The Eyes Have It: The Curious Use of Eyes in Fiction

Upon my return to my writers’ group, I read a passage from my upcoming middle-grade novel, Almost Paradise, in which the main character, Ruby Clyde, asks a perfectly logical question and the Catfish rolls his eyes:

“Ruby Clyde,” Catfish rolled his eyes, “sometimes I think you are as dumb as a box of rocks.”

Every member of my writers’ group stood up and howled. “Nooooo!”

Apparently, in my absence the group had engaged in many lively debates about the use and abuse of eyes in fiction. Eyes are marvelous organs of expression but, really, how much does it add to a character when their eyes carry the entire weight of characterization? Is there no other moving part on the face? The eyes may be the windows to the soul (a phrase attributed to Shakespeare, the Bible, and English Proverbs) but unless we are careful, poor use of eyes may be windows to a complete lack of imagination.


This guest post is by Corabel Shofner. Shofner is a wife, mother, attorney, and author. She graduated from Columbia University with a degree in English literature and was on Law Review at Vanderbilt University School of Law. Her shorter work has appeared or is forthcoming in Willow Review, Word Riot, Habersham Review, Hawai’i Review, Sou’wester, South Carolina Review, South Dakota Review, and Xavier Review. Her middle grade novel, ALMOST PARADISE, will be released in July 2017.


Fictional eyes have been known to roll, lock, squint, narrow, bug, ogle, widen, dilate, sneak, leak, tear up, brim over, moisten, glisten, sparkle, get behind veils, show their whites, get cold as stone, throw themselves around, get cast to heaven, go “eye ball to eye ball”, and get dropped.

Some eyes have even dropped into laps. (Now what would they do there?)

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After writers’ group dispersed, the e-mails flew:

I’m willing to forgive lots of things this author has eyes doing, like rolling and moving across her body, but when they fall into his lap, as they just did in this book, that’s just too much. How will he ever get them back into their sockets? (Rita)

Rolling your eyes is okay, I think, though it’s kind of a cliché. One thing [this author] does pretty often is have her characters’ eyes “narrow.” That can be pretty effective. But having eyes on his lap is just beyond the beyond. The image it projects is terrible. Quick, get them off his lap and back where they belong. They might slip down between his legs, and then what would he do? (Rita)

I think when it’s blatantly stupid (and descriptive), like “casting your eyes to the heavens,” that makes sense. But we can’t use a common expression like “rolling your eyes?” I think we’re being too literal with that one. (Shannon)

And eventually the subject opened up to include all bodily functions (from our doctor, of course.)

An editor once told me that body parts can’t act on their own; a character must make them act. However, that may not always be true: “Doug’s pulse sped up when the shapely girl approached him.” Did Doug make it accelerate or did it just take off on its own? (Rick)

If you need to use eyes in a story reach for the stars. In The Accidental Tourist, Muriel Pritchett has—“eyes like caraway seeds.” This is less a description of poor Muriel’s eyes than it is a reflection of Macon’s poor opinion of her. In The Bluest Eye, Toni Morrison breaks our heart with a young girl’s wish to have blue eyes. Shakespeare gives us lover’s eyes that are powerful enough to “gaze an eagle blind.” Kurt Vonnegut goes out on a limb when he created little green folks, shaped like toilet plungers, topped by a hand with an eye. Elie Wiesel masters the use of eyes in his memoir Night where the eyes show people’s states of mind before and after traumas: dreamy to hollow, hopeful to wounded, hooligan to angry. And finally, Wiesel, himself, looks in the mirror and sees the eyes of a corpse looking back at him.

By all means remove any thin reference to eyes, but should you try another—an eye for an eye? Sure, if the replacement is better. A lazy eye drags the story down but a complex eye lifts the story up. If your eyes aren’t working for the story, leave them alone. And for goodness sake, if eyes fall into a lap please just leave them there.

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