Tuesday, March 24, 2009

The eyes have it

What do your characters’ eyes look like?

This is one reason I like speculative fiction. With any other genre, your characters’ eyes will be the normal colors – blue, green, hazel, brown, grey, black. Maybe violet, if you’re writing romance or women’s fiction, and I’ve seen mismatched eyes once in a thriller. But with SF, the sky’s the limit.


There needs to be some reason for a character’s eyes being unusual, though, other than the coolness factor. For instance, Phedre in Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel’s Dart has a speck of red in one eye because that’s a sign of her being chosen by a god – struck by Kushiel’s dart. I have a character who’s able to change her appearance and who alters her eyes to be permanently orange (the color of flames) after she’s forced to watch her son’s execution by fire.

Eye color can also be an indication of race, such as the blue-on-blue eyes of the Fremen. Just one caveat here, though – avoid giving an evil race red eyes. That’s been done so many times already (drow, vampires, etc.) that I really want to see characters with red eyes who aren’t automatically the villains. Red eyes can be pretty too – just make them look like star rubies.


I love the augmentations made to Molly in William Gibson’s Neuromancer.

…she has in fact had her eye sockets sealed with vision-enhancing mirrored lenses that were surgically attached to her face.

A character in a fantasy could have something similar – perhaps through a symbiote attached to one eye or simply because their unique biology gives their eyes unusual abilities (e.g. seeing in the dark).


This is where you replace the eyes with something else entirely, which can be very disturbing. Or what about having no eyes at all?

If eyes are the windows to the soul, what do you make of creatures which have no eyes? Wayne Barlowe’s Expedition is a detailed and illustrated description of a journey to another planet where none of the species evolved the ability to see. As a result, they appear – and are – incredibly alien.

A similar thing can be done with fantasy races. I have humanoid races whose eyes are replaced by glass, bubbling liquid mud or clusters of small tentacles, though unfortunately these races tend to be hostile. And I’d love to mention a person (or an animal) with a rose blossoming in each eye socket as well. That would be nicely creepy.

In Mark Smith’s and Jamie Thomson’s role-playing gamebook series The Way of the Tiger, the main character has a magical gem inserted into an empty eye socket. And while this isn’t exactly a substitution, Elle Driver from Kill Bill just wouldn’t the same without that eyepatch.


writtenwyrdd said...

The thing about eyes, though, is everyone switches up the eyes. I can understand why--eyes are the windows to the soul and all that. We tend to interpret subtext, emotion, personality via the eyes (or that's how we think of it). So the focus on the eyes (no pun intended) is really an easy trap for a writer to use.

I always want, first thing, to change the eyes. But I try and resist, try and change something else.

Imagine that your characters, who are generally human in seeming, have a perfectly normal face. How would the reaction when interacting with humans differ if, say, they have a worm-like tentacle instead of a thumb?

Or what if they had a skin texture that freaked people out? People often say snakes are slimy (which is false) but if a race had a slick, sticky surface, it would gross any number of people out.

Being overly hot or chilly to the touch is also disturbing to mankind, because like all these things, it's not 'normal.'

I just think that we limit our writerly options when we go for the eye change first. Eyes are, relatively speaking, a safe bet. And thus they can be overused.

Anonymous said...

"I have a character who’s able to change her appearance and who alters her eyes to be permanently orange (the color of flames) after she’s forced to watch her son’s execution by fire."

That sounds interesting. Did she alter them on purpose somehow to honor her son, or was it caused by some extremely strong emotional reaction to his death?

Marian Perera said...

Hey Tasha,

The change itself was deliberate, but the reason why is a little from Column A and a little from Column B.

If she were asked why, she'd reply that it was to make sure everyone who looked at her remembered the way her son died. He was a magician, like her, and in their land that's punished by burning at the stake, which is a cruel method of execution.

But on a deeper level, it's her advertising that she's a magician too. You think murdering my son for who he was will stop me from using magic? Look at my eyes and you'll know the answer.

Anonymous said...

One of my character, a pyromancer, has amber colored eyes that shift from black all the way to entirely white depending on her mood (and the intensity of her attacks). Her hair can also shift color from red,to blond, and also white as well.

Madison said...

I have characters with lavender eyes in my humerous middle grace sci-fi Help! My Parents Are From Outer Space!

Kami said...

I'm just glad for any relief from the blond hair and blue eyes. I have to admit that purple eyes in fantasy female characters is one of my red flags for beginner writer in fantasy, though. This may be an irrational thing on my part.

Kami said...

Lavender is different from purple, though! Heh. Amethyst is the usual descriptor. I have nothing against purple eyes--I think they're kewl. They just seem to be really common in fantasies written by people just starting out.

Marian Perera said...

Eyes that are described as "lavender" always make me think of Drizzt Do'Urden from R. A. Salvatore's books, because his eyes were always "lavender" (signifying his goodness among the dark elves' evil).

I read a lot of those books, and I guess they've left an indelible (and lavender) stain on my memory. :)

Anonymous said...

Took the words out of my mouth Marian!

Marian Perera said...

Hey writtenwyrdd,

It's true that speculative fiction writers (and perhaps writers in general) rely a lot on eye changes. I think one reason is that it's generally easier to establish and describe eye changes to readers.

When I first started writing, I tried SF and came up with some alien race where the males lived as internal symbionts on the females. But it was very difficult to stress that to the readers, to remind them, every so often, that this apparently human-looking woman wasn't.

Whereas if she had had multiple eyes or compound eyes, her alien-ness would have been much more evident, because it would have been easier to toss off casual mentions of these. Of course, this is also a matter of the writer's skill as well as of the material - almost anything can be made intriguing and different. Eyes just happen to be easier, as you mentioned.

I like your examples too. I think they've inspired me to write another blog post on all the things that can be changed besides eyes.

Marian Perera said...

Hey ralfast,

I did the eyes-change-color-with-emotions too, except it was a feature of an entire race. They tended to distrust people whose eyes stayed one color, since it was more difficult to discern such people's emotions.

Hair color change is a bit more difficult to pull off on a biological level, so I've never tried it. Didn't J. K. Rowling have a character who did that through magic, though?

Anonymous said...

Yes, that would be Nymphadora "Tonks". She could change her entire body, but mostly changed her hair color to fit her mood.

Amy, the character in my book, suffers from involuntary changes. They reflect her emotional state as much as the intensity of her powers. I wanted the eyes/hair to reflect the shifts in the color of fire which is the element she is linked too. She is an aspect of the triple goddess, the Daughter to be precise.

I went so far as to create a trilogy within a trilogy:


I decided that instead of fighting the stereotypes I would embrace the archetypes. I hope I can pull it off.

Anonymous said...

Your post reminded me of Octavio Paz's The Blue Bouquet. It's not fantasy, but deliciously creepy nonetheless...