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Monday, July 2, 2012

The Thing About the Eyes

I’ve talked about this before, but one thing I’m not a fan of in fiction is when a protagonist notices the eye color of Every. Single. Person. People she’s just met. People she’s known forever. People she has only seen from across the room. Everyone has a very specific eye color.*

(And no, I will not go into the absurdity that is the seeing the variations in color—flecks of gold, a speck of hunter green in an otherwise jade eye—in the eyes of Every. Single. Person.)

Last time I whined about eye color, I talked about meeting people for the first time. This time, I want to talk about people we know.

The other day my sister got new glasses. I’m looking for new glasses, so I was trying on hers. Somewhere between looking at the frames on her face and trying them on, I noticed she had hazel eyes. This is a shock because a) I have brown eyes and b) I always thought she had brown eyes, too. Now, they’re not bright green or anything, but they’re definitely not brown. I’ve known her for her whole life and I JUST realized her eyes weren’t brown.

(And I told you the story of how I realized The Man had blue eyes.)

This, Im pretty sure Id notice.

So what I’m saying, aside from the fact that I’m highly unobservant and probably don’t look people in the eyes enough, is that everyone doesn’t memorize the intricacies of each eye he or she meets. We also don’t think of people in terms of eye color. (Unless you have remarkable eyes like this or this or this.)

My mother has blue eyes. I’ve known that since I was little because she was the only one in the family without brown eyes. (Or so I thought.) Anyway, when I describe her to people I do not say:
“She’s about 5’4” with brown hair and blue eyes, rosy cheeks and long fingers.”
Um, no. That is any woman. This is my mom:
“She spends an hour putting her shoulder-length brown hair into curlers every morning and hates wearing heels even though she’s 5’4”. She’s loud, can make a stranger her best friend in under five minutes, and stubbornly refuses to get rid of her mom jeans despite her daughter’s (very convincing) arguments.”
Tell me, after which description can you better picture my mom? Does not knowing she has blue eyes in the second description make you know her any less?

In fact, if I were to describe anyone I know well, I’d most definitely skip talk about his or her eye color—if I remembered it in the first place. Because when we know someone, we know the things that make them them.

Let’s say I’m trying to set a friend up on a date. Sure, I’ll probably mention hair color because that’s an easy identifier. (Also because guys dont want to know how fun or easygoing a girl is. They basically want to know if shes hot.) Still, in fiction, hair color can show a person’s personality. Maybe she straightens her curly hair. Or dyes it blue. Even if she’s a natural blonde, there’s something I can comment on because I know her so well.

But eye color? Sometimes I feel like it’s a cop-out, especially when a character is describing someone he or she has known for a while. Not only because we forget eye color but also because there are so many other ways we describe the character of people we know. Why should our main character focus only on external descriptors when they can tell the reader something about the character they’re describing? Why not describe some features that will really show us what this person looks like, then trade “with FILL IN COLOR HERE eyes” for one piece of useful information?

Also, how often do you see someone you have known for, like, ever and think about their eye color? I’ve known my sister for my entire life, and I STILL think about how she got the good-hair genes every single time I see her. (Which, by the way, is seriously unfair considering it’s thick and glossy enough for a Pantene commercial and she puts it in a ponytail 90 percent of the time.) But not her eye color. Clearly.

Is it just me? Try to name the eye color of the last four people you talked to. Can you?

*Yes, I know there’s a time and place for eye color to pop up. But I don’t think it’s every time we meet a new character.

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