How to Describe Eyes
(An updated and greatly expanded version of this article is reproduced in my book How to Describe Eyes and Faces. See my Amazon.com author page.)
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Even though I recommend "less is more" with physical description in fiction, I love descriptions of characters' eyes: eye-color and other attributes. Look here for tips on describing everything about a character's eyes. I'll start with eye-colors, then eye shapes, and then action involving the eyes.
Go to the Eye Color List (separate page)
Go to the Eye-Color Images (further down on this page)
Note on Clichés: Be cautious about using the first descriptive words that jump to mind because they're probably clichés. Clichés are worn-out words that have been used so often that they've become boring. There are numerous clichés to be found in eye-color descriptions and for actions involving the eyes.
Here at Obsidianbookshelf.com, I'll list the things that seem cliché to me, and you can make up your own mind whether you want to use the terms as they are, improve the terms with additional description, or avoid using them.
How to Write a Good Description. Realize thatthe first descriptive terms to occur to you, such as sky-blue eyes or nut-brown eyes, will probably be clichés. You can use these terms if you want to, but there are ways to improve them. You could strengthen the clichés with additional, vivid details:
Sky-blue eyes become bleached eyes like the high-noon Texas sky or eyes the bluish-steel of a midwinter sky. Nut-brown eyes become glossy chestnut-eyes or eyes that were the black-flecked deep brown of pecan shells.
Or you could discard the cliché and stretch your imagination to create a more unusual comparison. For example: His eyes were the shiny darkness found on a beetle's wing. On page 17 of Kushiel's Dart by Jacqueline Carey, Phaedre's eyes are described as a "… deep and lustrous darkness, like a forest pool under the shade of ancient oaks."
In The Blue Place by Nicola Griffith, the heroine Aud describes her own gray eyes as "the color of cement." Wow! This says a lot about Aud who is a ruthless, hard, violence-prone cop.
Eye-Color – Most Common to Most Unusual: You definitely don't want the readers laughing at a highly-improbable eye-color that you've chosen for your character. From my experience, the most common eye-colors are as follows: brown, hazel, blue, gray, and green, which is least common. Then I've read about unusual colors that do occur in humans, but are very rare: amber-gold, and violet, neither of which I've seen first-hand.
The Eye-Color Images. (See end of article for image credits.) If you've got the time, the best thing you can do is to study photographs of different-colored eyes and describe everything that you ACTUALLY see in the photo.
You'll end up with too much detail, but then you can cut back from there. This is the way to create vivid phrases and avoid clichés: to learn to see what is there and then describe it accurately. For example, the description "jade-green" is a cliché that appears everywhere in fiction. What does that comparison really mean? Not much because the gemstone jade can vary from a dark olive-green with a blackish tint to an unappealing greenish-white.
What do you actually see in the first blue eye? I see a blue so pale and vivid that it makes me think of electricity or a laser beam. It has a dark-blue rim around the iris and then an even mix of pale blue and white rays in the iris. Here at Obsidianbookshelf.com, I'd call it a very pure and bright and sharp color of blue.
What about the second blue eye? To me, this blue has a strikingly large amount of gold around the pupil. I'd call it a blue eye because of the dark-blue rim around the iris and the dark-blue-and-white rays in the main part of the iris, but look at all that orange-gold around the pupil! These are high-contrast eyes that would look green in certain lights.
What about the gray eye? This is a cloudy, muted shade of gray. Unlike photos #1 and #2 of a blue eye, the rim around the iris is not high-contrast. It's the same medium-gray as the rest of the iris. This eye has a balance of white-rays and dark-blue-rays that turns the overall color gray.
How about that green eye? To me, it has a dark-blue rim around the iris and a lot of gold-orange around the pupil. Inside the main iris, it's awash in a balance of yellow and pale-blue that evens out to a brilliant pale green.
What do you actually see in the brown eye? I see a black rim around the iris itself and a vivid reddish-orange around the pupil. Within the iris itself seems to be a balance of gold and lighter-brown rays.
Appearance of the Eyes: Eyes are given shape by the eyelids, which can vary due to age, ethnicity, body weight, and other factors. Most human eyes are oval-shaped with some appearing very round and some that appear to be elongated and almost rectangular. Eyes are deep-set or heavy-lidded.
Deep-set eyes are literally set further back in the eye socket. Almost no eyelid shows around the eyeball itself which is framed in the eyelashes. It can be an attractive look due to its intriguing inscrutability. Everyone loves a mystery, and deep-set eyes look mysterious. The blue eye in this photo of a young person is deep-set with not much lid showing.
Heavy-lidded eyes are literally set further forward in the eye socket and – to an extreme – can look protruding or pop-eyed. They have a lot of eyelid showing: the top-eyelid, usually, and sometimes the bottom lid as well. Heavy-lidded eyes are famous for looking sexy and alluring. They are also known as bedroom eyes because they look sleepy and seductive as if one has just got out of bed, or is going back to bed, or is luring a lover to the bed.
What famous actor and actress from the Golden Age of Hollywood were known for their heavy-lidded, bedroom eyes? Robert Mitchum and Bette Davis, of course!
More descriptive terms for heavy-lidded eyes include sleepy eyes and sultry eyes. Sleepy eyes are an obvious term for heavy-lidded eyes. Sultry, however, is not immediately clear. If you look up "sultry" in the dictionary in this context, the definition isn't going to help much.
From The American Heritage Dictionary, Second College Edition (Houghton Mifflin, 1982, 1985, 1991, ISBN 0395329434) : 1. Very hot and humid. 2. Extremely hot, torrid. 3. Sensual, voluptuous. The third definition gives a clue. Sultry eyes are sexy, and therefore probably are heavy-lidded.
Actions Involving the Eyes.
- Dancing Eyes (cliché). See Darting Eyes. Here the emotion is mild and positive. Examples: amusement, playfulness, harmless mischief, flirtatiousness. Dancing Eyes are similar to Sparkling Eyes except that dark eyes are most often described as "dancing" and light-colored eyes as "sparkling" though both terms could be applied to either type of eye.
- Darting Eyes. You're sending short, intense glances from point to point. Eyes will dart, dance, flash, sparkle, or twinkle when they are alert (not sleepy), involved, and experiencing a high level of emotion. "Darting eyes" is mostly a neutral term where the writer would have to clarify if the emotion causing the darting eyes is positive or negative. That said, it does have a slight negative connotation to me here at Obsidianbookshelf.com that the person could be nervous.
- Flashing Eyes (cliché). See Darting Eyes. Here the emotion is strong and could be positive (passion) or negative (anger).
- Glinting Eyes. Dictionary Definition. 1. A momentary flash of light, a sparkle. 2. To gleam or flash. Both Glinting Eyes and Glittering Eyes are terms similar to Glistening Eyes in that they describe eyes that become more reflective than usual, perhaps due to tears. But both terms have a harder-edged connotation as well because it is usually something hard like metal or gemstones that glint or glitter. To glisten implies a sustained reflective softness and not a fleeting hard flash. Eyes can glint or glitter with tears, but can also glint or glitter with negative emotions such as hatred or anger.
- Glittering Eyes. Dictionary Definition of Glitter: 1. To sparkle brilliantly; glisten. 2. To sparkle malevolently or coldly: 'eyes glittering at the prospect of revenge'. See Glinting Eyes.
- Glistening Eyes. Dictionary Definition of Glisten: to shine by reflection; reflect lustrously. This implies a strong emotion that causes tears to well up and coat the surface of the eye, which causes it to catch the light or become more reflective than usual. Glistening eyes usually present a weepy image. It could be sorrow that causes this, but it could also be any strong emotion like hatred or a sensation like pleasure. The writer would have to bring out the context of the emotion with further description.
- Hard Eyes. The eyes themselves aren't hard, but the tiny muscles around the eyes have gone rigid to make the eyes look hardened. It's a hostile expression that comes out of negative emotion such as anger, disapproval, hatred, or distrust. That or the person with the hard eyes is a tough, unforgiving person in general.
- Narrowing one's eyes, narrowed eyes. Usually people draw their eyelids over their eyes to narrow them out of a defensive urge to protect their eyes. Narrowed eyes or to narrow one's eyes implies a negative emotion (distrust, distaste, anger, fear, skepticism) or a perhaps steeling oneself to do, or endure, something difficult.
- Rolling one's eyes (cliché). This is when one rolls one's eyeballs in the sockets (both usually moving together counterclockwise) to express exasperation or disbelief. It is a mildly rude expression usually done by bratty children. The gesture is only a cliché when performed by a bratty child or teenager, or a sassy heroine in an urban-fantasy novel.
- Sparkling Eyes (cliché). See Darting Eyes and Dancing Eyes. Dancing Eyes are similar to Sparkling Eyes except that dark eyes are most often described as "dancing" and light-colored eyes as "sparkling" though both terms could be applied to either type of eye. Light-colored eyes might be seen as more light-filled, and therefore sparkling.
- Squinting one's eyes. See Narrowing one's eyes. Squinting involves narrowing one's eyes even further. Oddly enough, there is usually a good, neutral reason for doing so: as a reflex against strong light, or when straining to discern detail in something almost too far away to see. So squinting doesn't really imply any emotion, whereas narrowing one's eyes implies negative emotion.
- Stony Eyes (cliché). See Hard Eyes.
- Twinkling Eyes (cliché). See Sparkling Eyes. Twinkling Eyes is even worse than Sparkling Eyes as a sentimental, useless descriptive term. Like Sparkling Eyes, it tends to get applied to people with light-colored eyes – mostly to Santa Claus in children's stories.
Image Information: The following images were found on Wikipedia and shared by their copyright holders under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2 or any later version published by the Free Software Foundation, except where noted.
- Blue eye by 8thstar, found on Wikipedia at this link: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Image:Blueye.JPG
- Blue eye by Rachel Schmied found on Wikipedia at this link: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Image:Movie_Eyes.jpg. Released by its author Rachel Schmied into the public domain.
- Gray eye by Nick4gwen found on Wikipedia at this link: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Image:Mybluishgrayeye.JPG. Released by its author Nick4gwen into the public domain.
- Green eye by Yug found on Wikipedia at this link: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Image:Laureline_eyes.jpg.
- Brown eye by Gons, found on Wikipedia at this link: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Image:OjoMarron.jpg
- Deep-set eye. Public Domain photo courtesy of Wikipedia.
- Robert Mitchum, Public Domain photo courtesy of Wikipedia
- Bette Davis, Public Domain photo courtesy of Wikipedia