For some reason last night my mind wouldn’t go to sleep when I decided it was time to. It kept circling round (through a myriad bizarre subjects) to an issue a (non-writer) friend of mine has often raised: how would you describe the colour red to a blind man?
You can’t say, red like fire, or carnations, or wine to someone who has been blind since birth because these are examples that they simply haven’t experienced.
I know this has been mentioned by other people when discussing how to describe things – they always say use all five senses. As sighted people, we tend to rely overmuch on our eyes.
It occurred to me that this is especially important when describing something that the reader cannot relate to. For example, who came up with duck egg blue? I’ve seen some duck eggs but I don’t remember them being blue. (I just know this is going to lead to an erudite comment by someone on the exact colour of duck eggs – I do actually want to know). How would you describe that colour to someone who had never seen it?
We talk about cobalt blue, sea green, primrose yellow and black as the sky at midnight (the last of which is a contradiction in terms unless you are referring to a planet with no moon in a universe with no stars) but these descriptions rely on the reader’s prior experience. How do you get around a lack of that experience?
The answer is simple, in a way. We have to make recourse to our other senses. Red is a colour we associate with fire, it’s true. Flames are usually as golden as they are red, but when we get hot, we go red. If we burn ourselves, our skin goes even more red. Red skin is often synonymous with heat from exertion, or pain from a burn or a slap. Red hearts represent love and passion, which can also heat or burn, depending on the circumstances.
Blue is often referred to as a ‘cool’ colour. Water is represented as blue, but the sea can easily be other colours. Grey, green and even turquoise. A blue sea is actually quite rare in my personal, British coast experience. How would you describe the colour of the sea?
And of course, the green of the sea is different to the green of plants. If you saw a sea that green, I doubt you would want to swim in it. Grass green is the colour of Nature feeding.
The five senses are sight, touch, hearing, smell and taste. Has anyone seen Under the Tuscan Sun? Where she offers to write the guy’s postcard for him and says that everything even smells and tastes purple? I loved that line. The guy wasn’t so impressed, but he was a heathen.
When it comes to descriptions, we should push the boundaries to find new ways of describing things. By drawing on the other senses, you can often give the reader a more accurate sense of the image you are trying to convey. You can also use metaphor, as I did above for green, but that’s for a different post.