You can’t depend on your eyes when your imagination is out of focus.
Ever read a book where every character’s eye color seemed to be precious? Sapphire eyes, emerald eyes, amber eyes—striking, sure, but writers run hot and cold on whether gemstones make the best descriptors. Then we’ve got our other staples: ice blue eyes, sea green eyes, chocolate brown eyes. These images may be pretty, but they’ve become clichés of the writing world.
Eyes tell us a lot about people; they give away emotions, they crinkle with happiness, they roll with annoyance. Little flickers of the eyes can speak volumes about what people—and characters—are thinking. They’re important enough to describe, but we don’t want to use descriptions so tired that our readers lose interest or so outrageous that it takes readers out of the story. Here are some tips on how to describe eyes.
Readers do like to have a clear image of characters, so eye colors are a helpful addition to your prose. Generally, authors will drop eye colors into an overall description of the characters’ appearance once around the time they’re introduced. This can be accomplished as simply as saying “she had blue eyes.” No bells and whistles, nothing fancy, but your readers have that image in their minds and can move on to what the character is going to do and how the story will unfold.
If a character’s eyes are important or different in some way, descriptions come more frequently. Some characters resemble their family members by their eyes. Characters who are blind or albino, wear eye patches, have mismatched or unusual eye colors or shapes, are often identified by these traits. When a character’s eyes are distinct enough that it sets them apart, writers must be careful not to go overboard with description or to keep describing the eyes once readers already know what they look like. Also try not to use contradictory descriptions; for example, ice blue eyes, sky blue eyes, and ocean blue eyes are three different shades of blue and shouldn’t be used on the same character.
Writers should never talk about eyes with enough frequency to warrant looking up a synonym to avoid saying the word “eyes” over and over. Eyes should never be referred to as orbs, globes, or spheres. There isn’t really a natural synonym for “eyes” that isn’t colloquial (i.e., peepers, baby blues), so alternate words will snag readers’ attention and pull them out of the narrative.
Physical attraction between characters gives authors a little wiggle room on how frequently they can talk about eyes. A character who is interested in another will notice eyes in more detail and with more regularity. Authors should still be wary not to go overboard.
Unusual eye colors are also a choice writers should consider carefully. Having one character with unusual eyes isn’t uncommon, but if your cast is full of wild colors—especially ones that aren’t natural—it’s going to take readers out of the experience. Even stark colors like blue or green are less common than hazel or blended eye colors. Sci-fi/fantasy worlds that boast mythical characters may allow for more eye color variety, as do heavily illustrated books, graphic novels, and children’s picture books. However, for titles that are more grounded in reality, keep the eye colors to a human spectrum unless absolutely necessary.
Finally, to close my guidelines on eye-writing, tread carefully when comparing colors to other elements. Fancy descriptors stand out. Introducing your character with emerald eyes is one thing, but continually using that word is going to grate readers’ nerves. Grass green, shamrock green, and olive green (all different shades) are no less noticeable than emerald green. Ask yourself how important it is to keep coming back to eye descriptions before readers get a chance to ask why you keep coming back to them.
We writers love our eyes. They’re a beautiful part of the body, and one of the most fun to romanticize in prose and poetry. Use them sparingly to strike readers with the image and continuously to exhaust them.