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An exercise in world-building: From a color wheel

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AARTHI MUTHUKUMAR | SENIOR STAFF

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NOVEMBER 19, 2022

Red, orange, yellow, green, blue, violet, indigo and the infinite range of colors in between — there is, ostensibly, nothing special about these colors of the rainbow or the color wheel in general. Yet, it is often these ordinary concepts that beg for our imagination to turn them into something spectacular and out of the box. 

I have always been interested in worldbuilding, the art of constructing an entirely new realm — either in high fantasy or set in the planet we live on — from, well, anything. For about a year now, I have been looking through my daily life for minute details that could inspire the next alternate reality I create, searching for something different from the faeries and vampires common to the high fantasy genre.

Last year, on a crisp after-rain day back in my hometown, I spotted a rainbow stretched across the Tesla factory near my house. When I returned home and pulled out my drawing tablet to work on some digital art, I saw the same rainbow on the circular color wheel on the side of my screen. I had drawn color-themed characters before, and that color wheel, combined with my desire to write a fictional story, grew into the world-building idea that I am about to share with you.

There are many world-building templates that I like to use for guidance, but geography and civilization are the two foundational sections that I will be outlining.

 

The geography, flora and fauna


I haven’t gotten around to naming this world yet, like how you don’t title your essay until after you’ve finished writing it. What I do know is that it is an alternate realm that consists of one giant ovular land mass. Although color wheels are circular, envisioning this land mass as elliptical makes for a bigger supercontinent, assuming that our laws of physics hold and planets are therefore spherical. 

Like a color wheel, this world is arranged along — and based on the idea of — a color gradient. This land mass is split into six nations, divided according to the colors of the rainbow: Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue and Purple (a combination of violet and indigo). Each nation has unique geography and values based on their assigned color. I will likely add little magical elements to each of these nations to spice up their diverse landscapes, connecting these elements to local geography or ensuring that they serve an important purpose in defining national culture. The native animals of each nation will also be chosen based on their colors. 

Like a color wheel, this world is arranged along — and based on the idea of — a color gradient.

Red is a land that is forever burning, with volcanoes for mountains and an eternal overcast of soot that turns the sky smokey gray. Those with Red blood are immune to lava, fire and anything associated with heat. The people of Red make their houses out of shiny obsidian formed from the molten rock that covers a majority of the land. Instead of obsidian, however, the national stone is the ruby for its vibrant crimson color created under the high temperatures common in the area. Regular rubies are not hard to obtain in Red, but there is a special and highly valuable type of ruby coveted for its explosive properties: The fire ruby is found in the claws and tails of, and encases the hearts of, nine-tailed phoenixes — Red’s national animal — born within the many volcanoes in Red. 

Orange is covered with two kinds of trees: maple trees which grow in forests that turn into brilliant shades of tangerine and titian during the autumn, and orange trees that flourish on Orange’s soil. Orange’s farmland is the most fertile out of all the nations, guaranteed to grow anything that is planted at incredible speeds. Nearly three-fifths of the land is dedicated to crops that are ready to harvest within a month of being sown. The remaining two-fifths of the land are covered in maple forests, home to the national animal, the crowned tiger. With deer-like antlers, a tendency to travel in “herds” and an appetite for both plants and meat, the crowned tiger finds the expansive farmland to be a convenient source of food — crops and farmers. In order to control the tiger population and as retaliation for terrorizing these farmlands, the people of Orange often organize parties to engage in tiger-hunting for sport. 

Yellow is filled with deserts of golden sand, sometimes literally. Unlike its neighbor Orange, nothing grows here. But what Yellow lacks in food it makes up for in literal piles of gold. The shifting wind constantly reveals hidden jackpots of gold dust and — this may sound familiar from fairytales like Peter Pan — what is called “pixie dust,” which is highly sought after by other nations for its magical qualities. Those who seek it should beware, however, because these winds of fortune also bring disaster. Frequent, violent sandstorms make searching the desert a deadly task, along with carnivorous serpents called citrines that are named after the gemstones that they grow as scales. Citrines become active during the storms and devour travelers from beneath the sand, inspired by the sandworms from the movie “Dune.” The citrines generate their scales by sleeping above ground under direct sunlight for most of their days, heating themselves to high temperatures that then burn the amethyst that their bodies naturally produce to create citrine. On a less dangerous note, another native animal to this desert is the camel — but camels here have manes that act as sensors for gold deposits. They are the primary means of transportation in this desert, as well as great navigators able to sniff out gold and sense impending citrine attacks. 

Green would obviously be full of forests, jungles and all things green. The trees that grow here can move, using their roots to crawl across the ground, but they must stay in habitable soil to remain alive. Each tree grows bountiful amounts of something random — and not necessarily fruits or vegetables either. This essentially subverts the phrase “money doesn’t grow on trees”; anything from shoes to swords to bugs can grow here. Each tree, however, only grows one item, typically small and light enough to hang on branches, and that specialization is not hereditary. Hence, the forest canopies in Green are covered in various items — including the national animal, a snake with the jaws of an alligator. Built to easily swallow a person, the jaw snake is flat but wide with chameleon scales that allow effortless camouflage against tree trunks for surprise attacks. Their diet isn’t limited to meat, either: Jaw snakes are a bit like goats, with insatiable appetites and a curiosity to sink their teeth into any of the items hanging in the canopy.

The trees that grow here can move, using their roots to crawl across the ground.

Blue is covered in as many lakes as Red is in volcanoes. This part of the world has more water than land, and an aerial view of this part of the landscape reveals a plethora of lakes that resemble numerous cheddar cheese holes. Heavy rains year-round keep the lakes brimming, and a special amphibious national animal known as the froggerfly — a poison dart frog with the blue wings of a butterfly — use carbon dioxide dissolved in the water to generate enough oxygen to make it possible to breathe in these water bodies. The high oxygen concentration leads to dark blue algal blooms on the water’s surface that frogger flies feed on. The algae layer keeps the lake dark and full of fish typically found in the deep ocean. Those with Blue blood have developed the ability to breathe underwater, where most people in Blue live, because the slivers of available above-surface land leave hardly any room for civilization. 

Purple isn’t associated with many things in nature. Save for a select few flowers and perhaps bugs, there are virtually no purple animals in our world. Yet everything in the land of Purple is entirely purple and a living, growing mass. It is known for randomly sprouting organic architecture, from palaces to humble huts. Each of these buildings requires the pixie dust from Yellow (as these two colors are complementary on the color wheel) to stay fresh and alive; otherwise, they will deteriorate and eventually collapse, returning to the earth to fertilize new architecture. Since the color purple is associated with magic and spirits, the soil in Purple pulls nutrients – including those from decomposed animals and plants – from other parts of the land and subsequently grows both the native flora and fauna of other nations, all in purple!

 

The civilization and government


Colors represent a lot about people, their lifestyles and their values, as is illustrated by how many personality quizzes include a question about the subject’s favorite color. For our purposes, this also makes the color wheel perfect for building fictional civilizations! Let’s run it back, this time focusing on personality associations. I will also include a possible story arc for a protagonist to follow in each of these nations so we can see worldbuilding in action.

Red is connected with love, passion, rage, power, violence and danger; sounds a lot like a family or marriage drama to me. Hence, the Red nation, in my imagination, has a class system where mobility is determined by the family you marry into. A lot of power struggles come from fighting over eligible matches or power struggles between family members. Another way to elevate one’s status is to collect the fire rubies that I wrote about in describing the geography of Red. As trekking up a volcano to kill a nine-tailed phoenix is a challenging feat, possessing fire rubies is a direct indication of strength and power. Those who have succeeded wear their fire rubies proudly as jewelry or embellishments on their clothing, using it to attract the attention of — and perhaps win the affection of — someone from a higher class. There are many storylines to explore if we were to start our story with a protagonist from Red; our tale could, for instance, involve climbing the social ladder or looking for true love rather than contractually marrying someone of equal or higher station. Most interesting to me, however, is a protagonist who is keen on staying single and constantly pushes against the traditions of Red society. 

Orange is connected with attention and enthusiasm, but also exhibitionism and impatience. Inspired by F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby,” this nation loves to party, and its people frequently compete with each other to see who can throw the biggest events. An honorable mention is given to the most extravagant party of the month, and a grand trophy is presented to the host of the greatest one of the year. I mentioned before that the Orange nation has the biggest food supply on the planet; ridiculously large amounts of food are, therefore, naturally an important part of every event. Food waste, it follows, is a big issue in this nation, along with poverty and hunger in the farmlands tasked with providing these crops for others at the expense of feeding the farmers. Problems like these set a scene ripe for our protagonist to start or support a revolution in. 

Yellow is connected with optimism and warmth — but also caution. The people here live in large nomadic groups called “bands” that are constantly searching for new gold deposits that sprout from the sand, though they have to remain wary of the deadly citrines. When a child comes of age, they leave their band and eagerly search for a new one to join, as the color yellow is also associated with adventure. Bands value camaraderie and loyalty, even if they aren’t related by blood. To avoid unnecessary clashes and losses of the people they care about, bands avoid each other and will not try to steal a gold deposit from another band that has already claimed it. Although Yellow is officially a place of anarchy, the mysteries and dangers that lurk here have forced its inhabitants to work together despite a lack of rule of law. This nation is a great setting for an action-packed adventure — perhaps the protagonist, for some reason, finds themselves rejected from every band they tried to approach and is searching for their place in the world, running from citrines and learning to navigate the lack of government along the way. 

Although Yellow is officially a place of anarchy, the mysteries and dangers that lurk here have forced its inhabitants to work together despite a lack of rule of law.

Green is connected with health and luck, but also envy and greed. Every person in Green has a tree planted for them when they are born (which also helps to explain why this place is full of trees). As they grow up, they nurture their tree until it bears fruit. As mentioned before, trees can move around and follow their owners, who primarily live within the massive forests in Green. Since what each tree grows is completely based on luck, however, some trees grow items more valuable than others, bringing issues of inequity, envy and greed into Green’s social fabric. Tree theft, therefore, is a common crime in Green, alongside spiteful tree-chopping. Axes and saws, therefore, are banned in this nation, and deforestation by any other nation is seen as a declaration of war. Green relies heavily on resources from its neighboring primary color countries Yellow and Blue: pixie dust from Yellow helps them speed up plant growth, and fresh water from Blue keeps the giant forests alive. The stories that sprout from here can be very different depending on how lucky our protagonist is with their tree. Maybe their tree died before it could ever bloom, and they must deal with the consequences of being the only tree-less person in Green.

Blue is connected with calmness and productivity, but also melancholy. Since the people of Blue live entirely underwater in the plethora of lakes, every lake is essentially a city. Every city contains thousands of offices. Every office, in turn, contains even more cubicles (perhaps called “bubbles”) where people work endlessly and alone to maintain Blue’s most profitable industry of desalination. Work schedules are created through algorithms that generate maximum productivity; everyone is respectful, polite and focused on how they can best contribute meaningfully to society. Out of all the nations, Blue has the lowest crime rate. However, it also has the most cases of depression. Building relationships is seen as a waste of time. The government has a matching agency that brings people together with the sole objective of procreation, after which a person must submit an application and pay a fee if they would like to be matched again — for the sole purpose of begetting a second baby. Blue could be the setting of a Matrix-esque dystopian story; the protagonist could work in one of the bubbles or in the matching agency and attempt to discover what real love is. 

Purple is linked to royalty and creativity, but also immaturity and arrogance. Along with growing its own infrastructure, the land of Purple creates a corresponding crown with every new thing it builds. Whoever wears the crown has ownership over that architecture. The wearer can use their mind to change the shape of the mass to create anything they want, within reasonable limits dictated by the amount of mass they own. Property owners are thus able to reshape houses, turn forests into their own private playgrounds and create the art of their imagination. While this sounds utopic, complications arise because they enjoy flaunting their creations and fighting over new crowns. Although every person can only wear one crown at a time, crown-hogging has become such a huge problem such that, despite the fairly large number of crowns created, not every person gets to wear one. Stories about solving murders over crowns or crown thefts may find a place here; alternatively, we may tell stories similar to the television series “Game of Thrones” with disputes over inheriting crowns. 

World-building templates will go further in depth on religion, education systems, economy, and history. It takes a lot of time to completely flesh out all aspects of a world and ensure that all the rules make sense. 

And there you have it: the basic skeleton of a world created from the rainbow and color wheel. Now pick something ordinary in your daily life and see if you can turn it into its own story.

Happy world-building!

Contact Felicia Mo at 

LAST UPDATED

NOVEMBER 19, 2022