Displaying Colors

I recently posted about being more of a short story writer rather than a novelist. And a lot of the shorts I write cover a range of genres, but which all fall under the umbrella of speculative fiction – a broad spectrum of categories covering everything from sci-fi to paranormal to whatever-punk style (steam-, diesel-, cyber-) you are into. I’ll let the info-graphic speak for itself:


I write in these genres because that’s what spurs my imagination.

When I was younger I fancied I would eventually become a fantasy writer – mainly because I spent a lot of time playing or crafting stories for table-top RPG games like AD&D.

And also because I read a lot of fantasy fiction. Any and everything that had a dragon on the cover or armored knights, or a stunning redhead wielding a sword, I either begged borrowed or bought in order to devour them – books that took you to other worlds and adventures, so on and so forth. Authors such as Poul Anderson, Stehpen R. Donaldson, Ursula K. Le Guin, Gene Wolfe and many others. I read a lot of pulp novels too, from Robeson’s Doc Savage, Burrough’s Tarzan and Pellucidar novels, and ‘new pulp’ like the Don Pendelton Mack Bolan Executioner novels.

I didn’t get to Tolkien until much later, and by that time had moved past most fantasy books – they all seemed to bleed together at some point for me – and I was becoming disillusioned with them. Mainly because at some point, the fantasy heroes gained powers and abilities that made them superhuman. Or at least raised them to demi-god status. Perhaps not so much in the books themselves but in the games we were playing – the rule sets and abilities player characters could gain became ridiculous.

When that happens in sword and sorcery books or sword and sandal epics – when the hero displays Superman-like abilities – it loses some impact for me. Maybe I’m too rigid in that regard, preferring my superhumans to be from a more modern setting.

And to be honest, because of the era I live in, the superhuman is more appealing to me that the fantasy hero. Don’t get me wrong, I still enjoy a good fantasy setting – and a lot of us do, if Game of Thrones is any indication. Still, these days I’d much rather read (or watch) a four-color hero than one dressed in ring mail. And that’s getting to the gist of this post, what the title of it is all about.

Superheroes and fantasy heroes do share a commonality beyond simply being men and women who perform heroic deeds. And its something intrinsically important to us mortals who read about and idolize them.

They display their colors.

Mankind has, from the beginning of time it seems, been all about that fashion, if I can co-op that phrase. As some evidence suggests, we’ve been decorating our bodies with signs, symbols and colors for millennia. It’s not just about fitting well, or comfort or keeping warm. It’s about telling someone else – I am on this side and I stand for this.

This isn’t anything that anyone hasn’t heard a thousand times over – flags and colors are so much a part of human culture that you cannot escape them. Colors are a symbol of pride and unity, they shout your intentions to the world.

Throughout history, fighting forces have worn outfits and colors to intimidate an enemy and show their unified presence. Symbols on shields and flags signify loyalty and deeper meanings such as freedom, vigilance, perseverance, courage, revolution, hardiness, etc. With a single glance you declare which side you are on, yours being the right one of course.

In literature and other media, we simplify this display of sides right down to the basics – Star Wars, Episode IV makes it clear who is the hero and the villain from the moment they walk on the screen and in the most plain and yet powerful of displays – Vader is all in black and Luke is swathed in white. Yin and Yang, good and bad – there’s no mistaking who is who or what they stand for.

Yet, wearing a uniform, or painting a symbol on your chest or carrying a flag doesn’t always tell us who you are. Nor does what they say. They can spout all day long about how they have someone’s best interests at heart but if they continually behave in a manner that contradicts that – then their words don’t mean a thing. As George R.R. Martin so eloquently put it: Words are wind.

Which makes writing a post like this seem like so much hot air. But really what I’m getting at is this – your characters (in your writing and in real life) have to show their colors. Action is character.

Sure heroes with four colors are fun, and it’s easy to root for a man wearing a flag and carrying a shield because he lives by his principals – but what happens when that four color hero has to acknowledge that the world isn’t just black & white, good and bad, right and wrong?

When you dress your characters you dress them as you see them, but the way they dress also speaks to who they want to be seen as – what they do however will reveal who they really are. Chiseled jaw, rock hard abs, shock of blond hair, sparkling baby-blues – wrapped up in denim jeans, lumberjack shirt, work boots, all signal heroic ideals. Now, take that character and show him moving through a town at night, everyone’s asleep and he’s peeking in windows and smashing headlights… there’s something twisted or broken inside him.

And you want to know why, right?

The four color hero is easy, fun and simple. The man with no color is the dangerous one. I’m going to write a story about someone with no colors… I’m interested in finding out where it goes.

And that’s what I mean by displaying your colors. It’s not enough to wear them, you have to be them.



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