Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Writer Perspective - Eye Color

I'm fascinated by eye color and I always notice, and usually remember, eye color. I started thinking about eye color once again the other day when my husband started talking about the upcoming new Star Trek movie, which we're all greatly anticipating. Anyway, he mentioned that the "new" Captain Kirk, played by Chris Pine, has bright blue eyes – just like the old Captain Kirk played by William Shatner.

But I remembered Shatner having light brown eyes or possibly hazel eyes, and furthermore I remembered that no one in the original cast except for DeForest Kelley (Doctor McCoy) had blue eyes. Anyway, that sent us both to the internet to look it up: it turns out Shatner has brown eyes.

People are fascinated by eye color, judging by all the celebrity-sites out there that carefully catalog the eye color of the rich and famous (celebrity heights are of great interest, too). This is even though the trend in some fiction (literary, mystery, science-fiction) is to avoid giving much detail of a character's physical description. Even in those genres, eye-color is a small indulgence that most writers permit themselves.

Fortunately, our m/m genre is most closely related to the overall romance genre where physical description is not just encouraged, it's mandatory. So we writers can go all out with our fancy descriptions. As I understand it, the most common eye color to the least common is as follows: brown, blue, hazel, gray, green, and violet. Of course, we might get the urge to dress up the basic color with some fancier words.

The weirdest word for an eye-color that I remember reading recently? Ochre. The word jolted me right out of the story when I read it. I think the author was going for a tawny-brown. But I remember ochre from my childhood art classes as being a real unattractive shade of grayish-tan that oozed out of the paint-tube like mud or slime. I'd associate ochre less with eyes and more with the uniforms and mud of, say, the trench warfare in the First World War.

Eye color descriptions can be hard to do and stay away from the usual clich├ęs such as china-blue, sky-blue, storm-gray, nut-brown, and so forth. If you're curious about how to describe eye color, see my Kindle document on Amazon: How to Write Descriptions of Eyes and Faces (Just so you know, this 15,000-word book contains the 3,651-word Eye Color list from my website plus the 1,731-word article How to Describe Eyes, also from my website. The other 9, 618 words in the book are all-new material.)

Copyright © Obsidian Bookshelf. I don't allow my content to be copied and reposted in full. You may use an excerpt (a few sentences) with a return link, but not the entire post.


  1. And whatever you do, don't say that your hero has moss-green eyes. (Not as bad as lichen, but still.) ;-)


  2. Ha, ha! Or algae-green eyes. How disgusting!

  3. Chocolate dipped in honey eyes... Yea, I know not a real color... but hey.. I got to fit chocolate in there! The golden glow of honey.

  4. I'm interested in the color of a character's eyes, but I don't see what's so wrong with just calling them blue (or grey, or green, or brown). The character of the eyes - crinkled at the corner with laugh lines or old age, or hangdog sad - to me, desrves more description than the color.

    I've seen every manner of gem-colored orb, and also some improbable colors. Violet seems a favorite, and I can't say I've ever seen a live person with Violet eyes.

  5. Hi, Cecile! Yes, food and beverage descriptions are used a lot. I remember J. D. Robb / Nora Roberts describing her heroine Eva Dallas's eyes as being tawny-gold like whiskey. I like that description -- first, it's a pretty color, and then it has those sexy yet rugged connotations.

    But then I've seen other writers compare their characters' eye-color to beer. Ewww. Not quite as sexy. Especially "lite" beer!

  6. Oh, I like the idea of a list how eye colors are described. Ochre reminds me of a tiger or something, not attractive at all. It always amazes me that a lot of the guys have "striking" blue or green eyes. The number of men with striking eyes is definitely disproportionally high, :-). I myself love the violet eyes, but even they seem to be used more and more often and become trite. I've yet to meet someone with violet eyes, though. Do they exist in real life?
    On a side note: I wonder if readers really care for detailed descriptions of people that much? I don't. Based on a description in a book I can never imagine what a person looks like (except maybe for general things like the long hair, bulky body etc.). So are detailed descriptions really necessary?

  7. Very true, SMD. I even run across amethyst eyes in fiction sometimes and it sounds even more pretentious than violet. Nothing wrong with just giving them a basic color like blue and then just describing the overall expression.

  8. Hi, Rikki, I know just what you mean about descriptions being distracting.

    That's one of the things I've had to make myself do in writing m/m fiction: the details of the physical description.

    My preference as a reader is to not get all that much description so that I can imagine the character for myself. What's fascinating is that I can come up with a detailed image even if I don't get any details. I just make up the details myself based on -- I'm not sure what. Probably little associations that the story touches off that remind me of movies or people I've known.

    The distracting part comes in when I've read for a while and then suddenly get details that are different from what I imagined.

    I read a story awhile back and assumed the main character was my same ethnicity like we sometimes unconsciously do and then suddenly got told he wasn't about 8 pages in. I had to start reading over again at page 1 with the new image in mind.

    A writer's intended genre can shape what he or she does with description. I think in literary fiction, it's regarded as amateur to put in much physical description.

    But in romance, you have to do it. A friend writing in m/m once told me that she got a story rejected because it didn't contain enough physical description of the main characters.

  9. Oh, the violet eyes do exist but they're very rare. Elizabeth Taylor is famous for her violet eyes.

  10. I've found very few pairs of blue eyes to be striking. When they are, it's usually because the person who has them is dark, either very dark haired or black.

    Green, now green usually strikes me, and I suspect it's because of my father having them. And often because the person I'm seeing them on is black.

    If an author waxes on and on, getting more ridiculous with each description, the book gets tossed. In fairness, the last one that happened to was post-apoc action adventure, not romance.

  11. Angelia, thanks for the comment. Yes, green gets my attention more than blue because it's more unusual. My eyes are blue so it seems kind of ordinary to me. I've run across the description of the black people with green eyes (or turquoise eyes) in fiction by James Lee Burke writing about Creoles. I'm with you on ridiculous descriptions! If it's just destroying my escapism with silliness, I'll put down the book.

  12. Val, that's exactly how I do it. I always imagine people in a certain way based on things in my mind, no matter what the descriptions say.

    What is annoying is when the book covers don't match the descriptions in the book, esp. in hetero romance. People complain about this all the time. You wonder if the cover artists ever read the book at all, or make up people just at will.

    Oh, and you know, I just remembered eyes of two different colors. I think that is pretty amazing, too. As far as I can remember I've read two stories with guys where the two eyes were of a different color, but I have never met someone in real life (in fact, it was three stories, but one was when I was a kid and that image really stuck with me).

  13. Hi, Rikki, oh that's interesting to know that you imagine your own descriptions in that way, too. I'm with you on the book covers. Especially when the artist gets something big wrong like race or ethnicity! Even getting the hair-color wrong annoys me.

    The eyes of two different colors! That's really interesting. It's called heterochromia. Actress Jane Seymour has it (right eye hazel, left eye green). It shows up in critters sometimes like a cat with one blue eye and one green eye.

  14. I'm guessing that most cover artists do not read the book they are working for. I know mine only received a summary and a quick character fact sheet. He e-mailed me to find out what I had in mind, but I think that's somewhat unusual.

    As a reader I pay absolutely no attention to the cover of a book, because most times it has really no connection to the story at all. Covers are like TV commercials. They’re meant to make you want to buy a product, but they’re not very realistic.

    I love Coke, but I never break out in song after drinking it. Dang it :-)

  15. Thank you, Nadja, for the comment! I disagree in that I assign more importance to the cover art, but I value your perspective as a reality-check for me.

    I'm thinking you're right about the art department almost never having the time to research the book they're doing the cover art for. I'm also thinking you're right, and very practical, to assume that most cover art won't accurately reflect the book and to not let that bother you.

    I myself can't help getting bothered and distracted when the art doesn't match up as it so often doesn't -- but when it does, that's the best! The art can sometimes enhance the reading experience that much more and convey things that I didn't get from the text alone. But that's rare!

  16. It's quite possible that I am the only reader ever who doesn't bother with covers :-) I know, I'm weird [insert long-suffering sigh].

    I totally agree that when covers match they can enhance the whole experience. And hey, some covers are just too sexy to be ignored. And some are smoking hot AND match what’s between the covers.

    My favorite: Jordan Castillo Price’s Channeling Morpheus: Manikin. Now that’s HOT. And I love her descriptions of Michael’s eyes and the eyeliner he wears. I’ll have to find the exact quote and share.

  17. Hi, Nadja, great example! The credit for those covers for that series goes to the author and her fine arts degree. They're not typical Changeling Press covers.

  18. I have to admit i do pay attention to how authors describe any thing on the face.

    But for the eyes - i agree with SMD, what is wrong with a grey, blue, black - when did those stop being colours..

    I have green eyes myself and i cannot remember the last time someone said - hey your eyes are green, I get every word in the plant and fruit bible to describe my eyes..

    It's just weird..

    I love the post - a whole lot of perspective to something that really annoy the hell out of me.

    Isn't one of Ward's brothers meant to have Obsidian eyes... not even sure what that means..

    Solid colours - RIP


  19. Hi, E.H., I'm such a nerd about eye color. I go back and forth. I love interesting descriptions of eye color, and I always notice eye color. But on the other hand if the eye color description gets too cliche or too outrageously silly, then it can jolt me out of the story.

    Your J.R. Ward example is a great example of that. Those vampires have the weirdest color of eyes: Amethyst? And Obsidian? I guess I'd sort of visualize obsidian eyes as very black, opaque, and kind of flinty. But it does make you want to laugh!

  20. I'm entering very late to the discussion, but I just discovered your blog. For this post, I have to say...

    God, yes! I haven't read that much m/m, but traditional erotica/romance is full of amethyst jewels, amber orbs with a demonic glow, etc. I think m/m's version is, like, piercing steel blue or brilliant, startling emerald.

    Why can't characters be allowed to be extraordinary and still be good looking in a normal way? I've met many sexy, magnetic people with plain brown eyes or muddy gray-blue eyes. I've even met sexy, compelling people who aren't even handsome or beautiful.

    Granted, it is easier for writers to create character attraction (either for themselves or their readers) starting with physical attractiveness, but I'm with Orson Scott Card on this one -- physical attributes should be a minor contribution to character, not a major one.

  21. Hi, Kat! Welcome to the blog. It's never too late to enter a discussion. I'm totally with you on this (and Orson Scott Card -- how cool, I never knew he said that) in that I prefer a character's physical attributes to be minimally described.

    Fun take on the differences between m/f and m/m in popularity of eye color, ha, ha! I kind of like: "amber orbs with a demonic glow" in a very over-the-top way!

  22. Hi Val!

    OSC's book "Character and Viewpoint" lists physical attributes last. It's a fantastic book that I think every writer should study it. I don't agree with a lot of OSC's philosophy, but he's a damn good writer and teacher.

    I actually wrote a post specifically about eyes earlier this year, due to the sheer number of, ah, beginning romance submissions to my critique group. If you'd like, you can read it here:

    I also sort of go into the physical perfection issue here:

    If you have time, I'd love to get your feedback on these issues. I'm often the lone voice of reason when it comes to my romance-heavy crit group.

  23. Oooh, thank you, Kat, both for the Orson Scott Card rec, and the links. I will check these out!


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