Saturday, November 18, 2006

Character Wheel

While working with Antone Roundy's online Color Wheel generator to get some ideas for an e-book cover art in progress, a writing lightbulb flickered.

Everyone remembers from school what a color wheel is, right?

Image borrowed from

When people like artists, interior designers and quilters work with color, they are constantly thinking about how to put different colors together in a palette to create a certain look. Monochromatic color schemes, for example, are all tints or shades of one color (sky blue, medium blue, navy blue), while analogous schemes are all different colors which are side by side on the color wheel (green, blue, and violet.) Complementary schemes are when you put together colors from opposite sides of the wheel (green and red; blue and orange.)

I can talk color all day -- quilters are obsessed with values and patterns and such -- but that's not why I latched onto this color wheel thing. For years I've tried to explain how to balance characters in a story, but I never had a logical way to show how I do it. I always ended up trying to draw a schematic of the process and making a mess of it.

But now I'm thinking: is it possible to create a cast of characters in the same way artisans and designers use a color wheel to work out a design scheme? In romances, I know I prefer to write complementary heroes and heroines, and create sort of an analogous cast around those two contrasting characters. But the terms for color schemes don't quite translate right; we'd need personality traits to be the colors and define very different combinations. Each novel might require a new wheel, and I doubt any two writers' wheels would look the same.

It might still be too complicated a process to put together a character wheel, but I really liked the idea. It would make a great teaching tool, too. What do you guys think?


  1. Anonymous1:16 AM

    Neat idea, actually.

    ( i'm enjoying the blue haired goth chick in the darkyn book. hehehe.)

  2. From the net:

    "Author Edgar Wallace patented a device called a plot wheel in the 20's. It had a window, and you would spin a disk inside to reveal a new twist for your plot."

    I know, not characters, but in this patent-happy world you can be sure someone's already done it.

    BTW, I do school visits to talk about writing and I get the kids to think up an occupation for their character, and when they've done that I ask them to think up a second one. E.g. a circus clown who's also a secret agent, that kind of thing. Adds a dimension and helps them come up with an interesting story. I guess it's a wheelie good idea.

  3. Anonymous7:58 AM

    Hmm, I think the idea has possibility, and could be carried further by making a wheel for what each character needs for full development. Right now I work with a list and it's helpful to have something to reference.

  4. That's an intriguing idea.

    One danger, though, would be that it might encourage development of cliched characters. If you've got the tough but sensitive cop, for example, you also have to have the beautiful and trouble partner, so you put in a cliche.

  5. Anonymous9:43 AM

    I think it's a great idea. It's already got the wheels spinning in my head.

    As for the danger of creating cliches, well, that's a danger whenever we writers sit down to write. The first things that pop in our heads are usually cliches.

    At least a character wheel might help us keep our stories from being populated with, for examples, dark red or dark blue folk and remember to throw in a few pastel people for contrast, confict and, ultimately drama.

    Some books I've read are boring for that very reason. They characters all seem to have the same outlook on life; thus no contrast, no conflict, no drama. *Yawn*

    So, yeah, I think it's a great idea and look forward to seeing if you come up with anything on it. As I said, I'm going to see what I can conjure up.

  6. Anonymous9:55 AM

    I tend to associate colors with people's personalties. Someone that is particularly strong and gregarious = red or orange, someone that's calming = blue, etc. My best friends are aqua and orange in my mind.

    Somehow, it all works in my mind.

  7. I'm thinking that A.E. Van Vogt's Auto-Author Six had this kind of subroutine in its control software.

  8. When I have a large cast of characters I use a basic organizational chart with the main character at the top and others branching off. It’s very helpful and allows me to stay organized with names, places, dates and exactly how and where they intersect throughout the story.

    I like your idea in comparing it with a color wheel, because you could step back and get a clear visual of what elements are missing and what may be overdone. In the end when your palette is complete, you should have a nice harmonious balance.

    A Paperback Writer Color Chart of Characters…I’d buy it!

  9. I agree it would be cool if you could come up with a break down for the basic colors. People could play with it from there kind of like red and yellow make orange sort of thing(I don't remember if that's the color those two colors combined make.), but the base would need to be stable.

  10. There's a solid foundation for future work here. I wouldn't take development of the Character Color Wheel lightly, but once developed, yes, it would be valuable tool to add to the toolbox.

    I'd like to learn more about it.

  11. Because all my plots and characters are triangles, this makes me want to run screaming in the opposite direction.

    But don't mind me. I'm just being nuts.

  12. I'm very intrigued by the idea. Color always plays an important part in story development for me, and I try to carry it through, make it significant to the story in some way. I think it would be great to do the same for characters, especially if I can tie it all together someway.

  13. That actually makes sense to me, which makes me feel smarter about taking art lessons while I had writer's block.

  14. Since my way of writing is chaotic, sometimes I just come up with a bunch of characters. I don't even know if they'll go in the same book or not. But suddenly I have this "feel" for them. So what I do is I write everything I know about each, starting with their names. Then I put them in a wheel, and based on the info, I try to match them - see which hero will go with what heroine, and which will be their villain, etc.

  15. Anonymous11:16 PM

    Thanks for the feedback everyone.

    Dean's comment about the danger of coming up with cliched characters is a valid concern. The character wheel wouldn't work too well if it only worked on a complementary basis.

    I've been mulling over two other types of wheels. I have this neat seafood cooking wheel I got from my grocery store when they were handing them out as part of a promotion. It lists fish on one side, shellfish on the other, and has windows cut into the wheel so you can start with something like Tilapia, find its flavor, texture, cooking method and a substitute fish if it's not available, all displayed in other slots on the wheel. Very helpful when you're trying to cook seafood you don't know a lot about.

    Another wheel is the zodiac/astrological wheel that's used to illustrate the twelve signs and also to chart an individual's planets at birth. I've played with those for characters to see what sort of personality traits came along with the birthday I picked out for them, and found some interesting characteristics and personalities quirks that added depth to some otherwise hard-to-fathom characters.

    I'm going to work on this wheel idea a bit more and see what I can put together. Whatever I come up with I'll share in a future post, and maybe make up some prototypes for some volunteers to test drive.

  16. The idea of using personality traits that go with the colors might work really well. There are books and websites on aura reading that could give lots of "ideas" as to colors' meanings. Another option too...If I remember the color wheel that I had (and can't find at the moment), three complementary colors could be combined using a triangle as an overlay pointer on the color wheel.

  17. Anonymous1:19 PM

    I think this idea is very cool.

    It made me think of how movies use color (for example, Sin City) to emphasize things ... if your story is too one way, how throwing in a dash of something totally different spices it up and draws attention at once. Or using certain character traits (like the use of color in LOTR) on purpose to underscore something about your plot.

    I hear plot bunnies approaching....

  18. Anonymous11:56 AM

    I've seen several color-personality test generators online (google: color personality), including this scholarly-looking (not an endorsement) site:

    As others have commented, it would be vital for a writer to remember that people are not just one color/one note/one flavor. A character may evolve through several shades, or even change color abruptly.

    Sounds like a lot of fun to me!

  19. Anonymous9:33 AM

    The previous post (by "its mortgage magic") looks rather like spam to me...

  20. I actually stumbled across your blog, searching for the opposite of green (a writing exercise I'm working on), and googled "color wheel"

    I love your ideas about equating the color wheel to characters. And yet you mentioned trying not to come up with cliche personalities. Perhaps the color wheel could represent a personality trait. You could then create a character, based on selected traits from the wheel.

    I find that people themselves are often complex, self-contradictory, and yet beautiful, all at the same time. A dynamic person might swing more to the red, while an antagonist might have traits on opposite sides, which may make him/her initially appealing.

    My two cents.

    I enjoyed your blog.


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