Facial expressions: how to capture them in writing

Facial expressions usually reflect what a character, say Sam, is feeling. Writing about facial expressions can be difficult. You don’t want to describe every expression that Sam pulls, nor do you want Sam to have a face of stone. Capturing the right balance gives an impression of what Sam’s face shows, and therefore feels.

Capturing facial expressions is more important for non-viewpoint characters like Sam than it is for viewpoint characters like Phil. Phil can’t see his own face, although he can feel his face move. He might give himself a tension headache from frowning for a long time or clenching his teeth. He can see Sam’s face, however, which he can read to give an indication of how Sam feels.

There are considered to be seven emotions that can be expressed on the face in all cultures (PEG, no date a):

  • anger
  • contempt
  • disgust
  • enjoyment
  • fear
  • sadness
  • surprise.

Emotions are responses to a stimulus, whether ‘actual, imagined or re-lived’ (PEG, no date a), such as:

  • a physical event
  • a social interaction
  • remembering an event
  • imagining an event
  • thinking about a past emotional experience
  • talking about a past emotional experience.

A physical event could be Sam losing all her money in a con. A social interaction could be a chance meeting with someone from Sam’s past, which could cause Sam to remember the events that happened back then. Imagining an event could be Sam thinking about what she’ll do to Phil when she catches up with him later. When Sam thinks back to how Phil double-crossed her, the original emotions may come flooding back. When Sam confronts Phil, and she talks about about what he did, she might have difficulty reining in those emotions.

Rather than use adjectives (an angry expression) or adverbs (smiled happily), briefly describe the facial expression, ideally in an interesting and natural way. Use simile and metaphor to add interest: Sam’s forehead wrinkled like a concertina. Does Sam’s expression match what she says? Is that because you’ve written it badly or is she trying to smile through the tears?

All parts of the face can be used to express emotions. Think about how each component of the face moves when you feel different emotions. Consider the:

  • forehead
  • eyebrows/brow
  • eyes
  • nose
  • cheeks
  • mouth/lips
  • chin
  • jaw
  • cheeks.

Each emotion may be felt mildly or strongly, or anywhere in between. How much each emotion is shown on a character’s face depends on how intense the feeling is and how expressive their face is. Some people might guffaw at the drop of a hat; others may merely chuckle at the most hilarious joke.

Reflecting emotions on characters’ faces

See also PEG (no date a).

Anger

Anger is a powerful emotion. Many people are driven to do bad things because they feel anger towards someone or something. Perhaps they have been wronged or insulted. Should Sam have been promoted instead of Phil?

Anger shows on the face in various ways, and is hard to disguise:

  • tight lips
  • eyebrows brought together and down, causing wrinkling between them
  • tense jaw
  • flared nostrils.

Contempt

Contempt is a mixture of disgust at and superiority over someone or something. Sam may feel contempt at the underhanded tricks her colleague Phil pulled back in the day, whereas Sam went about things properly. Sam may not appear as successful as Phil, but she lives on the moral high ground. Sam creates distance between Phil and herself with her expression.

Contempt may be expressed by curling the lip on one side only or by pointing the face upwards slightly so the character can look down their nose at the object of their contempt. The eyes may not fully focus on the object of contempt, even when the character is looking right at it.

Disgust

Disgust is what we feel when confronted by something offensive, whether because it is unpleasant or morally reprehensible. The degree to which different people feel disgust varies. For example, a teenager may be fascinated by gory horror, whereas an adult may not be able to look. What is considered moral varies not only between cultures but also from person to person.

Disgust causes the face to be scrunched up, centring between the eyes:

  • eyebrows are brought close together, causing wrinkling between them
  • wrinkling across the bridge of the nose
  • upper lip raised, possibly showing the teeth.

Enjoyment

Enjoyment is more than merely smiling or laughing. Enjoyment gives a sense of the warm fuzzies in response to something good happening, such as an act of kindness, seeing something funny or achieving a goal.

Signs of enjoyment include:

  • narrowed eyes, wrinkled at the corners
  • widened mouth, stretching the lips, and possibly exposing the teeth
  • bunched-up cheeks (they get squished between the eyes and corners of the mouth)
  • lines between the outside of the nose and each end of the mouth, which define the cheeks

Fear

Fear is triggered when our well-being is threatened with harm. The threat can be real or imaginary, and can be to our physical or mental well-being. The threat can be from something like a spider, the dark or heights. Or it can come from another character: Phil is afraid that Sam will expose his dodgy past.

Fear is shown on the face by:

  • raised eyebrows
  • raised upper eyelids, showing more of the eyeball than usual
  • tensed lower eyelids
  • open mouth, possibly showing teeth.

Sadness

Loss and disappointment trigger sadness. Sam may have been passed over for a promotion. Phil may have lost the ring his grandmother gave him before she died. Now, Sam feels not only the loss of the ring, but also of his grandmother all over again.

Sadness is expressed on the face by:

  • inner corners of the eyebrows pulled upwards and together, causing wrinkling between them and maybe across the forehead
  • upper eyelids lowered
  • looking downwards
  • edges of mouth pointing dowanwards
  • wobbly chin or lower lip if on the verge of crying
  • eyes filling with tears, possibly blurring vision.

Surprise

Surprise is triggered by something unexpected happening. It can be a good surprise – Sam did get the promotion after all – or a bad surprise – Dan saw a car crash into a wall. Surprise doesn’t last long, and the facial changes may not last as long as with other emotions:

  • eyebrows lifted straight up, causing wrinkles across the forehead
  • raised upper eyelids
  • fallen jaw, causing the mouth to open.

Combined emotions

Emotions don’t always occur as isolated feelings. Perhaps Sam enjoys catching up with Phil but is angry that he cheated his way to the top. Maybe Phil feels sad about what he did because it means he lost Sam’s respect. Maybe Sam is happy that Dan is going away to university because of the opportunities it will grant him, yet sad because she’ll miss him.

Micro-expressions and faking it

Sometimes, a character may try to hide their emotions. Sam may be bad at it and Phil may be good at it. What Sam says is backed up by her facial expression; however, what Phil says may be at odds with the fleeting expression that crosses his face before he pulls it into one that matches his words.

This fleeting expression is called a micro-expression (PEG, no date b). It may occur across the whole face or only part of it, for example the eyes. Micro-expressions are fleeting and are easily missed by observers. They cannot be controlled, so, if they are observed and correctly interpreted, they can be used to tell what a character is really feeling.

References