Vision: A Resource for Writers
Holly Lisle's Vision
Color in Worldbuilding
By Steven Swain
2002, Steven Swain
You’ve named your world,
chosen your main characters and your villains, and figured out a plot. You’re
all ready to charge headlong into your novel, right? Sure, if you want your
novel to be bare of all background color.
I can hear you now:
“Background color? What are you talking about?”
Let’s use a photograph
as a metaphor. Imagine there’s a picture of you - what else is in it? Are you
the only thing in the picture? There’s stuff behind you, isn’t there? In a
studio picture, there’s a colored background behind you. Maybe even a
picture-background to make it look like you’re in front of anything but a
Now, suppose you’re
writing a fantasy and in this picture you’re in front of a forest with a
castle tower looming behind the forest. Let’s get the easy stuff out of the
Are all the trees the same
kind? Maybe, maybe not. What kind are they, though? Made your decision? Great.
Say, what about all that stuff under the trees? Bushes, right? Again, same kind
or not? What kind? Oh, what’s this? Flowers? Lovely. What color? Just one
bloom per plant or several? Is that grass right at the edge, there? What sounds
do these plants make when the wind blows? Do they rustle or whisper or what?
What do they feel like - smooth, rough, bumpy, thorny?
Easy, right? Everyone
thinks of plants and things of that sort. Let’s get a bit deeper into the
background now, though.
Look right there at the
edge of the picture. What’s that nibbling on the grass? A rabbit, perhaps? Or
a deer? And what’s that shadow over there? Perhaps a wolf hunting the rabbit.
Or a shy squirrel? Say, what’s that little yellow thing flitting from flower
to flower? A hummingbird? Not that big, huh? What about a bee?
Speaking of birds, what
kind is that perching on the tree branch and singing? What color is it? Is it
alone or does it have a mate? For that matter, do any of the other animals have
mates? How well are they eating? Is food plentiful or not?
Not that bad, huh? These
are what I call non-character animals. This is to differentiate from the
Queen’s lap cat called Hypatia; and the King’s brave warhorse, Geronimo; and
the Prince’s faithful hunting dog, Zebedee. Okay, they’re corny names, but
you get the idea. These animals are what I call character animals. They have
names, and one or the other is usually present, and the writer inevitably gives
them a few anthropomorphic mannerisms of their own. There’s really nothing
wrong with that. It just means they aren’t quite part of the background color
Moving along now. Let’s
get a bit more detailed.
Remember that castle at
the back, there? You wouldn’t happen to know how many towers it has? How tall
are they? Come to think of it, how tall are the walls themselves? Are the
battlements crenellated or not? (While we’re on the subject, here’s two good
websites on medieval fortifications: http://library.thinkquest.org/10949/fief/hicastlegate.html
To continue: Is there a
drawbridge with a portcullis? Are the castle inhabitants friendly and usually
leave the drawbridge down? Or are they fearful and paranoid and have it up? Are
the walls fully manned at all times or is there a skeleton watch? It’s
probably safe to assume the castle is made of stone - what kind of stone,
though? How strong is it? And, to descend into utterly mundane details, what
color is it? Is there any patterning in the stone? Has the stone been smoothed
over or are there edges and cut-marks?
Is there a convenient road
to the castle? Or is the road “over thataway and you’ll have to use the
path”? Is the castle a residence or just a fortified guard post? Are the walls
in good shape or dilapidated? Is there a village nearby? Are the castle walls
big enough to enclose the village, or do the villagers huddle up inside for
protection only during attacks?
Still not too bad, is it?
Remember that things like this are the spices to the meat and potatoes of the
main story and the main characters. A little bit goes a long way. But at the
same time, the absence of these little details here and there is quite
noticeable. Just like a main dish shouldn’t be 75% spices and 25% meat and
potatoes, a story shouldn’t be 75% background and 25% main story. It can be
tricky to get the amount right, but you do need to have some background color.
A lot of this detail will
live only in your imagination and the worldbuilding notebooks. But you need to
have them available for appropriate times in the story. And speaking of
imagination, what if you are creating a world without “the usual flora and
Here you can let your
imagination truly run amok. You can, if you want, decide that most big mammals
have six limbs instead of four. You can decide that, for some strange reason,
tree bark is green and the leaves are brown. Stone can be any color you want.
Heck, the sun can be any reasonable color you want (within the scientifically
That brings up another
point. If your flora and fauna are, shall we say, alternative, you need to at
least have a nodding acquaintance with the reason for it, whatever it is. In the
tree example, perhaps the sun is filtered in such a way that chlorophyll looks
brown instead of green and browns look green. What can be a real pain, though,
is being consistent. If sun-filtering changes the color in one thing, but not in
another, you either need to explain that reasonably or change it to be
The same goes for any
other changes you may make. It doesn’t need to be - and shouldn’t be - a
long exposition. Just a sentence or two here and there can suffice if that
sentence is well thought out. You may occasionally need to do a whole paragraph.
But the “spice rule” still stands. These changes are still flavorings, not
the story -- Unless, of course, you’re writing a zoological thesis for the
University of Tau Ceti.
Remember that while the
first three sections are required to varying degrees, changing flora and fauna
to non-Earth-norms is not required. In most cases, it may even be
counterproductive. If you want to change things around, you need to consider
whether it would cause trouble instead of simply adding to the scenery.
In conclusion, there are a
lot of ways you can add background color to your worldbuilding to make your
world become alive and three dimensional. Just as these little details make us
appreciate our own world more, they will also make your imagined world seem more
complete. The readers will