It’s all in the Eyes: The Windows Into a Story’s Soul

Describing your characters in a story can either be fun or tedious, depending on you, the writer, and on the situation of the characters. But regardless of how you feel about describing a character’s hair and eyes and nose and chin, your reader expects some idea of how you envision your characters, so describe them you must.

So, let’s see if I get this right:

The Princess Elmeriannia stepped into the light before the amazed crowd.  She was fair, like a lily, if not fairer.  Her hair was a rich and vibrant waterfall of shining mahogany tresses that tumbled to her slender waist.  Her features were delicate and lovely, like a spring morning, the most stunning being her brilliant, violet eyes…

Okay, let’s stop right there.  Describing your characters is important and details can certainly mean a lot to a reader (although if you resort to freckle-counting, you have serious problems), but be careful.  Descriptions are significant.  They add an important element to your story and they tell the reader something very significant about you, dear writer.  Yes, you.  Namely, have you fallen victim to yet another cliché trap?

For this post, I’m going to focus on the eyes only, because I don’t want to write too much and there are so many ways I could go with this.  The eyes are, after all, usually the most memorable feature in a person’s face and the first thing that a person wants to know or remember.  What color are they?

This is where things get very, very tricky.  There are only a few colors to choose from, right?  I mean, eyes can be blue, brown, green, hazel, gray…

But you are forgetting how much more creative a writer can be.  What about the violet eyes mentioned in the quote above?  What about turquoise, black, golden, silvery, red, or even mismatched if you want to be unique (though, trust me, you aren’t really being that unique.  It’s been done.)

Eye colors are a fun way to set a character apart, but they can easily turn your story into something that is actually rather generic if you aren’t careful.  Think about what you’re doing before you assign a color.  Are you doing it because the color matches their personality, their role in the story, their race?  These things do matter and making eyes “match” a person is dangerous territory.

It’s Not My Fault.  My Eyes Made Me a Jerk:

Creepy shiny cat eyes! Yellow with blue pupils... what does it MEAN?

When you have a character with a distinctive personality, you might be tempted to assign eyes to match.  That vivacious vixen with her snapping green eyes or the brooding, dark, Mystery Character with his black, black gaze just seem to fit.  Here’s the rub: your vixen and your Mystery Character are not alone.  There are hundreds of unfortunate vixens and Mystery Characters in the exact same situation.  The word “cliché” is beginning to loom…

The solution here is to be constantly aware of what you are doing.  Mix things up.  Don’t dramatize every character’s eyes to the point that their collective gazes would make a rainbow jealous.  One or two with impressive eye colors might be enough for one story to handle.  Watch out for over descriptiveness.  Yes, you have a vixenish character in your story, but if you go on and on about her snapping, vivacious, brilliant, haughty, emerald-hued green eyes, your reader is going to make the cliché-connection immediately.  If, instead, you were to reference their shade (perhaps moss colored instead of emerald?) and move on, you might be able to avoid the accusation of stereotyping. (But you gave her curly black hair too, didn’t you?  Confess.  You know, you did. *sigh*)  A time when these characters might be appropriate is, of course, in the interest of cliche bashing, which I am ever supportive of.  If you have a character that is supposed to be stereotypical and you clarify that to your reader, you might evade being accused of being unwittingly generic.  However, again, always be aware that these things are done, redone, and overdone, so the more often you can be unique, the better off you are.

While some people's eyes have a distinctive color, many people have eyes that are harder to distinguish. What do you think? Green or blue?

Hello, My name is Princess Violet and, Well, Yeah…

Watch out for the brave hero whose gaze absolutely must be a bright and glorious azure, the dulcet princess whose eyes are an astonishing purple hue (yes, we’re all stunned), or the villainous traitor whose black or yellow eyes as a toddler should have been a dead giveaway to all that he would turn evil when he came of age…

The reader should not feel like the eyes have anything to do with the fact that Our Hero is so heroic or Our Villain is so villainous, unless, of course, you are being brilliant and somehow the eyes are important. But that’s another matter.

Here’s an idea.  Mix things up.  Give the archvillain purple eyes instead of the princess.  They could be his lifelong sorrow because his minions won’t take him seriously.  “No, really, I’m evil! I swear!

Now, do be careful.  If you make your princess plain, don’t over-plain her to the point that your reader gets tired of it.  Yes, we know she’s plain.  We’re all impressed that she has overcome her lack of purple eyes so admirably.  Move on.  But switching things up and giving the hero boring brown eyes might make things a little more original.

Blue eyes... does that make me a hero by default? Does that mean bad guys automatically hate me? Does that at least mean I win in the end?

It’s a Race Thing

If you’re inventing non-human races, you can do all sorts of fun things with the eyes, of course.  Maybe they’re pure white (ooooh!) or green with pink pupils (ahhhhh!) or they change color according to the time of year (hmmmmmmm….).  Again, be careful.  This can be a good thing, but you know what they say about too much of a good thing.  It’s… too much.

If Eyes are Windows, How Much Stained Glass Can We Handle?

All in all, you can have all kinds of fun with character descriptions, but if you are constantly giving your characters jewel colored eyes, you will quickly lose any sort of effect that those eyes might have had.  Plain colors will be readily accepted by the reader and will make any astonishing derivations seem much more fantastic and interesting.

If you want to have some fun, do play around with eye colors, just so long as you are doing so knowledgeably and understanding that readers do pick up on those sorts of things.  The over-described hero/ine with the eyes that dance and sparkle and snap and shift in color from one moment to the next can get a little tedious for even the most admiring reader.  Really, when was the last time you saw someone’s eyes actually snap? No, really, I’m curious what that looks like.

I hate to be unkind, but just because you don’t have purple eyes doesn’t mean you must vicariously experience that dubious joy through every heroine you ever write.  It just doesn’t.  I’m sorry.

Now, on to write my arch-villain with the dewy violet gaze…

Black eyes... what did that mean again? Oh, right. Villain! My rabbit has black eyes... My rabbit is a-- oh dear.

4 thoughts on “It’s all in the Eyes: The Windows Into a Story’s Soul

  1. The villain in the story I’m currently working on has cliched Yellow Eyes of Villainy, but he’s a Grinch, so it’s sort of biologically necessary. Anyway, the next villain I write will definitely have violet eyes. Cliche-twisting is fun. 😛

    1. Well, so long as you only have one or two characters with “startling” eyes, you can usually avoid the cliche accusations fairly easily. It’s when you start going overboard and everyone has eyes that are azure, emerald, ruby, silver, and violet that you start running into problems.

      Yes, I’m rather liking the idea of a purple eyed Dark Lord… 🙂

  2. My favorite description of eyes is Pippin on the eyes of Treebeard: “One felt as if there was an enormous well behind them, filled up with ages of memory and long, slow, steady thinking; but their surface was sparkling with the present; like sun shimmering on the outer leaves of a vast tree, or on the ripples of a very deep lake. I don’t know, but it felt as if something that grew in the ground – asleep, you might say, or just feeling itself as something between root-tip and leaf-tip, between deep earth and sky had suddenly waked up, and was considering you with the same slow care that it had given to its own inside affairs for endless years.” (LotR III. iv)

  3. In my story, most have vividly coloured eyes…but that’s part of a concept I’m using. My hero does have blue eyes…but they’re a cold,icy blue. Some of my characters do have plain eyes…but that’s also got to do with the concept of mine.

    Anime often mixes up the eye-colours. I’ve seen heroes with plain brown eyes and completely unimportant characters with bright pink or even purple eyes.

    Something else that I’ve noticed, the bad-guys always seem to wear eyeliner!

    useful blog, by the way.


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