Twilight Recap: Bella has arrived at her next class to find an openly hostile and visibly distressed Edward Cullen straining away from her in what would appear to be acute disgust.
Twilight, Chapter 1: First Sight
I’d noticed that his eyes were black — coal black.
I used to like eyes. I come from a family of blue-eyes and on shopping trips and family vacations, I and my father would frequently hear from polite strangers that one or both of us had "the bluest eyes I've ever seen!" This frequent exclamation left quite an impression in my young mind because my eyes do not look anything like my father's; my eyes are an extremely dark blue, whereas his are quite light in color - almost the color of a clear sky. As a child, I often wondered how we could both have "the bluest eyes I've ever seen!" when our blue eyes were obviously so very different.
Because I was so used to such superlative compliments from an early age, I wasn't particularly surprised or disconcerted when the characters in the books I read were described with eyes colored in intense blues, deep greens, or rich browns. After all, I had it on good authority that the two pairs of the bluest eyes ever were living in my very own household, so it seemed perfectly reasonable that similarly unique eyes would dot the pages of my favorite books.
As I grew older and became more aware that the compliments bestowed on us by kind strangers were really more of a courtesy than a scientific statement of fact ("I have completed the analysis of my memory banks and can now state with certainty that your eyes are most definitely the bluest eyes I've ever seen."), I extended this same understanding to the books I read: there wasn't any conflict between two characters in two different books having the brownest eyes ever, because all it really meant was that they both had very brown eyes, and that certainly fit with the world around me. Lots of people, after all, had very brown eyes.
Then sometime around the 1990's, a disturbing trend started creeping into my books: among the familiar blues and greens and browns, there started to be scattered new eye colors, as though the old standbys were somehow tired and boring to their authors. It started innocuously enough with hazel, which was okay because I knew a boy at church with hazel eyes and I understood that hazel was essentially a natural mix of green and brown and a little gold. I also knew that the colors in his eyes could shift a little at times, but the changes always seemed incredibly subtle to me and I rarely saw them at all unless they were pointed out to me directly, so I was a little confused when the hazel-eyed characters in books started having color-shifting eyes that served as a sort of biological mood ring readable by everyone in a 20-foot radius.
Then more eye colors started popping up: golds and grays and violets - colors I'd never even seen before in eyes. Where were all these rainbow colors coming from and why had I never seen them before? Why were they suddenly popping up in books that were set, ostensibly, in the same world I lived in - and why was no one else as startled by them in my books as I would be if I were suddenly confronted with them in real life?
At first, I rationalized these strange and odd eye colors as being a sort of hyperbole. Hadn't I heard my friend's hazel eyes described as "golden" on more than one occasion? Didn't my father's sky-blue eyes look faintly gray in the right lighting? Didn't my mother talk about Elizabeth Taylor's "violet" eyes, even though they always just looked deeply blue to me? It seemed likely that these gold and gray and violet eyes were just as normal as the eyes all around me, but just highlighted poetically by the author for dramatic effect - I could understand that.
Then the year 2000 rolled around and the world failed to collapse into an apocalyptic wasteland roamed by distraught programmers, tormented by their own failure to correctly handle non-1900's-based dates in code, and suddenly it seemed like every author in the world realized that I wasn't taking their pretty eye colors literally. This ushered in the era of the Stone Eyes: suddenly my books were absolutely littered with emeralds, amethysts, topazes, onyxes, sapphires, and - inexplicably for anyone not an outright albino - rubies. Sometimes the eyes weren't stones, but something equally hard and evocative, like amber or coal or marble.
No longer could I restore some sense of rationality to my books by assuming that the eye descriptions were somehow figurative. Edward Cullen, for example, cannot possibly have eyes that merely look black because they are a very dark blue or brown with extremely large pupils in the low ambient lighting - no, they are coal black, without a hint of natural brown or blue to be found. The fact that I've yet to encounter a truly black eye in real life, the fact that Wikipedia doesn't deign to acknowledge the existence of such an eye color (outside of a rare genetic condition resulting in the absence of an iris), and the simple fact that I cannot even imagine what such an eye color would look like in real life is not enough to deter S. Meyer from inflicting these super special eyes on me.
In 2011, we are now firmly entrenched in the era of Technicolor Eyes - liquid gold, shimmering silver, milky white, twinkling gray, glowing red, and flashing violet eyes far outnumber the plain blues, greens, and browns on the pages of the new releases. On the rare occasions when a hero or heroine's eyes are a plain every-day color we might encounter in real life, the author hastens to reassure us that the depth and brightness of the color is special in some way - if a heroine must go and have blue eyes instead of the more exotic alternatives, they will at the very least be dark shimmering pools that draw the hero inextricably into their unending depths such that he feels he is drowning in their watery beauty until he longs passionately for a life jacket for his soul.
And may the gods of your choice help you if a main character has heterochromia - the character in question is going to have perfectly complete heterochromia and not, say, the more common sectoral heterochromia.
Whether the current popularity of this Technicolor Eyes phenomena has its roots in the success of Twilight or something more primal that prompts the ubiquitous rainbow-eyed Mary Sue, all I know is that I felt compelled to issue gentle cautions against Technicolor Eyes in at least seven of the forty ABNA 2011 excerpts I reviewed this year, to the point where I've started to fret that perhaps I'm the one curmudgeonly person on earth that doesn't like this phenomena - maybe I'm raining on every else's parade who would just as soon keep all the shiny DayGlo eyes in their fictional escapes? I just don't honestly know.
In the world of Twilight, the eye colors of vampires are very good indicators of their current hunger level and therefore of their overall mood. Human eyes may be the windows of the soul, but it would seem that vampire eyes are the dipsticks of the stomach. When the vampires are low on fuel and are starting to feel the pangs of a particularly strong case of the munchies, their eyes are "coal black" - like Edward's here - a description that makes me think of the deliberately-creepy black sclera contacts, but are presumably meant to be more "natural-looking" and retain the white sclera since the Cullens are apparently able to blend in as reasonably human-like.
Of course, the very great problem here is that neither of these sets of black eyes look "natural" at all. This is partly because the ColorYourContacts site is a costume supplier and can't be bothered to take real pictures of all their stock, and is instead - in my non-expert opinion - slapping a flat black over the designated iris / sclera areas and calling it a day. But even the most "natural" picture of black eyes that I could find online don't look particularly natural at all because black eyes aren't particularly common.
This wouldn't be such a big deal, of course, except that all the Cullen clan members have black eyes, at least when they're not fresh from the hunt. Carlisle, Esme, Edward, Rosalie, Emmett, Alice, and Jasper - that's seven people with unusual and startlingly "coal black" eyes, and only three of those people (Rosalie, Jasper, and Esme) are supposedly related to each other in any way at all. The signature Cullen eye color, more than anything else, undermines this ridiculous "adoption" cover story they have concocted - it may be believable that a private adoption agency was perfectly happy to place a series of impossibly pale, inhumanely beautiful children with the Cullens, but the idea that they were also willing to select for a rare genetic condition that both Carlisle and Esme each just happen to have is patently ridiculous.
Better, at this point, to just drop the whole "adoption" story and tell everyone that they're all from the same extended family... from Alabama. (Or a number of other states, to be fair.)
Of course, the Cullens don't have aniridia - when a vampire is fresh from the hunt and fully sated, their eyes change from black to red or "topaz", depending on whether or not they've been feasting on human blood or animal blood. ColorYourEyes offers these two "vampire eyes" models for contrast -- Blood Vampire and Gold Vampire (and a Lestat Vampire! Collect them all!) -- but S. Meyer's frequent references to "liquid topaz" makes me think she means a more "overall" yellow tone. I would suppose that the image at the top of the post (fresh from RetroKatie5's flikr page) is probably what was intended, but I confess that every time I see a reference to Edward's topaz eyes, all I can think of is a gorram kitty cat.
Despite my last twenty-or-so paragraphs of warbling and whining, I don't actually have a problem with oddly-colored eyes in writing - at least, I should say I'm willing to keep an open mind. I'm perfectly content for sweet heroines to have warm chocolate-brownie eyes and for their smouldering love interests to have deep watery pools where their eyes should be. Vampires can have marble skin and liquid gold eyes and shimmering tears that drop like molten rubies, and their werewolf counterparts can have bronze burnished skin and eyes as green as the moss they run on and they can mark their territory with urine that sparkles in the sunlight like a thousand glittering diamonds. And I'll admit that I'm proud of S. Meyer for resiting the temptation to endow Bella with soft violet eyes that flash with hot passion and a thrill of fear every time she stumbles and falls flat on her face.
But, and here is the caveat to all this acceptance I'm trying to pour out, don't tell me that no one notices your character's Technicolor Eyes except their plucky, intrepid, and super-special love interest. If your character's eyes are unusual or abnormal in such a way that they immediately stand out to the narrator dutifully describing them to the reader, then the rest of your characters can't get away with being numbly incurious without instantly seeming like cardboard cut-outs populating your novel purely in order to take up space.
In other words: if, while growing up, I couldn't walk into a 7-11 without my plain blue eyes being exclaimed over as "the bluest eyes ever!" then the Cullens aren't allowed to alternate regularly between "coal black" and "liquid topaz" eyes without anyone except Bella ever noticing.