The use of color in a fictional world can be an important design choice for any worldbuilder. There are both aesthetic and functional aspects to color that can be explored. First, color can help set a world’s tone, be it vibrant or dark and dreary. Color can also be used for symbolic effect. It can be used to differentiate in-world factions or ranks from one another. And color can be used in game-oriented worlds to provide clues to the player or immediately identify threats or components. Color has an infinite number of uses in worldbuilding, and builders should take a moment to think about how they can incorporate color into their own designs.
Overall Genre & Aesthetic
Color impacts a world’s tone. Drab and dreary greys and blacks make an audience experience a world differently than bright hues. Consider how the use of color fits with the tone you want for either your world or the specific area within it. Sometimes entire genres are intertwined with color schemes. Consider cyberpunk’s use of high contrast neon cutting through the drab hues of the world. Or consider the horror genre, which often relies on dark colors to help instill fear and unease in its audience. Subregions may also have their own color schemes, allowing audiences to more easily recognize where they are in your world.
Color in Factions & Hierarchies
Star Trek color codes crewmembers based on their roles on the ship – blue for science and medical staff, red for engineers, and gold for commanders. The magical schools of Harry Potter or the battle school armies of Ender’s Game each have their own color scheme. And in almost any world with opposing factions or nations each unique organization comes with a different color assigned to it (and usually a flag or emblem as well). These colors help provide different groups with a better sense of identity in a fictional world and makes it easier for audiences to tell them apart and/or identify with them. If your world has organizational hierarchies, or opposing groups, consider assigning each a unique color.
Do organizational hierarchies exist in your world and does color play a role in their identities?
Color in Game-Oriented Worlds
In game-oriented worlds, colors have established uses. Enemies are typically shown in red. Friends in green or blue. Health recovery items are often green or red while poison is often depicted as green or purple. Green means go. Red means stop. Item rarity often has a color component, though what colors indicate common versus rare elements are less well established. While using the colors audiences are already familiar with is not necessary, it can be beneficial for a number of reasons.
Colors often contain meaning behind them. Red is often associated with bravery. Purple is associated with royalty. While meanings of colors have developed across cultures in the real world, there is no reason why these need to match the meanings of colors in your own.
- Red: Energy, Anger, Passion, Love, Vitality, Luck, Danger, Fire
- Orange: Energy, Caution, Warmth, Industry
- Yellow: Sun, Light, Day, Energy, Wealth
- Green: Nature, Growth, Health, Movement, Cunning
- Blue: Thought, Water, Calming, Sky
- Purple: Royalty, Poison, Mystery
- Pink: Playfulness, Joy, Youth
- Brown: Earth, Stability/Dependability, Nature
- Black: Mystery, Elegance, Life/Death/Afterlife, Night
- White: Elegance, Life/Death/Afterlife, Day, Air, Cold
- Grey: Air, Age, Wisdom
- Rainbow: Friendly, Promise,
- Gold: Riches, Wealth, Treasure
- Silver: Wealth, Wisdom, Craftmanship
- Bronze: Cunning, Technology, Craftmanship
Keep in mind that colors have different meanings to different world cultures. For instance, red can mean good luck in China but is associated with death and mourning in South Africa. Worldbuilders should be aware of cultural differences and if those may impact how their world is perceived by different audiences. In addition, certain colors have historically been tied to racist imagery. Some of these racist associations are overt, while others are more subtle. Again, worldbuilders presenting their worlds to broad audiences should consider how their use of colors may be perceived.
As high as 8% of men and 0.5% of women are colorblind. These individuals have trouble telling certain colors apart. This is particularly common with the colors red and green. Worldbuilders that want to share their worlds with a broad audience should consider a few tricks to help their colorblind audience members. First, instead of using red and green combinations, use magenta, cyan, and yellow. These are easier for colorblind people to tell apart. If the color aesthetic is an important aspect to the world try to include additional visual elements that can be easily identified. For instance, in game-oriented worlds, instead of enemies that just glow red, have a small skull appear as well. Including easily recognizable icons in addition to different colored components is a great way to make a world more accessible.