Friday, November 30, 2012

Why Green Eyes Are A Problem in Fiction...

The short answer is this: green eyes are nearly the only eye color that exists in fiction.

True, every once in a while a character might have "ice blue" eyes or "chocolate brown" eyes or, in some rare cases (including Anne of Green Gables and Katniss Everdeen), gray eyes, but none of these colors appear with nearly the frequency of green eyes. Green eyes are everywhere. It's as if an epidemic raged though the worlds of fiction, and the only noticeable symptom was a change in eye color. Even my own beloved Jane Eyre insists on having green eyes, though Rochester calls them blue*. From pop-genre novels like Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code to gorgeous, heart-breaking literary fiction like Aimee Bender's The Girl with the Flammable Skirt, novels seem bursting with green-eyed characters.

In a grad school workshop, I made this complaint when my major professor, Reg McKnight, began to laugh in the big-hearted way of his that made us all love him. "Why are you laughing at me?" I asked him. "I'm not," he said. "I'm laughing because I'm pretty sure I gave the main character in my last novel green eyes."

Even among the best writers, green eyes have becomes fiction's short hand for "pay attention to this person, s/he is *interesting.*" When I read that a character has green eyes, I think what I'm supposed to be picturing is something like this:

When I know full well that actual green eyes are probably closer to this: 

And don't get me wrong. This is by all means an interesting eye, but is it any more inherently interesting than this eye?

 Or this one?

And anyway, don't we all know that eye color no more determines a person's intelligence or charisma or abilities than their skin color does? To misquote Martin Luther King, Jr., I would like the chance to judge a character on the content of their character, not the color of their eyes.

I must add an aside here that I have no bias against green-eyed people in life, only in fiction. My husband has green eyes, and his eyes are, no doubt, among the reasons I find him so attractive... though his sideburns and inveterate love of flannel have a lot to do with it as well.

My point is this: I think as writers we have to up the ante for ourselves. If a character is interesting, we cannot attempt to show this by resorting to the least interesting of all fictional eye colors. We must instead show it in surprising but character-appropriate action and dialogue. In other words, if we want an interesting character we actually have to make an interesting character.

To prove my point, I give my student writers this challenge: write down the eye color of ten people you know well who are not in class. I then ask them to come back next time and tell me if they were right. They come back blushing, embarrassed not to know the eye color of the people whom they love best. But why be embarrassed? My students weren't paying attention to the eye color because they were paying attention to what mattered most about their friends and family. They were paying attention to the goofy way those loved ones laugh, or the way they substituted in nonsense words for curse words, or the way they rub a shoulder, or the way they pet their dog absent-mindedly as they're reading the paper, or to any other of a million gestures and quirks that show who they are and why we love them.

As writers, that's exactly what we want to be paying attention to.

*Note: Jane and Rochester's disagreement over her eye color is, for me, why Charlotte Bronte gets away with a green-eyed character. Whom do we trust? Is Jane unreliable? Or is Rochester just not paying very close attention to her? Either way, the disagreement isn't a throw away detail. Rather, it does some work in this narrative, suggesting more about these characters than just physical appearance.


  1. I love the thoughts behind this, because I agree; there's a lot of green eyed characters in fiction. There are plenty of different eye colours, and shades between those. Are brown eyes chocolate, dirt, latte, coffee, or cinnamon? Blue can be sky, ocean, periwinkle, cotton-candy, midnight, aqua, etc. Hazel eyes are interesting in themselves, and then there's people like my brother who's change depending on his mood (sometimes grey, sometimes green, sometimes blue). There's so much more interesting things to do with eyes than make them green! And there's more to a character than their eyes. They have noses, brows, ears, cheeks, lips, chins, necks, shoulders, arms, waists, chests, legs, hips, feet, hands, fingers, nails, teeth, hair. They also have clothes; and that can take a whole new dimension on personality; much more than eyes can. While all characters need eyes (sometimes), I dislike the connection between eye colour and personality, as if interesting characters are the ones with green eyes.

    Good post!

  2. You're an idiot. I don't even need to read this entry to know you're an idiot.

  3. Interesting article. I was just wondering why the main character in so many books seems to have green eyes. I picked up a new novel today, started reading, oh surprise, surprise (not!) another pair of "bright green eyes".

    Your little experiment to show that people really do not notice eye colour was very interesting. It is strange that so many writers include this fact for their characters.

  4. I found your article interesting - I had long noticed that the protagonists very often have green eyes - far more than in the general population - to the point that I find myself groaning whenever I read of YET ANOTHER green-eyed protagonist!

  5. Ironically, I reached this article while searching for references for my main character's green eyes. I never thought of this before, I just wanted them to have green eyes cause I think it's beautiful. You just saved the world another green eyed fictional protagonist

  6. Even though I only have one character with green eyes (and the eyes end up being a plot point, by the way) this made me feel somewhat guilty. I was searching pictures of "emerald green eyes" to do a little character design and chanced upon this article. The character in question only has the stereotypical green eyes because I needed my main character to notice that something's wrong with him. Most of my eye colors are pretty realistic, so she sees his emerald-green peepers and thinks that they're really weird, which transitions into a whole arc of the story. But I'm glad I read this, so I can make an effort to avoid unrealistically green-eyed characters.