The Eyes Have It

by James Scott Bell

She put one hand behind her and flipped the snap of her halter and tossed it to the floor, staring at him with eyes of liquid smoke in which there was a curious and great disinterest.From Here to Eternity by James Jones

Eyes. Windows to the soul. “Traitors of the heart,” Thomas Wyatt put it. He would know. He was accused of ruffling the sheets with Anne Boleyn and got to write his poems in the Tower.

So yes, eyes are important. We look people in the eye when we meet them. (If someone doesn’t look at your eyes when they meet you, watch your back!)

It’s the same with characters, isn’t it? The reader forms a picture of a character—eyes included—whether you choose to describe them or not.

So the first decision you make is whether to include orb details at all. My own preference is to describe them for major and strong secondary characters. Most minor characters and “spear carriers” (those little one-offs needed for a scene, like a waiter or doorman) usually don’t need them.

Once we decide to describe the eyes, we usually first think of color. Something along the lines of She had blue eyes and wore a yellow dress. Functional but not memorable. More lush is Margaret Mithcell’s famous opening to Gone With the Wind:

Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm as the Tarleton twins were. In her face were too sharply blended the delicate features of her mother, a Coast aristocracy of French descent, and the heavy ones of her florid Irish father. But it was an arresting face, pointed of chin, square of jaw. Her eyes were pale green without a touch of hazel, starred with bristly black lashes and slightly tilted at the ends.

(Note: those green peepers were so important to fans of the book that when blue-eyed Vivien Leigh was cast as Scarlett for the movie, there was an uproar. Producer David O. Selznick took care of that by having yellow lights trained on Leigh’s face in closeups, turning blue to green.)

You can add to the color by including the effect the eyes have on the viewpoint character, as in Richard Prather’s noir story “The Double Take”—

Her eyes were an incredibly light electric blue—shooting sparks at me.

Similar is the description of Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs:

Dr. Lecter’s eyes are maroon and they reflect the light in pinpoints of red. Sometimes the points of light seem to fly like sparks to his center. His eyes held Starling whole.

David Copperfield describes the first time he saw the face of Uriah Heep:

It belonged to a red-haired person—a youth of fifteen, as I take it now, but looking much older—whose hair was cropped as close as the closest stubble; who had hardly any eyebrows, and no eyelashes, and eyes of a red-brown, so unsheltered and unshaded, that I remember wondering how he went to sleep.

While color is our natural default when describing eyes, it’s not a requirement. A popular alternative is metaphor.

His eyes were wet wounded rugs.
(Revenge of the Lawn by Richard Brautigan)

He hadn’t shaved for four or five days. His nose was pinched. And his eyes were like holes poked in a snowbank. (The Long Goodbye by Raymond Chandler)

I’ve been in front of X-ray machines that didn’t get as close to the bone as that woman’s eyes. (The Name of the Game is Death by Dan J. Marlowe)

She had a lot of face and chin. She had pewter-colored hair set in a ruthless permanent, a hard beak and large moist eyes with the sympathetic expression of wet stones. (The High Window by Raymond Chandler)

Richard Matheson’s famous Sci-Fi story “Lover When You’re Near Me” takes place in the distant future on a colonized planet inhabited by creatures called Gnees.

He sat there, momentarily reflecting on her eyes. They were huge eyes, covering a full third of her face; like big glass saucers with dark cup rings for pupils. And they were moist; bowls of liquid.

I’m saving the best for last. Here is an eye description I’ve never forgotten, so perfectly did it capture a character. It’s from Darker Than Amber by the great John D. MacDonald:

She sat up slowly, looked in turn at each of us, and her dark eyes were like twin entrances to two deep caves. Nothing lived in those caves. Maybe something had, once upon a time. There were piles of picked bones back in there, some scribbling on the walls, and some gray ash where the fires had been.

The eyes have it—perhaps more than any other descriptive element they can give us a sense of who the character is and what mysteries dwell within. Use color, metaphor, and/or the effect the eyes have on the viewpoint character, and your fiction will be looking good.

How do you go about describing the eyes of your characters?

28 thoughts on “The Eyes Have It

  1. Thanks, Jim, for the discussion in general and for the MacDonald description in particular. It’s difficult if not impossible to top that one.

    One personal peeve/cringe of mine with regard to the eyes is the phrase “He cut his eyes” to describe glancing to the side without turning the head. Maybe I am particularly sensitive to it but it seems to be overused. I seem to be seeing it more or more over the last decade.

    Have a good week, Jim!

  2. Wow! Descriptions have always been tough for me, but these examples have shoved me out of my “what color are their eyes and move on” box. Thanks for the push.
    Happy Sunday.

  3. Great post, Jim. My hat’s off to you. The eyes have it.

    I usually describe eyes with color and color of hair and other facial characteristics that reveal something about the character: warmth, distrust, curiosity, hatred, etc.

    Thanks for the examples. I need to mix in some metaphors.

    Have a great day!

  4. There’s nothing like starting a Sunday morning with great writing. Thank you, Jim. That last excerpt struck a match to my creativity, setting ablaze the need to write. Although it’s technically my day off, the playoff games don’t start till this afternoon so I can squeeze in a few hours. Enjoy your Sunday!

  5. This post already gave me a short story idea. When you wrote: “Most minor characters and “spear carriers” (those little one-offs needed for a scene, like a waiter or doorman) usually don’t need them.” My thoughts immediately went to the much maligned & under-valued Red Shirts of Star Trek: TOS. I think a short story with one of these one-offed (literally) spear carriers deserves a memorable end & a focus on their eyes, so that someone notices their sacrifice, minor character though they may be.

    This post also reminds me this is a “needs work” area in my writing. Reflecting on my stories, I tend to avoid eye description, in large part due to reading so much cliche about eyes (both green eyed and blue eyed has been done to death & how many more choices are there realistically?). And in the few times I do use eye description, I can get cliche, too. Joe mentioned the pet-peeve “cut his eyes” — I similarly over-use “rolled his eyes”.

    Yet getting crazy with eye description would likewise drive me nuts to read. I haven’t read The Silence of the Lambs (GASP!) but if I had read someone’s eyes were maroon, it would’ve thrown me out of the story (but perhaps the lighting of the scene explains that descriptor). I would be thinking that was a sci-fi universe.

    So I’m a bit torn–I don’t want cliche & I don’t want overly dramatic eye description. It’s almost like how we discuss using “said” because people tend to ignore and just keep on with their reading. I’d want eye description to be subtle but interesting. Not the cliched green-eyed or blue-eyed lasses and gentlemen, and not overly dramatic.

    I think I should set myself a “Project Eyeball” writing challenge for February. LOL!!!!

  6. Excellent. After filing this post I will open my WIP to refocus on eyes. Dull descriptors die today.

  7. Those quotes are inspiring. Can anyone ever exceed the standard set by Chandler and MacDonald? I suspect we’ll all be working on the facial descriptions of our characters in the coming days.

    Here’s an excerpt (poor by comparison) from my latest book, Time After Tyme: “He had a long, rectangular face that was blotchy red. A beaked nose jutted out aggressively under small, dark eyes that darted back and forth, reminding Kate of a hawk or an eagle. Definitely a predator.”

  8. Great post, Jim! I’m with Terry on struggling with eye descriptions. I usually go with a color, or with an expression (ice-cold stare for instance), though I’ve never used “hooded eyes”. Your tips will help me vary and deepen the eyes in my fiction 🙂

  9. Great post, Jim! And wonderful examples from some of the masters.

    I describe one female character’s eyes (WIP unpublished as yet) as twin pools of misery, stagnant black-water ponds with nothing growing there. The character’s four-year-old daughter had been kidnapped, raped, and murdered decades ago, and the mother’s eyes had died with her.

    • If I may, Deb, there’s a little rule Sol Stein had called 1 + 1 = 1/2. That is, if you use two descriptions for the same thing, side by side, it dilutes rather than adds to the effect. My suggestion is to let the more striking image stand by itself: stagnant black-water ponds with nothing growing there. Bam!

      • I see that! (No pun intended, of course…?)

        The word “misery” is what I’m trying to describe, so the second half does the heavy lifting; the first half of the description isn’t needed.

        Thanks, my friend!

  10. My specialty is the “full-body eye-roll,” though I seldom use it.

    From “A True Map of the City:” [In the sub-basement of the police station] The bloated face of the creature was human, yet revealed not the slightest human feeling in its soulless eyes. I had never gazed into such eyes before, but I knew no mercy lay in their depths.

  11. Good stuff, Jim. I checked my WIP’s opening scene and the m/c’s introduction. I see I’ve described her as having mesmerizing eyes. Originally, I had them as mahogany eyes but I dropped the color and went for the effect. Enjoy your day and keep this good stuff coming.

  12. Great post. John D. MacDonald had some great descriptions. I remember one book, can’t remember the name, but Travis McGee was in a hardware store and a kid with braces was twanging the rubber band on his braces. It’s a walk-on character I still remember.

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