Exercise: In Monochrome

This is somewhat similar to my old “driver’s license” exercise, only slightly less restrictive. What it boils down to is this: even if we don’t necessarily all agree on what colors there are and what categories they fit into (this coming from a person who was raised on the Crayola marker spectrum who occasionally gets into debates with people who weren’t over what color family fuschia lies in), we still put a lot of stock in it, particularly when it comes to eyes and hair. Sometimes, this gets to the point of being a crutch.

So what better way to work around that than to get the hang of not using it? For this exercise, try describing a character so as to create a vivid image, but without using any words that describe hue; in sum, treat the character as if she’s in grayscale. Can you get across the imagery you want without access to plain color words? If you want a particular challenge, add this limitation to one of the other visual exercises—character in natural environment, characteristic image, portrait of a social dynamic, wordless conversation, that sort of thing—and see what sorts of changes you need to make, and how much trouble you have.


  1. UZ says:

    “Everyone knows cave people are short and stocky and have big red bushy beards,” I teased him, and he rubbed one oversized hand over his silky hair.

    “Can’t be heavy in a cave, there’s no room,” he responded, a little surly. It was one thing to be made fun of for the way you were born, but this was different. He’d chosen this, a career package – structural engineer with a low light mod – and I knew it annoyed him that I was making fun of his choice.

    Still, I couldn’t help it. Every time I saw him wearing his dark goggles and smelling of sunblock, I had to stress him about his new body. My inner eight-year-old insisted that I bother him into a grumpy state, and his sulky tone was as rich as chocolate to my ears. Now it was soothing time, I didn’t want to give him a complex. Plus, the soothing was part of the point.

    “Aw, you’re hot and you know it,” I dismissed his grump. Well, he may not have known it, but I did. He was lean and hard as a rock on the inside, but he had had just a little bit of genetically-engineered pudge over those muscles – enough to keep him warm and cute without hiding the fact that he was a physical powerhouse. His “blubber”, as I called it in my more annoying moments, showed through the colourless skin and made him look solid and substantial instead of transparent and froglike. The goggles were all right, but when he was out of the sun he put them up on his forehead, and then his big eyes were shadowy with subterranean depths and the dim glitter of onyx. Big hands and soft spiky hair, and that big lower lip that stuck out when he was feeling put upon. All very necessary for underground construction, obviously. Not just for bystander appreciation. Well, I couldn’t argue. Who wants utility people when everyone can be a work of art?

    He was looking at me now. “You have some sandwich stuck between your tentacles, like here,” he indicated uncertainly somewhere under his nose. Suddenly embarrassed, I hid my face behind the wrist of one folded batlike wing while I probed for the offending crumb with my long tongue. It’s kind of weird that I’m totally used to my appearance as a deep seafloor biologist, but I still can’t stand the idea of people seeing me with something stuck to my face. After a moment I turned back to him.

    “Did I get it?”

    “Yeah, perfect again,” he made a little picture frame with his thick fingers, and I had to laugh out loud. He never stayed grumpy for long.

  2. UZ says:

    Hm, used onyx and chocolate, I suppose those are both colours. I was comparing a sound to the flavor of chocolate, that’s my defense there, but I have nothing to say for onyx except that it *is* greyscale.

    I’d originally meant to describe them being on an outdoor patio at a restaurant, and the reframing at the end would be that our narrator was shading the lad with one wing so he wouldn’t get a sunburn. Thus our narrator would have been *being* considerate for the length of the entire passage and we’d find out at the end, sort of balancing their childish need to annoy him.

    Tried not to gender my narrator but I’m not sure whether I was successful :)

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