NowNovel recently posted a great post on how to describe eyes in a story. As they point out, many beginning authors over-rely on eye color to create an impression of their characters, but this is merely a first step. Instead, you can follow these tips to create a memorable description:

1. Make a characters’ eyes a source of contrast

Drawing of a character's eye by Marigona Toma

Drawing of an eye by Marigona Toma. Source:

As any trip to the local coffee shop will tell you, people’s appearances are often full of contrasts. The man with the big, ruddy face might have small, delicate hands. The woman with the angelic face may have a trucker’s hoarse voice. And so on. One way to describe characters’ eyes effectively is to use them to create contrast.

This can be particularly effective if the contrast is used to highlight a character’s “third dimension” – ie what makes them non-stereotypical. Having your villain glance with sympathy at a stray is jarring precisely because it’s so unexpected. And yet, even the most evil of people may be surprisingly fond of their pets.

2. Use eye description to support story development

One reason descriptions of novel characters’ eyes sometimes read as cliché is because authors describe eyes with no consideration of how that description fits into the story. “She glared at him with grey-green eyes” reads a little awkwardly because the character’s eye color is not particularly relevant. Drawing attention to it almost detracts from the key action here – the character’s anger.

Instead, you can use eye description at key points of character development. For example, if a character witnesses a horrific scene, their eyes might seem vacant or haunted. Or, a character’s eyes may show readers that person’s character or intent, as in this example from Dostoevsky, who uses adjectives to describe a character’s eyes in order to support the tone and mood of a scene: “two sharp and suspicious eyes stared at him out of the darkness.”

3. Describe the eye area rather than just eye color

To avoid clichéd eye descriptions, describe the eye area instead of describing color. For example, if there are bags underneath a character’s eyes, this conveys tiredness or anxiety. Eyes that are swollen, puffy or ringed with red indicate recent emotional distress. Narrowed eyes indicate hostility or suspicion. Half-closed eyes indicate drowsiness, and so on.

For more ideas on the subject, check out the full post on NowNovel.