Your Character’s Eye Color Doesn’t Matter

It’s time to air a small grievance I have with writers. Or rather, point out a crutch that seems far too common in fiction: using eye color as shorthand for personality.

It makes sense that this sort of thing pops up because eyes are the most important part of the face. It’s where we look to learn what someone is thinking and feeling. It was the first thing we thought about in English class when we were doing writing exercises about vivid descriptions. But too often writers are using eye color as a cheap way to tell you all about a character’s personality.

You’ve seen it a million times. Brown eyes = boring, excruciatingly normal, uninteresting. Blue eyes = pretty, intelligent, exciting, angelic, possibly ethereal. Green eyes = exotic, unusual, exceptional, feisty, sexy. Red eyes = craves destruction, mayhem, revenge, or your blood. Hazel eyes = Mary Sue.

And don’t forget the other, less human colors (e.g. black, gold) as an easy way to identify someone as inhuman or otherworldly.

The same is often done with hair color. For instance, too many redheaded women in fiction are redheaded only because the author wants you to think she is quirky, feisty, seductive, or all three. It’s a trope you see in movies and comic books frequently, too.

And yes, there are plenty of tricks and shortcuts we use in writing to give the reader an idea of what a character is like, but eye color has been used so much as to render it meaningless.

The fact is, we don’t dwell on eye color very much in real life. Maybe you can tell me the eye-color of your favorite actor or actress, but I bet you can’t tell me the eye color of three actors or actresses in your favorite movie. I bet you can’t tell me the eye color of more than one of your coworkers (and only then because he has two differently colored eyes) even though you spend eight hours a day with them. There are people who couldn’t tell you the color of their own children’s eyes.

Furthermore, eye-color stereotypes are disingenuous. Every time you meet a person, do you deliberately note their eye-color? Do you automatically assume a brown-eyed person must be quiet, unassuming, or boring? Do you automatically think a green-eyed person is quirky or seductive? Wait, don’t answer that one? Do blue-eyed people instantly seem more beautiful, capable, and charismatic than anyone else around them?

No. Sometimes we notice particularly unusual eyes, and we always pay more attention to the eyes of those we’re attracted to, but for the vast majority of interactions we have, eye color doesn’t matter at all.

So we should stop perpetuating this trope in fiction.

Unless you’re writing romance, it’s not that likely that characters will note eye-color (except for those darn alien eyes), and it won’t affect the story anyway (again, excluding those stories wherein eyes play some important plot function). I don’t know (or don’t remember) the eye color of Bilbo Baggins, Arthur Dent, Lord Vetinari, Jeeves, or Ender Wiggin, but I still have vivid images in my mind of each character and what they’re like.

Ultimately, when it comes to characterization, actions speak louder than eye color. And if you want to hint about a character’s personality through description, you’ll go much farther talking about dress and grooming, or compulsive habits, or even the way those pretty [insert color here] eyes are moving. If you tell me a man is staring at someone’s breasts, I already know more about him than I could ever glean from his eye color.

“But wait,” you say. “In my mind, this character definitely has green eyes.” Fine, but ask yourself: are they green because that’s common to characters with similar personalities or plot roles? Are they a certain color because they’re supposed to signify something about the character and his/her personality? If so, you’re wasting your time, and your story will be just as strong without that particular detail.

What other descriptions do you see authors using as a crutch?

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5 thoughts on “Your Character’s Eye Color Doesn’t Matter

  1. Hmmm, I never realized that this was how people used eye color and hair color. I guess I’ll have to go back through and double check my characters. Thanks for the heads up!

  2. This was actually a pet peeve of mine too for a long time. So, in my books I used eye color as a way to tell if a person was a magic user, god, becoming immortal, or infected with magics beyond their control. It kinda pissed off some of my readers at first, which I thought was hysterical.

  3. I think mostly about colors when it relates to families (people who are related have to have colors that make sense, or strange inheritance could be used as a plot point), or when I’m creating a world and don’t want to be lazy in assuming that the races are exactly the same as humans in that respect when they’re not in others. Also, I think the worst offender is anime, since everyone has large eyes and they all tend to have multicolored eyes/hair, usually adhering to whatever stereotype they correspond to.
    Names are another thing that get used as a quick character crutch…

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