I’ve written it before and you’ve probably heard it before, the English teacher exclaiming that the colour of an inanimate object is a clever tool used by the author to convey and deepen an emotion. I mentioned this briefly in Blog 37: On The Importance of Words but I didn’t explain why the author chose blue curtains and why your English teacher was probably right in saying that they did reflect sadness.
In the end it all comes down to psychology and how we associate certain feelings with certain words. There are certain words which we dislike and involuntarily shrink away from, this is called word-aversion, and there are some words which we like and are instantly drawn to. Different experiences and circumstances may affect which words you like and which words you don’t like, for instance I have a friend who hates the word ‘blood’ and seeing ‘blood’ for that matter, yet this word does not affect me. This can be very useful when building characters in a book and it can add an emotional human quality to your characters.
Humans are emotional creatures, but it is commonly believed that ‘women write more about feelings’ and ‘men about actions’, of course this is not strictly true all the time, and thankfully there has been a general shift in societal opinions and expectations in recent years. What it means to be a woman has been questioned and reshaped, but what it means to be a man has yet to acquire the full attention of the world, though that is a topic for another time. It doesn’t matter whether or not the author subconsciously or consciously chose to write that the curtains were blue. It’s the context that matters and the fact that those words made it through the final edit and were used at a point in the story when the characters were feeling, or about to feel sad.
The easiest way to describe what I’m talking about is to imagine the word blue for a few moments, imagine everything that is blue, and then write down what that word means to you. What are the first thoughts that pop into you mind? What does the word ‘blue’ make you feel? Conversely, do the same for the colour red, and for all the colours if you wish. Since we are all different, you will have different responses from other people, but you may also notice some similarities too. ‘Calm’ and ‘serene’ are both words people often use to describe blue, yet it is also ‘cold’, ‘sad’ and ‘distant’. Why? Well it is something which even psychologists struggle to explain and the reasons behind this word-feeling association may well lie in our past and within our societies. It is not just the colour blue which is associated with certain feelings though, you only have to take a stroll down a high street during national holidays or watch adverts to see colour-feeling associations at play. In the U.K. pink and red are associated with love and you will see these colours everywhere on Valentines Day, similarly the colours red, green and gold will be seen in large quantities around Christmas.
New research suggests ‘that emotions can actually influence the way we see colour’. In one study, ‘it turned out that participants who were made to feel sad were less accurate in identifying colours on the blue-yellow axis than those who were caused to be amused or emotionally neutral’. ‘The findings therefore suggest that sadness is specifically to blame for the differences in colour perception.’ ‘According to researchers, perception along the blue-yellow axis is linked to the neurotransmitter dopamine,’ which ‘allows us to experience the feeling of pleasure.’ Of course this is just one study but if this is true then there is no reason why these findings would not work in reverse, i.e. the colours influencing emotions rather than emotions influencing our perception of colour.
And it’s not just colour, weather has been linked with moods too. Warmth and sunshine often makes people feel happy and relaxed whereas cold and rain make people feel sad and depressed, in fact there is even a recognised seasonal disorder known as SAD. It is described as a disorder ‘in which people who have normal mental health throughout most of the year exhibit depressive symptoms at the same time each year, most commonly in the winter.’
Similarly darkness and light can be used to evoke certain feelings. Darkness is a strange one but it often makes people feel uncomfortable due to not being able to see clearly, and it is often linked to not having enough information, hence phrases like ‘she had been left in the dark’. Children are often afraid of the dark too, and when people do not know something for certain or cannot see something clearly, the imagination tends to kick in and it is not always pleasant or true. Light is different as long as it isn’t prolonged, blinding light, because light illuminates and allows people to see, making it difficult for the darker sides of our imagination to manipulate our thoughts and feelings.
Take all of this and it won’t be a surprise to you that the next time you watch a movie with a ‘bad’ scene, it will most likely be dark, cold, and possibly even raining. Just think about the 1993 Jurassic Park scene when the characters are waiting in the car and the T-Rex arrives, it’s dark and it’s raining. All of this is done to make you feel that something terrible is about to happen, but it also associates terrible events with these conditions. Horror and crime thrillers will most likely use specific types of imagery and sounds which are known to make people feel uncomfortable. Particular sounds like doors creaking, children’s creepy laughter, and even the Jaws theme by John Williams have become established and familiar sounds within horror to create a sense of fear.
So why is this all important? Well as a writer you have the audience but you don’t have the cinematics, special effects and sounds that the film industry have, you don’t even have colours as most books are printed in black and white. All you have are letters rearranged in multiple ways to create words and sentences, and it is up to you which words you use and how you arrange them. The curtains may have always been blue and the weather may have always been thunderous rain, dark and cold, but if you have a depressing scene to write, then subtly adding certain words or descriptions to your writing could help to create a powerful, memorable story.
The next time you read a book think about what a certain paragraph or chapter is trying to make you feel and decide whether the author has done a good job or not and why you think that. Of course not everyone is going to agree and this is all subjective, one person’s brilliant book is another person’s disaster, but it should help you to examine the details and the placement of those details, both of which are important. The other place I would turn to if you’re interested in details and emotions but don’t want to read a book, is Studio Ghibli, Hayao Miyazaki and others are masters at people-watching and they render these details perfectly in their animated movies.