Character Emotion: Is It Written All Over Their Face?

How to convey emotions?

The face is the first thing we notice in real life, and the focal point during any conversation.

We connect to a person’s gaze, paying attention to how their eyes widen, squint, focus inward or dart. We also watch their mouth, noting lip presses, teeth flashes, frowns, smiles and pursed lips. Eyebrow lifts, the forehead crinkling and relaxing…each facial micro movement is a message, a clue to what the person is thinking and feeling.

So as writers, is it important to maintain a strong focus in this area when we set out to describe character emotion?

Actually, it’s more the opposite. While the face might offer hundreds of micro expressions in real life, these split-second gestures do not always translate into strong emotional description.

Don’t get me wrong…the face is important! When a new character enters the scene, facial description is often the first beat of connection a reader has with them. A woman’s soft grey eyes, her rounded face, how sunlight glints through her curly auburn hair as she moves…these details help readers form an image.

But while face-centered description helps to paint a physical picture, it should not be relied on to also provide an emotional one. Instead, more descriptive ‘weight’ needs to be given to what the character’s body is doing.

By sheer mass, the body can provide thousands of possible movements, gestures and actions that will show readers what the character is feeling. Why? Because all readers (all people!) are body language experts. Ninety-three percent of communication is nonverbal, so we are constantly being fed messages through body movement. What we sense as we interact with others will dictate how we feel ourselves, and our behavior toward the other person.

Readers naturally apply this skill to what they read, and recognize body language on the page. Often the way a gesture or movement is described reminds them of how they used a similar one themselves when experiencing an emotion. This ‘shared experience’ is what powers up that empathy link between the reader and the character. Add this to emotion-rich dialogue, and, if the POV allows, snippets of the character’s thoughts and internal sensations (visceral reactions), and we can convey a powerful emotional moment!

Why doesn’t this body language skill apply to reading micro expressions?

Interpreting facial and body language is largely visual, and our readers are not seeing emotion being expressed first-hand. Instead, they are relying on their own imagination to work in tandem with the writer’s ability to create vivid description. Micro facial shifts happen quickly, and often several at the same time. Trying to break down these movements and describe them accurately can create a mechanical feel and slow the pace. There are larger, more recognizable expressions that work well as emotional cues (frowning, smiling, etc.), but they are often overused. Because of this, describing the character’s facial expression to show how they are feeling is something that should be done in moderation.

So the next time you have to show your character’s emotion, think beyond the face.

Instead, look at what the body might be doing. Delve into your past, remembering when you experienced the same emotion. What did your body do? How did it express itself? What did you feel inside–a heaviness in the chest, pain twisting your throat? Light-headedness from a surge of adrenaline? Skin sensitivity? Recreate the emotional moment and allow your senses to take over. Then, write it down.

Observing people in real life and in movies is another great way to build up a ‘store’ of body language to draw upon. There are examples all around us of unique ways to express emotion, and all we have to do is look. :)

When you think about what body language movements to show, dig deep. The more work we put into crafting fresh body cues, the deeper the connection we forge with readers. Above all, readers read for the experience, so make sure to give it to them!

Your turn! Do you find yourself overusing facial cues to describe how your character feels? What do you struggle with when it comes to showing emotion? Let me know in the comments!


About the author:

Angela Ackerman is one half of The Bookshelf Muse blogging duo, and co-author of The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression. Listing the body language, visceral reactions and thoughts associated with seventy-five different emotions, this brainstorming guide is a valuable tool for showing, not telling, emotion. 
Image: Sad woman BigStockPhotos

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45 Responses to “Character Emotion: Is It Written All Over Their Face?”

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  1. Nice advice that everyone can do well to keep in mind. Personally, whenever I write a story the first port of call for a redraft is removing all the smiles and nods. I can almost guarantee that I’ll have gone overboard on smiles and nods, they seem to just flow out when I’m writing like some kind of description tick. Often it’s better to have no description at all than the same few expressions/head movements repeated again and again.
    Phil Williams recently posted..Wixon’s Day Extract: The world as I understand itMy Profile

    • Hi Phil,

      I find that I often use facial expressions as ‘placeholders’ in a first draft as well! In later drafts, create stronger body language that better shows the exact level of emotion I need to convey. This works well when I don’t want to lose that flow of fast drafting as fresh cues don’t always come naturally as I write. :) Thanks for commenting!

      Angela Ackerman recently posted..FACT or FICTION: Is Angela REALLY Doing NaNoWriMo?My Profile

  2. Come to think of it, when we write or create “scenarios” by our writing, our readers have to re-present them to themselves. So thanks for sharing a very important tip that will help me write in such a way as to represent emotions better — After all, emotion is what actually governs most actions our readers take.

  3. Angela,

    Thanks for reminding us to use beyond-the-face cues to enable the reader to be part of the experience. This is vital for nonfiction and fiction writers. I’ve begun observing my own feelings and the body language of others more closely to help me with put more life into my writing. Your thesaurus helps with this as well.
    Flora Morris Brown, Ph.D. recently posted..Are You a Lunatic to Think Your Headlines Should Be Tweet-Worthy?My Profile

  4. Morrisbest says:

    Thanks so much for the good works! it has really enlightened me alot especially in the aspect of character emotion..So i have to be observant in in dealing with people in order read their body language and tell what it talks about…Also, am getting to know now that ninety- three percent of communication is nonverbal…I will always be around for your updates cos i love writing with passion…

    • I’d like to clarify that statistic: the original study pertained to cases where *meaning was ambiguous.* So, where the words were potentially confusing, non-verbal cues made up the bulk of comprehension.

      To simply state that “93% of communication is non-verbal” isn’t accurate.

      However, as a writer, I like to intentionally make my characters’ words ambiguous, and then clarify with facial expression and body language, though after reading this post, I’m aware that I lean too much on the former and too little on the latter.
      Joel D Canfield recently posted..A Profound Truth About Coming Unglued and Getting UnstuckMy Profile

      • Hi Joel,

        In the scope of this post, I didn’t want to derail things by delving into the shadings of the statistic, as the most important thing for readers to understand is simply that nonverbal communication is the bulk of how we communicate. :) Of course in fiction, dialogue can take up a huge portion of the action, and so having strong skills in ‘emotional showing’ when writing dialogue is super important as well. :)
        Angela Ackerman recently posted..FACT or FICTION: Is Angela REALLY Doing NaNoWriMo?My Profile

        • I understand keeping things simple, Angela. I just disagree with the premise, because it’s inaccurate. Though we’re all pretty good at reading facial expressions and body language, in English-speaking America, the bulk of meaning is in the words. I wouldn’t have mentioned it except Morrisbest pointed to it as a specific takeaway, a new point learned, and it concerns me when oversimplification leads to the continued misunderstanding of how we communicate. As writers, we need to minor in psychology to some extent, but the psychology should be accurate.
          Joel D Canfield recently posted..A Profound Truth About Coming Unglued and Getting UnstuckMy Profile

    • Hi Morrisbest! Yes, definitely being more aware as we observe others will really help us as writers when we need to describe what our character’s emotion ‘looks like’. I really struggled in this area, and since writing the ET, have discovered there are thousands of other writers who struggle in this area too. So glad this post is helpful to you. :)
      Angela Ackerman recently posted..FACT or FICTION: Is Angela REALLY Doing NaNoWriMo?My Profile

  5. Thanks for this article. It’s a little hard to fully “emotionalize” my characters. This helps.
    Debbie Erickson recently posted..Did Knights Use These Stallions for Battle?My Profile

  6. Thank you for this article. I have trouble sometimes “emotionalizing” my characters. This helps.
    Debbie Erickson recently posted..Did Knights Use These Stallions for Battle?My Profile

  7. Good points in this piece, Angela. Reading good fiction is another way to “study” the process. Even watching well made films. People move! Their actions reveal their emotions much more than facial expression. The “business” that you have your characters doing can convey emotion much better than a facial expression. If you stick with the face you will find yourself constantly going to the Thesaurus to find synonyms for smile and frown!!
    Beth @ Boomer Highway (twitter) recently posted..4 Surprising Ways to Look YoungerMy Profile

  8. PJ Reece says:

    Just thinking back to what has worked best for me… I like to have my character “doing” something…such as, for instance, chopping vegetables, so that she can reveal emotion by the way she alters that action. She can punctuate her argument with uniquley percussive chops. Or eat with more or less gusto. Or hang up the phone in any one of a thousand ways. Thanks for this insightful post.
    PJ Reece recently posted..The Secret Centre: does your novel have one?My Profile

  9. Jevon says:

    I don’t usually overuse facial expressions. I normally sample from several books I’ve read, using different feelings on the inside like “sinking feeling in the pit of the stomach” or “throat becoming dry.”

    I never really understood why, but now that you’ve described it I understand why all those great books I’ve read don’t go too deep into describing facial expressions. Thanks for this.
    Jevon recently posted..King Larsen Trailer 11: Dirk the JuggernautMy Profile

    • Hi Jevon,

      Visceral sensations are especially powerful, because they are all things that we ourselves have felt at some point. All readers know what it’s like to have their stomach ‘drop’, or feel their ribs tighten, or hear their heartbeat throb in their neck. The trick with viscerals is similar to facial description–moderation. Because there are only so many visceral reactions to draw from, we have to be careful to steer away from well used phrasings. As well, because of the instant ‘memory’ connection, if to many visceral reactions are used, the emotion can feel a bit melodramatic. But all that said, placing the right internal cue at the right moment create an emotional experience for the reader and powers up the description in a big way!
      Angela Ackerman recently posted..FACT or FICTION: Is Angela REALLY Doing NaNoWriMo?My Profile

  10. Mridula says:

    Relevant and helpful word! Thanks

  11. Mridula says:

    Really I would like to know what you all think about my short work. Your valuable comments will be much appreciated , thanks

  12. Janet Nuckolls says:

    You made me stop and think! I do rely on facial expressions to relate character’s emotion because I am big on reading body language during my conversations with people. As a writer I frequently eavesdrop, too, and it all goes into my stories. So thank you for your comments on digging deeper to make that critical emotional connection with my readers.

  13. Bill Polm says:

    Excellent post. Vital info for story/anecdote writers.
    Also, if you’re into story writing, whether fiction or nonfiction, or even occasionally, the thesaurus mentioned at the end of the post is a must have!
    Bill Polm recently posted..Don’t Miss Mary Jaksch’s Essential Post on Guest Post PitchingMy Profile

  14. Miranda says:

    Oh my gosh Angela! I totally agree with you! Body language goes a long way in passing across a message and I think that is something i delve more into now than facial expression. I believe it makes writing and description more rich. In fact, recently on my blog, I wrote a post on how writers can learn a trick or two from actors.

    We writers have monologue to tell the thoughts in our character’s head. Actors don’t. Yet they are able to pass across a message with gestures. I think we could learn a trick or two from them.

    Great post! And happy NaNoWriMo!
    Miranda recently posted..Book Review: The Dead-Simple Guides 3-Pack Series (Part 1)My Profile

  15. Angela, I couldn’t agree with you more. Somehow, we tend to think in ‘headshots’, and forget there’s a whole body below the head. Hands that fidget, bodies that squirm, knees that knock, feet that tap…

    A fervent thank you for reminding us how to show the ‘entire’ story. :-)

    I look forward to reading a lot more from you!
    Vinita Zutshi recently posted..Violent Children: What if Your Child Hits You?My Profile

  16. Jim Dean says:

    Fab article! Angela, I grabbed The Emotion Thesaurus for Kindle a few weeks ago and it’s become absolutely invaluable. I’m sitting with it open on my iPad whenever I do any work on my WIP for NaNoWriMo – it’s fabulous!

    • That is awesome, Jim! I have to tell you, I am so glad we listed to all the people who visit our blog and asked us to turn the Emotion Thesaurus into a book. It is amazing how many writers out there struggle with body language and emotion, and Becca and I are so thrilled to hear the book is helping with that. :)

      Thanks so much for letting me know! Happy writing!
      Angela Ackerman recently posted..Physical Thesaurus Attributes Entry: Chins and JawsMy Profile

  17. S. B. says:

    Significant topic. Very helpful.

  18. I’m learning a lot from the thesaurus and I use it frequently. I have some ladies in my writing group I’m going to recommend it to. Thanks for another invaluable writing tool.