Character Chromatography

Colored pencils
By MichaelMaggs (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Last Thursday, I saw American Sniper.  And while I can’t say that I enjoyed it, necessarily (I was not a fan of the roundhouse-kick-to-the-gut ending, or anything leading up to it), I can indeed give the film credit for two things:

  1. It is the first film that has made Bradley Cooper genuinely unattractive. This is saying quite a bit, because the last movie I saw with Bradley Cooper’s name in the credits had him playing a gun-toting raccoon.
  2. It got me started thinking about characterization in terms of color.

And I don’t mean in terms of ethnicity, although that’s a super important topic. I mean color as in painting.

I’m not sure why I started thinking that way. Maybe I’m a wee bit synaesthetic. Maybe I’m a genius. Maybe I’m just insane.

Rather like Taylor Swift, I have a long list of people willing to attest to that last one. ANYWAY.

Color (if I’m properly remembering the stage lighting class I took a bajillion years ago) has three dimensions, so to speak. There’s hue, which is the actual color (green, red, blue, etc.), there’s saturation, which is a really weird thing that I can only describe as the intensity of the color, and then there’s brightness, which is whether the color trends towards black or towards white (darker or lighter).

Now, in my daffy brain, characters tend to have their hues picked by their personalities, and a lot of the time you can see that in their costuming (in the case of live action) or in their character design (in the case of animation). For instance, it’s easy to identify Asuka Langley Sohryu/Shikinami as being “red” when not only is she strong-willed, proud, and hot-blooded, but also has red hair, a red plug suit, and a red Freudian cyborg-titan.

Similarly, Steve Rogers falls into the “big blue boy scout” role with aplomb in the Marvel Cinematic Universe because of his honesty, bravery, and sense of leadership, and that’s reinforced by the predominantly blue coloring of his heroing outfit.

Characters that are less interesting/more boring lean towards the brown, for me.

Saturation, being a weird concept, gets us into a weird space when talking about characters. In “realistic” stories (like American Sniper), characters tend to strike me as less saturated. There’s less energy, less weight. In an attempt to make them truer to life, personalities get dialed back, and that means characters wind up getting washed out.

This isn’t to say that low-key characters are bad, by any means. Not every character can be a Kamina Giha or a Flash. If they were, shit would go to hell real quick. But there’s a certain level of vibrance necessary for a character to really seem alive to me, for me to care about them.

Brightness, in my experience, tends to relate to the immediate intensity or drama of the character and their situation. While saturation is supposed to be a facet of the character that is independent of the brightness, it’s hard for the brightness to not affect the perceived saturation. Higher drama or intensity causes a character to trend darker, giving the impression of a richer, more saturated color. That’s why I associated a dark blue with Mako Mori in Pacific Rim. She’s got everything locked into being a Jaeger pilot, and you can tell.

Low drama and low intensity lead to–you guessed it–lighter colors that are pale and uninteresting. Again, not necessarily a bad thing. Every world needs its own set of spear-carriers.

All this leads in to my realization that for a character to really seem alive and for me to care about them, the character has to meet the following criteria.

  1. They need to have a hue that is heavy on primary colors. Red, blue, yellow, orange, purple, any of the above will do. Brown and gray are only acceptable under very specific circumstances.
  2. The character needs to be saturated. They need to be engaged and engaging. If it’s properly rich, you can get away with brown and gray. Hell, brown is the color I associated with Indiana Jones. He’s dynamic as hell.
  3. Lingering on the darker end of the color spectrum is far better than the lighter end. A lighter color associated with a character typically means the character is not catching my attention in some crucial way.

As for Bradley Cooper’s Chris Kyle in American Sniper? Well, he felt to me a lot like his surroundings in Fallujah: dusty brown. There were about twenty seconds in there where the character dialed into a wonderful kind of mahogany, and I was absolutely hooked… But it was gone as quickly as it came.

I think, for my next project, I’m going to see if I can pin down colors for the personalities of each of the main characters. I struggle constantly with characterization, and maybe this will help me get just one more handle on that elusive beastie.

How about you guys? Do you associate colors with characters? Which colors do you associate with which characters? Do you think I’m talking out my ass? Let me know in the comments! I’m interested in hearing what you guys have to say.