that most of the time it's not something apparent. It's there for geeks like us who like to tear things apart and analyse them to death. Haha :-)

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  6. I never thought to use color as a theme in a story. Loved your examples, Jessica, which really show how to do it. I'm terrible at weaving in symbolism into my stories. Some people like you can do it so well. Thanks for sharing the tips.

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    1. I can't speak for Jessica, but for me, studying poetry helped attune me to the power of symbol and how to incorporate it in writing.

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  7. Loved this! I used color like that in The Breakaway, but I'm not sure anybody will ever pick up on it, lol. I got the idea from The Awakening by Kate Chopin.

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    1. One way to make sure they do is to put out a discussion guide and include a question about the topic. :-) I've seen others do that, when they incorporated a subtle theme and didn't want to be too heavy handed in the text itself.

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    2. Laurel, I've got a discussion guide that mentions it, yep! It's just not printed in the book, so unless people go looking for it, they won't ever see it, lol. :)

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  8. Hi Laurel and Jess - great examples you've given us - I certainly feel the mists of grey cold, the grey-green of lichen and dampness ... that slate grey for a snowy sky ... The Book I have yet to buy ... I've a couple of Jess' here to read first ... Cheers Hilary

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    1. Thanks for stopping by, Hilary. The examples definitely make the concept concrete for us.

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  9. Hello. What an interesting post! I like novels that pay attention to the senses and I am very aware of colour in my own writing. I love art, so enjoy picturing scenes. I love insights into how movies use colour - saw a great documentary on Mary Poppins about the use of the colour red - it might even be the commentary on the DVD. Well worth finding!

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    1. Certainly other senses could supply a similar theme--a repeated type of sound, taste or texture could function symbolically. Interesting to think about!

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    2. Mary Poppins! Oh I think I'm going to have to seek that one out! Thanks Jayne!

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  10. For those who’ve never read it colour was used extensively in The Great Gatsby. There’s a decent article on the subject here. In my first novel I used birds. You can see a number of examples of the symbolism of birds here. In my last novel it was pairs; the book is full of them.


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    1. Great example. I think it was studying Fitzgerald's use of color that got me attuned and seeking it in Cather's work. I'm sure there are others who also build a symbol network around color.

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    2. I'm sure I knew that since I studied it at uni, but it seems it's the first I'm hearing it ... must have been at home with a hangover that day :-)

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  11. I know what you mean here and I love symbolism and motifs in books too! In my first book it was the colour green as well, which was attached to a lot of important and special things in my main character's life.

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    1. Thanks for coming by, Sangu. Color motifs can be so powerful. It's always cool to discover them in books.

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    2. Green and blue I think are colours many of us are drawn to. There' so much you can do with them!

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  12. I do use symbolism. I've always wondered how many readers see the symbolism and understand it or if they see it and just get a sense of something.

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    1. That's a great question, Holly. I've often wondered the same thing. Readers will notice symbolism when it's heavy handed, but in a negative way. I used repeated allusions to the Jonah story in my novel, and used discussion questions in the back of the book to draw attention to that symbolism.

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    2. It is a great question. I think initially it's just a sense. But I'm sure there are some people like us who pick up on specifics too.

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  13. Wonderful post. I've read Jessica's books (and loved them) but was so mesmerized by the writing, I failed to notice the recurrence of the same color throughout the story. (Shame on me.)

    I do use color in my book, too. Red. Just a splash of red against shades of Payne's gray. I assigned my own meaning to it, but I was mostly intrigued with the repetitive images of stark contrast.

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    1. Great books have layers that you might not pick up until the second or third reading. That's a good thing, I think. When a writer whacks you over the head with their symbols, it can be annoying to read.

      It's cool to develop your own system of symbols that mean something specific in your work. I'd discovered the same thing about Willa Cather while researching that paper I mentioned in my introduction to Jessica's post.

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    2. Susan, I don't care that you didn't notice any symbols! You enjoyed the books and that's the MAIN thing. PS: Thank you for your lovely review about THE BOOK on Amazon!

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  14. What a lovely idea! I hadn't thought of it before. Hard enough to decide on/find out characters' eye colours!
    But I'm going to think about this for the current story...

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