When writing about facial expressions, most writers are content to keep it simple. Why put more effort into describing a character’s expression when “he frowned angrily” gets the point across? Well, since you made it to this article, you probably aren’t like other writers. You know that keeping things vague and simple or including overused adverbs to simplify descriptions can impact the flow of your story as a whole. You know that a little extra effort can go a long way.
Every time you describe a character’s expression, you have an opportunity to reveal more about their personality, intentions, and complex emotions—so don’t take the easy way out! Expressions have so much potential to show a character’s true colors! However, it’s not always easy to know how to approach describing facial expressions. Understanding the characteristics of each expression is the first step towards knowing how to properly describe them in your own writing.
Describing Different Facial Expressions
Charles Darwin was the first person to theorize that some emotions are expressed universally, regardless of a person’s exposure to other cultures. The greater scientific community disagreed with this theory, including Dr. Paul Ekman. Ekman ran a social experiment in the late 20th century with the intention of proving Darwin wrong, but he accidentally ended up proving this theory to be correct.
Now, we know that there are 7 universal emotions that every single culture in the world expresses in the same way. Emotions are expressed innately, and the faces people make when experiencing different emotions are based on natural instinct.
The seven universal expressions are:
So what does this mean for you? When writing about emotions, it can be really tempting to simply say that the character is feeling angry or disgusted, because that’s easy to write. However, it feels so much more authentic to a reader if they can figure out how a character is feeling based on the descriptions you give about their facial features. Rather than being told how to feel, readers can pick up on the character’s emotions on their own.
This is based on the technique “show, don’t tell.” If you want to learn more about that, check out Show, Don’t Tell: What it is and How to Write it.
Now let’s get into the specifics of each expression.
Describing an angry facial expression is fairly straightforward because it is such a strongly expressed emotion. Anger affects the entire face, so there are many options for writing about how the different features change. Here are some of the telltale signs of anger in a person’s expression:
- Their eyebrows would be lowered and pulled closer together
- Their eyelids would become squinted or raised (or their eyes may bulge if they are enraged)
- Their lips would tighten or curl inwards
- The corners of their mouth would point downwards
- Their Jaw would be tense and might jut forward slightly
- Vertical wrinkles may appear between their eyebrows
- Their nostrils may flare outwards
Anger is a powerful emotion, and it affects more than just the face. When someone gets angry, it usually triggers their body to produce adrenaline (the “fight-or-flight” hormone), which can come with a host of bodily side-effects that can give the anger away. These sides effects include things like:
- Increased heart rate
- Rapid breathing
- Flushed face
- Restless movements
There’s a lot more to anger than the expression. If you want more pointers for writing about anger, I have another article you might want to read: Writing a Character with Anger Issues.
A smile is a great way of showing your readers more about the character, so don’t just leave it at “she smiled.” What does her smile look like? Is it warm, authentic, humorless, mocking, or cruel? Is the character amused, nervous, or happy? A smile can mean many things, and it can even foreshadow a character’s hidden traits. A cold smile can indicate a more sinister nature without you having to work very hard at making them seem that way.
Here are some of the signs that a character is actually happy:
- Their eyes squint slightly
- Wrinkles appear at the corners of their eyes
- Their cheeks raise
- A defined wrinkle runs from the sides of their nose to the corners of their mouth, known as “smile lines”
- The corners of their mouth move up at a diagonal, widening their mouth
- Their mouth may part, exposing teeth
Now, a character doesn’t have to have all of those elements in their expression if they are feeling good. For example:
“His face relaxed, but I could still see the faint outline of wrinkles around his eyes—eyes which seemed to sparkle ever so slightly despite the dullness of the room. Even the corners of his mouth seemed to fight against his normally stoic expression, betraying how he really felt.”
However, a smile is an expression that is commonly faked. If you want to show that a character is faking a smile, make sure their eyes don’t match the rest of the expression. True happiness is expressed with the eyes, so when a person smiles without showing it in their eyes, it comes across as cold and ingenuine.
Sadness is a difficult emotion to portray because it is often complex and confusing. Even the character experiencing the sadness might not understand exactly why they feel that way. With that said, there are a few universal signs of the expression, such as:
- Their eyebrows will lower and pulled closer together
- The inner corners of their eyebrows will be angled up
- The corners of their mouth will be drawn downwards
- Their lips may be either drawn in tightly or pouting outwards
Another familiar telltale sign of sadness is crying. There are so many ways to describe crying that I couldn’t possibly cover all of them here, but I’ll give you a few pieces of advice:
- Tears first pool in the eyes before they streak down a person’s cheeks.
- Tears distort vision, so if you’re writing in the first person, don’t forget that your character’s vision will be blurry.
- Crying usually isn’t a pretty sight, so don’t be afraid to show that the character’s face is red or that their nose is running.
So, sadness is a complex emotion—but what does that really mean? Well, there are many different ways that sadness can be felt and expressed depending on the intensity of the emotion, and there many different things that can trigger a sad response in a character. When a character is truly heartbroken, their expression may change to be more numb: their mouth may hang open loosely, their eyes may remain closed, and the rest of their body may become limp and heavy.
Complexity also means that sadness is often experienced in tandem with another emotion, such as anger, happiness, or disgust. I’ll get more into how to write complex expressions later though, so read on!
Fear is another difficult emotion, because there are many different degrees and types of fear a character can feel. In general, however, these are the guidelines you should follow for describing a fearful expression:
- Their eyebrows would be pulled up and together
- Their upper eyelids would be pulled up, and their lower eyelids would be tense and drawn up as well
- Their mouth would be stretched and drawn back, possibly exposing teeth
- Vertical wrinkles may appear between their eyebrows
There are a few distinctions you need to remember: fear is not the same as nervousness or surprise. The expression for surprise looks different, and although nervousness is often a precursor to fear, they are not the same. If you want tips for writing about nervousness, check out my other article: How to Write a Nervous Character.
You’ve probably noticed that the expressions for fear and anger share a lot of similarities, including the “fight-or-flight” response. However, the context of the situation is usually enough to tip the readers off to which emotion the character is feeling.
Another way to distinguish the two is with the character’s body language. If a character is angry, they are going to move deliberately and with confidence. They will take up space and command attention with the way they move. An angry person is usually on the offensive, while a fearful person is going to be defensive. A fearful person may try to make themself small to avoid drawing attention, or they may instinctively shrink away from whatever is frightening them.
Surprise functions differently from the other universal emotions. Unlike all the others on the list, surprise is fleeting, and will typically be expressed in only a few seconds. That is most evident with jumpscares, like in haunted houses or video games (or if something suddenly traumatic happens in front of your character), but there are instances in which the expression can linger. Walking into a grand cathedral, being proposed to, or receiving horrible news are all situations in which a surprised expression may stay for longer than a few seconds.
Here are the unmistakable characteristics of a surprised character:
- Their eyebrows would be raised
- Horizontal wrinkles would appear on their forehead
- Their jaw would go slack
- Their mouth would hang open loosely
- Their eyes would widen
As with anger and fear, surprise triggers the “fight-or-flight” response. Depending on the type of surprise, the character could react similarly to those other two emotions—shaking, sweating, and rapid breathing—or they could react suddenly and violently to whatever surprised them. They could lash out to defend themself, run away from the perceived threat, or simply freeze in place.
If you want to learn more about surprising your characters and your readers in your writing, check out my other article: Writing Surprised Characters.
You’ve probably read “her nose wrinkled in disgust” a million times before, but you shouldn’t get comfortable with writing like everybody else. While it’s true that the wrinkled nose is a key characteristic of the expression, so much more goes into making it complete. A disgusted expression affects the entire face, like so:
- Their eyebrows would be pulled down
- Their nose would be wrinkled
- Their upper lip would be pulled up
- Their lips would be loose
- Their eyes would narrow
- Their teeth may be exposed
- Their cheeks may be raised
You’ve probably also read “she recoiled in disgust” before, since that’s another popular writing cliché. As with other emotions, body language plays a part in this, but don’t write it the same way as everyone else. Also, and this should go without saying by now, don’t tell the readers that the character is disgusted—show them. For example:
She stumbles back, her hands clutching the front of her delicate blouse.
“What is that!?” she gasps, narrowing her eyes at the drooling monster in front of her.
“It’s my pet.” I respond, making her wrinkle her nose.
Contempt is an interesting emotion, but it is one that is often overlooked. A character that is feeling contempt could assume they are being lied to, that they are right and someone else is wrong, or that someone or something is not worth their time and attention. It is associated with a sense of superiority and apathy. The signs that a character is feeling contempt are:
- Their eyes would be unengaged
- One side of their mouth is pulled up and back
- One of their eyebrows may pull upwards
- Their head may tilt back slightly, making their gaze follow down their nose
This emotion is not a passionate one, meaning the expression is typically somewhat subtle. However, the degree to which the emotion is expressed is going to depend on the character and the context.
Describing Complex Emotions
Now that you know the expressions for each of the 7 different universal emotions, it’s time to mix and match. Emotions are not always clearly divided; a person can feel several different emotions at the same time. They could be feeling happy and sad at the same time, or angry and disgusted. They could even be feeling anger, disgust, fear, and surprise all at the same time.
Emotions can conflict and overlap with each other, creating a unique expression as they are all experienced at once. Try to sort through the emotions your character is feeling in order to figure out how to describe their expression. There is usually a dominant emotion that will define the majority of the expression, but elements of other expressions would creep in.
Let’s consider an example: a character has just caught their partner cheating. They are likely to be surprised, angry, and sad all at the same time, but the dominant emotion will depend on the character. One character may get angry, and express all the normal features of an angry expression, but have tears spilling down their cheeks. Another character may have surprise as their dominant emotion, but scowl in anger. Yet another type of character could feel contempt as their dominant emotion, yet grimace in disgust at the sight.
When two or more emotions are fighting for dominance, and a character cannot decide how to feel, their expression can become confused. Although confusion is not recognized as a universal emotion, here are some options for showing that a character is feeling conflicted or confused:
- Their eyebrows may be drawn together
- A vertical wrinkle may appear between their eyebrows
- Their mouth may be pulled in tightly
- The corners of their mouth may point downward
- They may glance around in different directions
- They may let their mouth hang open loosely, or open and close their mouth several times (especially before speaking)
- They may swallow excessively
- They may fidget or touch their face
Writing About MicroExpressions
Sometimes, characters will try to conceal their emotions, but there will still be signs of how they really feel in their expression. Microexpressions are tiny glimpses of the true emotion that a person feels, quickly followed by a false expression to mask that emotion. Although these usually last a fraction of a second, you can use them to tip readers off to how the character is really feeling. Microexpressions can also be a good way of indicating that a character is lying.
To write about microexpressions, all you need to do is show little hints of one or more different features of the full expression, but make sure to note that it is only on the character’s face for a brief moment in time. You can use just about any feature of the expression for the microexpression, as long as it is indicative of the emotion by itself. Here are some examples:
- A character trying to mask anger may draw their lips in tightly, then smile.
- A character trying to mask happiness may squint their eyes, then adopt a stoic expression.
- A character trying to mask sadness may bring the inside corners of their eyebrows up, then adopt a happy expression.
- A character trying to mask fear may tense up and bare their teeth, then act angry to make it seem like they were never afraid.
- A character trying to mask surprise may widen their eyes, and quickly adopt a contemptuous expression to brush off their surprise.
- A character trying to mask disgust may wrinkle their nose, then act surprised to hide their disgust.
- A character trying to mask contempt may have one eyebrow twitch upwards slightly, then adopt a pleasant smile.
Remember that the choices you make when describing a character’s expressions can also indicate personality traits, trustworthiness, and likeability. Once you understand the different elements of each universal expression, you can modify it to reveal more about the character in question. Microexpressions can help you reveal more depth to your characters, and make each individual seem more complex.
Some Tips for Describing Facial Expressions
Although you know how to describe the expressions for the 7 universal emotions, you could still benefit by observing and analysing these expressions yourself. One of the best ways to do this is to study people’s expressions. Pay attention to the actors’ faces when you are watching a movie or show, and try to take note of the little changes in their expressions. You need to be able to put the theory of expressions in practice, and observing real people is the best way to understand how to apply it.
If you are having difficulty describing a character’s expression, try acting out the scene. Imagine the setting, and read the dialogue out loud. How do you feel? What would be going through your mind? Really try to embody the character, and take note of the expression that comes naturally to you. Recreate it in a mirror, or record yourself with your cell phone, and use that as a guide.
Good luck, and keep writing!