The face’s role in conveying emotion

November 30, 2012 Jessie

This morning I heard about a very interesting bit of research on NPR. You can read their report here.

Basically, a researcher showed subjects photos of victorious and defeated tennis players with extreme facial expressions. When the face was shown along with the body, people could easily tell which photos were of losers and which were of winners. But something interesting happened when they showed the photos with either faces or bodies missing. The subjects could readily identify winners and losers by looking at photos of bodies without faces. But faces with no bodies? Not so.

In essence, the research suggests that, to accurately perceive someone else’s emotions, we rely more on body language cues than facial expressions. Fascinating!

This got me thinking about writing. How often in literature do you see phrases like “His eyes were filled with sorrow,” or “Her face lit up with glee”? In fact, how much time is spent describing the face? Often, you’ll know the color of every character’s eyes. In daily life, do you really notice the eye color of every person you encounter?

I’m just as guilty of this as the next writer. In fact, my beta reader pointed out a scene in my unpublished novel in which a character observes the tawny eyes of her opponent in the midst of a swordfight. My beta reader summed up the problem for me succinctly: “Noticing hair during fighting: fine. Noticing eye color during fighting: dead.” After a chuckle, I took the advice and nixed the sentence.

Do we spend too much energy focusing on our characters’ faces in our writing? Is a shrug more evocative than a smile? How can we use this research to inform our writing and make it more realistic and subtle?