Physical Attributes Thesaurus Entry: Eyes

Courtesy of ismellsheep, WANA Commons
Physical description of a character can be difficult to convey—too much will slow the pace or feel 'list-like', while too little will not allow readers to form a clear mental image. If a reader cannot imagine what your character looks like, they may have trouble connecting with them on a personal level, or caring about their plight. 

One way to balance the showing and telling of physical description is to showcase a few details that really help 'tell the story' about who your character is and what they've been through up to this point. Think about what makes them different and interesting. Can a unique feature, clothing choice or way they carry themselves help to hint at their personality? Also, consider how they move their body. Using movement will naturally show a character's physical characteristics, keep the pace flowing and help to convey their emotions.


Descriptors: shades of blue, brown, green, gray, and hazel; almond-shaped, round, big, piggish, squinty, narrowed, close-set, far apart, glassy, feverish, watery, pink-rimmed, bright, dull, dancing, sparkling, speckled, laughing, smoldering, vapid, empty, dead, blind, far-sighted, near-sighted, cloudy, milky, protuberant, deep-set, sunken, blackened, bloodshot, dazed, hard, cold, limpid, dry, scratchy, yellowed, jaundiced, sharp, intelligent, gentle, kind, monochromatic, lazy, icy

Things Eyes Do (and other words/phrases to describe those actions)
  • Look: see, watch, glance, gaze, glimpse, notice, observe, peek, stare, view, take in
  • Move: roll, shift, narrow, blink, bat, wink, close, open, widen, dilate, dart, follow
  • Cry: leak, tear up, fill, water, overflow, glisten, drip, pour

Key Emotions and Related Eye Gestures: 
  • Sadness: cry, grow dull, close, tear up, lose focus, grow distant
  • Anger: narrow, sharpen, grow cold, harden, increase in intensity, snap or spark, glower, stare, glare
  • Joy: brighten, sparkle, tear up, laugh
  • Fear: widen, dilate, squeeze shut, jump, dart, stare, stop blinking, dry out

Simile and Metaphor Help:                         
  • Without my glasses, I was as blind and vulnerable as a just-born squirrel.
  • I met his gaze and wished I hadn't. His ball-bearing eyes were small and black and inhuman. If he blinked, they'd drop out of their sockets and bounce across the floor, and the loss wouldn't deter him in the least.

Clichés to Avoid: bedroom eyes; eyes that pierce or look through you; eyes being the window to the soul; doe eyes; eyes as big as saucers; eyes that shoot daggers; sunken eyes that make one's head look like a skull; blind as a bat

HINT: When describing any part of the body, try to use cues that show the reader more than just a physical description. Make your descriptions do double duty. Example: Principal Miller was short and squat with too-long arms. Between classes, he slouched into the hallway and watched us with his bulging eyes, waiting for someone to screw up so he could pounce. "Frog" was the obvious nickname, but he wasn't nearly so smart. We called him Slug.

BONUS TIP: The Colors, Textures & Shapes Thesaurus in our sidebar might help you find a fresh take on some of the descriptors listed above! 


Beth said...

This series is really useful, and is helping me think about the way I write my physical descriptions. Thank you!

inaroomofmyown said...

This is really, really helpful! Thank you so much for gathering all this together for your readers! Edith xxx

JeffO said...

Eye have to be careful; eye tend to focus far too much on eyes, Eye think.

anthony stemke said...

Brilliantly written "Thesaurus". I used to envision how radio announcers looked. Your piece reminded me of "Bartleby the Scrivener" by Melville. I remember the constant references to "pursed lips" and I thought of Bartleby as a very thin person. Would have loved how they might have portrayed him in a film adaptation of the short story.

Susanne Drazic said...

This is a good one!

Tracy Campbell said...

I'm loving this! Even though "eyes are the window to your soul" is a cliche, it still has a "nice ring" to it, but rest assured I wouldn't use it in my writing. :-D

Angela Ackerman said...

I've been waiting for this one, and you do not disappoint, Becca--well done!

Susan J. Reinhardt said...

Great stuff! I really must pick up your book. It's a valuable resource.

Diane Carlisle said...

Such a great toolset to keep in my directory. This helps so much when I'm stuck with writer's block...what to do?

Grab a set of eyes, give them some emotion, and watch your writing take off!

Great post.

Aimèe Kathrine said...

I love this! And what a great picture too!

Candilynn Fite said...

Wow, am loving this! Thanks!

debjulienne said...

Genius, thanks for sharing!


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