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Marginal Notes

Facing Your Characters' Emotions


Years ago, I edited a book that centered around a condition called prosopagnosia -- you learn the most amazing things as an editor. Apparently, we have a spot in the brain whose only function is to read other people's faces -- the right fusiform gyrus, for those of you keeping score at home. When that spot is damaged from physical trauma, a stroke, or a congenital defect, sufferers can no longer really see faces. They can see and recognize everything else just fine. But faces -- of loved ones, longstanding friends, even their own face in the mirror -- remain unidentifiable.

I thought about this condition recently when reading a historical mystery by the late Anne Perry. Perry is an excellent writer, with intriguing characters and well-crafted plots. But she also has some stylistic habits that left me itching to pick up a pencil. For instance, she is given to describing her dialogue with forced, awkward adverbs. ("'I don't know what you expect of me,' he said exasperatedly." From Death in the Devil's Acre.) Another is capturing character emotion by describing faces.


We read faces intuitively, almost automatically. Thanks to the right fusiform gyrus, we can look at someone and just tell if they're angry, or frustrated, or at peace. And we do it all the time -- it's a routine part of our everyday lives. So it's kind of natural to try to bring this facial recognition talent into your descriptions.

It's harder than you might think. When we read someone's face, we're picking up on subtle changes in as many as 19 different facial muscles. Slight elevations of the eyebrows, changes to the shape of the mouth, slight flaring of the nostrils. Our brains put all of this together as a gestalt that says, "He's worried about something," or, "She's certainly eager to see someone."

We don't have the language to capture these subtle facial changes -- most people aren't even aware these muscles exist. So writers who try to describe faces usually just jump to a description of emotion that most people would be able to read on sight. This habit was how Ms. Perry was annoying me -- I've pulled these examples from Death with a Double Edge. "Impney met him in the hall, his face expectant." "Kitteridge's face creased in puzzlement." ". . . Charlotte asked, with concern in her face."

Readers of Self-Editing know that naming an emotion doesn't put it across. When you tell your readers what your characters are feeling, you're just giving them information. You don't just want them to be informed, you want them to share the emotion, and that means letting them picture the face in question and interpret it for themselves. And sometimes this can work, as with this example from Alexander McCall Smith's The Right Attitude Toward Rain -- "She saw the face wrenched up at one side in that disgusting grimace."

But it takes work to get it right, mostly because there are only so many ways to describe a face. If you fall into the habit of doing it a lot, you'll most likely wind up recycling your descriptions. I've worked with clients whose characters were constantly raising their eyebrows, opening their eyes wide, scowling. Lots of wrinkled foreheads and flared nostrils, and the occasional squint.


Of course, you can always express your characters' emotions through dialogue or beats. But one way to stick with faces is to run the description through your viewpoint character's sense of the world. What does the face remind them of? How does it make them feel? I've written href="newton.html" target="blank">before about using a character's reaction to show what's going on. This is another way to do the same thing. Again, from Alexander McCall Smith -- "This was not the I'm-in-the-middle-of-something face." ". . . faces which looked confidently into the camera, as if to say, ‘Yes, me again.'" Or, from another master of precise character description, Rex Stout: ". . and a good caption for a picture of the face he turned to me would have been The Gathering Storm." (From Too Many Women)

So as you revise, try this exercise -- do a search for the word "face." This is how I found the examples I've used here. Read through all your facial descriptions at once. If they're bland or repetitive, then either find another way to show the emotion you're trying to get across, or use a more original description to capture the face you're picturing in your mind. Reading faces is a large part of our everyday lives. It takes some effort to make it part of your novel, but the effort is worth doing.