Thursday, January 08, 2009

Color Blind

Writers often obsess about little details, and I'm no exception. For the last month I've been trying to figure out how to describe the eyes of one of my characters. Her eyes are blue; a very specific shade of blue. I can see her face clearly in my mind, but try as I might I cannot come up with a description of her eye color that satisfies me and conveys to the reader what I envision.

Yes, she has blue eyes, but they're not just blue. If you're a writer, you understand what I mean.

No one ever discusses important writing stuff like this. Only once did I get a handout cheatsheet during a romance writing workshop from a big name author who takes color names from cosmetic products for her eye descriptions. I've never used it because I hate makeup and some of the color names are stupid (like plum brown -- last time I checked, a brown plum was a prune. She had prune-colored eyes? I don't think so.)

Aside from real people, food, weather and nature have been my primary sources of eye color description inspiration. I also like to read through yarn magazines for unique color names. Yarn manufacturers never sell just blue yarn, you know. They sell Hyacinth, Night Sky, Dark Teal, Marine, Royal, Cadet, Morning Glory, Sea Spray, Heather, Delft, Montana, Cobalt, Lake, Beach Party and Periwinkle blue yarns. Thanks to Lion Brand's latest catalog, the next female character I write may end up with champagne-colored eyes.

But none of those shades of blue, beautiful as they are, match my character's eyes.

I'm starting to wish I'd given her black or gray eyes. Those are my two favorite eye colors to describe because you can find a lot of synonyms for black and gray that don't sound too hokey or overblown. You can overuse an eye color in fiction, so once I write a protagonist with black or gray eyes I try to use different colors for at least the next five books. Which is probably why I gave this silly ditz blue eyes. Not that they're just blue, you understand.

New writers may think eye descriptions are tough to do in the beginning of your career, but I think the more books you write, the more difficult the task becomes (if you're not interested in repeating yourself over and over, that is.) After writing all these novels, I'll admit it's become a real chore to think up something I haven't done.

My guy has gorgeous hazel eyes, which he passed on to our son. Our daughter got stuck with my genes, and our eyes are gray, green or blue, depending on the lighting and what color we wear. The department of transportation says they're green, my optometrist says they're gray, and my mother says they're blue. My daughter and I call them sea-colored to cover all the bases.

But no, my character's eyes are much lighter in color than ours, and they don't turn green or gray, so forget that.

I should have given her brown eyes. I love brown eyes. I grew up in a neighborhood chock full of beautiful Latinas, and I think that's why I've always envied girls with brown eyes. A lot of my favorite female characters have big brown eyes. Except this one. Or I could give her glasses and cover them up. But actually very few of my characters wear glasses to correct vision. This is because I've lived in the damn things since I was three.

I'll keep working at it. No matter how original you try to be with describing eye color, eventually someone else is going to cook up the same idea. I'd never read a book with a character with opal-colored eyes, so I was feeling rather smug and pleased with myself when I used that to describe Marco's eyes in the Juliana trilogy -- until a few months later, when another author came out with the same description for her protag's eyes.

Hmmmm. I wonder if I can get away with giving her blue opal eyes . . .

Related links:

Val Kovalin over at Obsidian Book Shelf has a great page here about writing eye colors.

Want to know how eye color is passed along? Check out How Are Human Eye Colors Inherited?

Want to know what color baby's eyes will probably be? Try's Eye Color Calculator.


  1. How about going to a paint shop and look at the paint chip colors? They also have interesting names.

  2. You may have already seen this page, but this is kind of a neat one for colors...

    I'm also very particular about colors in my writing. I wish you luck in finding what you seek.

  3. One of my favorite links when trying to name a color:

    Perhaps not the best to describe an eye color, but it might be a good place to start. There are some other really cool color links too.

  4. Oh, my other favorire color link:

    No examples, just various names that the vintage sellers have come up with to describe their items. Vintage clothing sellers are very descriptive. :-)

  5. Very interesting post. I don't usually think too much about the eye colour of the characters I'm reading about unless it's something particularly distinctive or if it's referenced a lot where they're in close proximity to each other, like in a romance. I'm sure for a lot of avid readers, all those different eye colours get hazy in the mind after a while.

    But I can see that as a writer, each time you create a new character, you want them to be new and fresh and vibrant. And I can see why writing about blue-eyed people for five books in a row might get tiring.

    I'm not sure if this will help in naming your mysterious blue eye colour but I wanted to quote an excerpt from a recent reissue of one of Suzanne Brockmann's shorter romances. Both her hero and heroine have blue eyes but have different variations of blue, as you say you and your daughter have. I thought it was neat that each one thought the other's blue eyes were more unique and beautiful and thought their own colour was plain or boring. It was like a recurring motif throughout the book that kind of symbolized how easily they saw the beauty in each other but had a hard time finding it themselves:

    [Her eyes]were blue gray, and so totally blue gray that they were nearly colorless. Unlike many average pairs of blue eyes, like his own for instance, Sandy's had no flecks of gold or green mixed in. Pure blue gray, with thousands of tiny lightening bolts of white shooting from the pupil toward the edge of the iris.

    and from her POV:

    He was still mere inches away from her, and she could see tiny flecks of brown and green mixed in with the almost aquamarine blue. His pupils were surrounded by a tiny ring of gold. "You have beautiful eyes, McCade," she breathed...

    Ironically, after reading this book, I took some time to study my own blue eyes in the mirror and found that they are "pure blue" as Suzanne described her heroine's eyes. They even have the little white striations coming out from the pupil! ;)

  6. Have you tried this:


    They have all those color swatches from the paint store online. Go to "Behr's Virtual Color Center."

    I've looked through it once or twice, not to lift a name in its entirety, but to find reminders of other stuff that might be a particular color, which could help me come up with an analogy. Here are a few that came to mind as I looked at the blues there.

    glaciar bay
    cornflower blue
    cobalt blue
    peacock blue

  7. Do you know exactly what they look like these eyes, or have you just got the colour in your head? I have zero experience doing this and I've no idea what you've done so far but perhaps check out some various online mixing palettes that you can get to do web design so that you can get a "physical" representation of the eye colour and then wander around town with it, see if it matches anything?

    N.B. "Butcher's awning" blue is probably not what you want! I really hope that doesn't come out your perfect match!

  8. I have brown eyes. And while I love them, I always wanted gray or green eyes. So I guess we're even.

    Oh - and that's one reason I love knitting. The yarn variety is just incredible.

  9. I have a tag set (like a catalogue, but with half-yard lengths of the actual silk floss) from Hand-Dyed Fibers -- excellent prices and excellent service (just a very satisfied customer, no other connections).

    Never thought to use that for inspiration!

  10. Anonymous6:55 AM

    Had I written the story, the colour would be "airplane toilet blue"... Not very flattering, but my descriptions seldom are as nice as they are true. ;)

    You haven't thought of just putting in the hexadecimal RGB values, like in HTML, so that people really know? Abstractions might be your enemy here...

    "Mike's whole masculine body shivered as from (here I wanted to put "orgasm", but let's stick with) physical exhaustion, when Rosalynn fially opened her #0a0aa6 colored eyes."

    Pure poetry!

  11. I don't suppose calling her eyes "thalo blue" is any help? *g* Paint colors, they are good sources of names. Maybe. Or flowers. Or rocks.

    I think this does get harder the more you do it, because you keep running into stuff you've used before and don't want to repeat.

  12. Anonymous7:25 AM

    This is funny, considering I'm 45 years old and only just found out what color my eyes are--"steel blue grey" according to the charts. I always thought they were the color of dirty seawater, but whatever......


  13. My favorite blue is the color of the chicory flowers on the side of the road in the summer. I can't help but smile when the first ones of the year appear. If they weren't a noxious weed that would take over the neighborhood in a couple of years I'd plant them in my yard.

  14. Folk singer Kristin Andreassen has a song called "Crayola Doesn't Make a Color for Your Eyes." It's worth a listen for all the artists/writers who struggle with this problem!

  15. Back in my youth I tried to write a poem about the eyes of a boy I was pining for. I rhymed cobalt with salt and fault. Now you know why I write prose instead of poetry.

  16. My MIL is Sicilian with coffee brown hair and eyes that are like none I've seen. I call them Caribbean blue because they're kinda aqua, they're blue but they're green. The thing with them isn't the color though-it's how light they are. They're bright, they're so light. If you could see pictures of her Dad with the same eyes, they show up as white on black and white pictures. It's kinda eerie.

  17. I gave a hero Caribbean blue eyes because I envisioned the color of the blue water in the tropics -- as opposed to the tropical green water that appears in some places. I think I also compared another character's eyes to the color of a London blue topaz.

    I remember Kay Hooper in a long ago Loveswept compared the hero's pure blue eyes to the blue at the base of a flame. I love that description!

  18. Anonymous10:27 AM

    What a fun string of comments! I am picky about colors too, and would blend colors and pencils in my coloring books. ( I still own coloring books;) .
    I can't wait to try out the links. And, my favorite flowers are also Chickory, but I've never been able to "transplant" any successfully.
    PS My verification word is "undefine." :)

  19. I don't know a better way to describe this, my eyes are a light brown but someone told me once that they look the same color as my red hair when I stand in sunlight. My nephew, Logan, has a beautiful blend of amber and green, and my niece, Leah, has the bluest blue I have ever seen on a person that was not wearing colored contacts. I've always called it pixie blue.
    My older sister, Becky, has hazel eyes but they will change depending on her mood, gray, blue or green, once we had a fight and she got right in my face and her eyes freaked me out because they were a pure silver. Still gives me chills.

  20. Maybe you can use the color confusion to your advantage in the story. Maybe the other character who sees her eyes has just as much trouble trying to figure out what color it is and it becomes a sub-thread in the story. Maybe he asks her and she is ambivalent to the whole thing.

    Just a thought...

  21. Anonymous11:50 AM

    Blue opals...sure you can describe them like that.


  22. I've spent hours pouring over colors but for me, the problem is more 'did they use that color name in the time period I'm writing in', because invariably, you'll get that one reader who will tell you the color name you used wasn't 'in use' in 1835. *sigh*

    I had a friend in high school though who had the lightest blue eyes I've ever seen. They were the color of a snow capped mountain when the sun shines so bright, the crystal blue of the sky's reflection on the snow gave them the barest hint of color. Very bizarre and the coolest eye color I've ever seen. I wanted eyes that color.

    Mine are brown. Dark, plain brown. Boring brown. No flecks, no sparkles, no...nothing. Just brown.



  23. Anonymous12:11 PM

    This is hard (and I paint ceramics, and have loads of blue paint).

    Let's see.....there's Aqua Blue which is different from Aquamarine Blue, Turquoise Blue, Blue Violet, Blue Velvet, Royal Blue, True Blue...and on and on and on

    Good Luck!

    Oh and there's Jon Erik Hexum's Blue Eyes too.

  24. Okay, this has got to be a white western people problem. For most asians, your eyes are dark brown, your brother's eyes are dark brown, your wife's eyes are dark brown, your children's eyes...

    My husband is Chinese and our kids inherited his beautiful dark brown eyes. When I took my son for his one-week checkup at the doctor, the student nurse was admiring him and said, "Look, his eyes are brown already." Um...yeah. The lucky kid was born that way.

  25. The first thing that came to mind when you mentioned the blue eyes but lighter than your sea ones was clear desert blue skies. Sometimes it is so light it's almost white but it still blue. I wish I had a picture to post for really is the most amazing blue and it goes on forever. Hmmm may have to use that someday.

    Someone mentioned aquamarine. I have an aquamarine ring and the stone is a pale blue that has been mistaken for a diamond.

    I have the blue eyes that change with what I'm wearing or my mood, too...never really gone to shades of gray that I'm aware of.

    What an interesting post!

  26. Someone mentioned aquamarine. I have an aquamarine ring and the stone is a pale blue that has been mistaken for a diamond.

    But the more pure, the more expensive and 'better' the aquamarine, the more green it contains so then one has to decide if they're really blue eyes or if they do have a bit of green in them.

    I even tried tinted contacts a couple times to see what I'd look like. Interesting. Did you know if your eyes are brown enough, tinted contacts have no effect?



  27. How about cerulean?


  28. Hey, I thought I was the only one with green/blue/grey eyes (well, other than my dad and my grandmother...)! To further confuse things, I also have a brown spot in my left eye. I tend to call them "uncolor" because they're just not one color or even a mix of two colors. People who hear me say that come to look for themselves and they're baffled too. If I have to pick a color (other than at the DMV -- for them, they're green) I say they are turquoise grey, with a brown spot in the left.

    Good luck with describing your character's color!

  29. My mother used to look into my eyes and tell me they weren't brown, but "a mixture of all different colours".

    Heck, they look brown to me....

  30. Anonymous3:02 PM

    Wow, another person who describes their eyes as sea-coloured! I thought I was the only one!

    My eye colour does the whole blue/green/grey shifting thing too, and you're the only other person I've ever encountered who says the same.

    Mum has hazel-ish eyes, Dad's are clear blue. My brother ended up grey, and I got the mixture, it seems.

  31. They actually had your book in stock at my local store today! Yae for me!

  32. Anonymous1:39 AM

    I also have been blessed with eyes that change color with my mood or whatever I am wearing, and my lovely, blue-eyed wife loves them. (I think if she could swap colors, she would.)

    Anyway, why does a color have to be defined by Crayola or Maybelline(sp) or Sherwin-Williams? Why can't the color of your character's eyes resemble the color of the flitting of an Indigo Bunting's wings on a bright, sunlit day, or perhaps they're scintillating like examining a sapphire through a jeweler's loop. Saying "poop-colored" is the same as saying a connoted brown (unless we're talking about a baby who has recently had a meal of strained carrots or peas).

    My 2¢, FWIW.

  33. Try going with a gem or mineral...there are some really cool see through ones with a blue-ish tint.

  34. Anonymous6:32 PM

    Maybe I can help - I have blue eyes - world blue eyes - think of the world viewed from space mainly blue - but with swirls of other colours - that is my eyes - world blue.

  35. Periwinkle? Or something along those lines?
    I like opal eyes...haha...What about blue rainbow moonstone eyes?
    ManiacScribbler =^..^=

  36. Thanks for the links, Lynn! As a writer, eye colors always frustrate me.

  37. Thanks for the genetics link. It was interesting, though as always, my eyes fall into that last half-paragraph of "We haven't found everything yet, because of people like these...". Both my parents have blue eyes without the least hint of brown. Mom is pale blue-green, and Dad blue-gray, neither with much color mottling. My older brothers both have the expected blue eyes, though in more intense shades than my parents. Me? I have hazel eyes. A slate-blue background with a distinct netting of gold-brown over the top. Depending on lighting, clothing, and mood, they can look blue, green, brown, gray or hazel. In college I had three ID's with three different eye/hair listings: blue/blond, green/red and brown/brown, all chosen by the person issuing the ID, and all without any change in me except what I was wearing and where I was standing. So where did the brown come from? (I do look like my father, so it's not the mailman.)

    Even more bizarre, both my sons have inherited my color pattern, with a base color and a netted shade over top, so there's some genetic component to that, despite it not being evident in my parents. My eldest has an indigo blue base and mid-brown netting - his eyes look straight brown except on close examination, and my youngest has a black base with pale gray netting and gold flecks -people do a lot of double takes looking at his eyes, they're like a black marble countertop.


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