Tough Guide to Fantasy Clichés: Colour-Coding Characters

fairytale castle spain segoviaLast week, I referenced the wonderful Diana Wynne Jones’s guide to naming characters and we learned the mystery of apostrophes.  It was exciting.  Today, I would like to examine her guide to colour-coding characters (I’m spelling it the Brit way because otherwise I will go crazy).

When we create a character, we have to choose not just a name, but an appearance.  Hair and eyes… that first outfit and the inevitable impression it will make… So what’s the secret?  Here’s what Jones has to say:

Colour Coding is very important in Fantasyland.  Always pay close attention to the colour of the clothing, hair, and eyes of anyone you meet.  It will tell you a great deal.  Complexion is also important: in many cases it is coded too.

1. Clothing. Black garments normally mean Evil, but in rare cases can mean sobriety, in which case a white ruffled collar will be added to the ensemble.  Grey or red clothing means that the person is neutral but tending to Evil in most cases.  Any other colour is Good, unless too many bright colours are worn at once, in which instance the person will be unreliable. Drab colour means the person will take little part in the action, unless the drab is also torn or disreputable, when the person will be a loveable rogue.

2. Hair.  Black hair is Evil, particularly if combined with a corpse-white complexion.  Red hair always entails magical Powers, even if these are only latent.  Brown hair has to be viewed in combination with eyes, whose colours are the real giveaway (see below), but generally implies niceness.  Fair hair, especially if it is silver-blond, always means goodness.

3. Eyes.Black eyes are invariably Evil; brown eyes mean boldness and humour, but not necessarily goodness; green eyes always entail Talent, usually for Magic but sometimes for Music; hazel eyes are rare and seem generally to imply niceness; grey eyes mean Power or healing abilities and will be reassuring unless they look silver (silver-eyed people are likely to enchant or hypnotize you for their own ends, although they are not always Evil); white eyes, usually blind ones, are for wisdom (never ignore anything a white-eyed person says); blue eyes are always Good, the bluer the more Good present; and then there are violet eyes and golden eyes.  People with violet eyes are often of Royal birth and, if not, always live uncomfortably interesting lives.  People with golden eyes just live uncomfortably interesting lives, and most of them are rather fey in the bargain.  Both these types should be avoided by anyone who only wants a quiet life.  Luckily it seldom occurs to those with undesirable eye colours to disguise them by Illusion, and they can generally be detected very readily.  Red eyes can never be disguised.  They are Evil and surprisingly common.

4. Complexion. Corpse-white is Evil, and it grades from there.  Pink-faced folk are usually midway and pathetic.  The best face-colour is brown, preferably tanned, but it can be inborn.  Other colours such as black, blue, mauve, and yellow barely exist.

So, if your acquaintance is wearing green and is blue eyed and brown faced, she/he will be OK. Caution: Do not apply these standards to our own world.  You are very likely to be disappointed.

In my opinion, most authors have managed to avoid conforming too readily to the colouring stereotypes for characters, but some of these are painfully familiar.  Black and red eyes for the most evil of evil villains?  Blond and blue eyed heroes?  We have definitely seen them. No one thinks of using red eyes for a hero (I dare you to try it!). I read a series of books with a red haired, purple eyed heroine (anyone care to guess what I’m talking about?) and she had magical abilities and lived an uncomfortably interesting life.  Coincidence?

The problem, I think, is largely temptation.  We are Authors, the creators of our worlds, and we have a chance to create characters of whom we will grow ever so fond and we want to be able to picture them in our minds.  We want them to look like who they are to us.  We want them to be extraordinary and memorable in some way, too, so our readers can see them and remember them and love them as well.  Which is why we might see a disturbing number of silver-haired, violet eyed heroines wafting about in stories.  Because why not?  We can!

Wore a red coat that day.  Must have been feeling neutral-evil-ish.
Wore a red coat that day. Must have been feeling neutral-evil-ish.

I think there are inborn stereotypes here, but that can often work to a writer’s advantage.  For instance, the blond haired, blue eyed villain can be very unnerving because our inborn expectations for that colour combination is Goodness, but we are getting Evil.    Using stereotypes to play with expectations is a useful tool, but can still stumble into a sense of overdoneness and cliché characters simply because there is very rarely a good reason for a character’s appearance to reveal his/her affiliations.  Why should hair colour or eye colour mean anything?  Clothing is revealing in some respects, but again, we must be careful not to cookie cut our characters.

So what do you think?  Is there any virtue to colour coding?  Does it work?  Do we instinctively identify fantasy characters by their colours?

And while Jones’s guide specifically warns against trying it in the real world, it is kind of a fun personality test to take or give.  According to her, I am nice and primarily Good (blue eyes for the win!).  What about you?


13 thoughts on “Tough Guide to Fantasy Clichés: Colour-Coding Characters

  1. Sometimes colour-coding seems to me a cheap way to make up for actual characterisation of a protagonist or antagonist. A sort of “this character is instantly perceived as interesting/unique because of these colours – my job is done!” approach to the whole thing.
    But playing on stereotypes, cheating the reader by breaking them, having characters consider them, or generally just doing such a great job on characterisation as a whole that no one cares if the antagonist is a pale, blackhaired, blackclad witch can definitely work if the writer is good enough.

  2. I prefer to play against the stereotypes. It creates immediate conflict within the reader. Little is more dangerous than a blond-haired, blue eyed, assassin with a hot bod and a nice smile.

  3. Writer beware the pendulum swing.Playing on stereotypes is well and good, unless we establish new ones that are exactly opposite to the old. Having all blue-eyed, blond-haired, nice-looking villains is just as poorly conceived.

    This whole bit is, I think, stemmed from fantasy’s practice of purposefully twisting reality. For instance, typically, villains in the real world don’t consider themselves to actually be evil; they usually have rationalizations for what they do, or else they’re too crazy to even think about it. So, they’re not going to dress in all black unless they have another reason (they like goth or something?). But having everyone dress the same seemed boring to writers, so they decided to make the dress work for them. That and having your evil warlord encased in devilish black armor is too cool an image to resist.

    Is there another reason why your character dresses as they do, other than your need to characterize them symbolically? If not, it’s probably best to rethink their wardrobe. Same goes for eye color and other physical features if you’re going outside the norm (purple eyes, natural blue hair, etc.).

  4. I also suggest looking up reasons why people in the real world sometimes have unusual coloring. This can have very interesting results, and increase the depth of the characters and their world!

  5. I’ve read some of Anne McCaffrey’s work (The Dragonriders of Pern/Crystal Singer). In the Dragonriders series, a few of the characters use others for their own ends–but coloring isn’t largely used for physical description unless absolutely needed.

    JK Rowling, however, does describe Professor Snape (of Harry Potter) as a pale fellow whose classroom is a dungeon.

    1. I think Snape is actually a good subversion. He has all the earmarks of a typical Muahahaha fantasy villain, but is actually a complex character. Rowling doesn’t break the stereotype completely, but rather plays with it and turns it sideways. If well done, that kind of thing is very effective, I think.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s