Jilly: Here’s Looking At You

Here's Looking At YouDo your characters judge others by reading their eyes? Do you make the most of this important behavior? And do you get the details right?

This week, I’ve been taking a cold, hard look at the way I write about eyes. Not so much eye color or appearance – I’m not talking twin pools of emerald, though obviously the reader needs a degree of physical description to help them build mind pictures – but eyes as the key to a character’s thoughts, emotions and responses.

It’s hardly new news that eyes are important. They’re the primary means by which humans receive information, and according to body language expert Joe Navarro: “The eyes can be very accurate barometers of our feelings because, to some degree, we have very little control over them.” The eyes are a very honest part of our face, which is why poker players, secret service agents and rock stars cover them with dark glasses.

It’s instinctive for us to read and judge other people based on their eyes. You might remember this fascinating post by Kay, reporting on neuroscientific research that suggests we look at potential partners differently depending on whether we have long-term love or insta-lust on our minds. If we’re thinking short term, we focus on the body, but if we have Happy Ever After on the brain, we look at the eyes. Whoever first said they’re the window to the soul (Shakespeare, da Vinci, it’s not clear) nailed it.

I’m writing in close third person, deep inside the head of my hero and heroine, Ian and Rose. They’re from different social circles and don’t have a shared back-story, so it’s natural for them to try to figure each other out. There’s a lot of look, stare, gaze, watch, blink and squint going on. I’ve been using my instinct and imagination, but it occurred to me that I ought to check to make sure my characters’ physical cues ring true. Assuming I get them right, the tell-tale signs should be so natural to a reader that they’re almost invisible. If I mess up, my characters are going to read wrong.

Ex-FBI Agent Joe Navarro’s best-selling book What Every Body Is Saying devotes sixteen pages to involuntary eye behavior. Mostly it’s given me added insight into behaviors I’ve already written, but it’s also made me check a couple of points and offered me the opportunity to add variety or emotional depth to my WIP. Here are a few examples:

Gazing and Staring

When we look directly into another person’s eyes and hold their gaze, we’re sending a strong signal that could mean we like them, or we’re curious about them, or we want to threaten them. Humans use the same behavior to communicate love, interest, or hatred, and we depend on secondary facial cues – a relaxed smile, say, or pinched lips – to interpret the signal. I was slightly concerned about the amount of gazing and staring that Ian and Rose do, but having read what Mr. Navarro has to say, I think it makes sense. In the beginning they don’t understand each other at all, and they’re looking for clues. Later, of course, it’s all about emotional involvement. I think I’ve got the secondary signals covered. I know for sure that scary Sasha’s hard stare is accompanied by a thin-lipped, straight mouth.

When we look away from another person, it does not mean we’re being rude or rejecting them. It usually means we want to think, and we can do that better without the distraction of looking at the other person. If we look into the distance, chances are we’re comfortable with the other person and satisfied they aren’t a threat to us. If we look downwards, we might be feeling submissive or acknowledging that the other person is of a higher status (a recurring theme in werewolf stories). Rose and Ian spend quite a few scenes negotiating and re-negotiating the terms of their co-operation. I’m planning to go back over those to make sure Rose doesn’t look down while she’s thinking. She’s physically small, socially and economically inferior, but temperamentally she feels and behaves like a dominant individual. I have to be sure I back that up.

Flashbulb Eyes and Eye Flash

When we really like what we see, our pupils dilate, our eyebrows raise, opening up the eye area, and some people open their eyes as big and wide as possible, expanding the aperture of their eyes. Sometimes it comes and goes very quickly during a positive emotional event. I wrote Ian noticing Rose looking at him with big eyes in two or three scenes without really understanding why. I’m definitely keeping those cues.

Blinking and Eye Flutter

Our blink rate is normal when we are relaxed, and it increases if we are aroused, worried, nervous or concerned. We might blink or flutter our eyelids if somebody says something we don’t like, or if we’re struggling with something. I need to make better use of this.

Eye Blocking

When we see something we don’t like, or process unwelcome information, we protect our eyes. It could be by constricting our pupils, blinking hard, squinting, closing or screwing up our eyes, or blocking them with our hands. According to Mr. Navarro “all blocking behaviors are indicative of concern, dislike, disagreement, or the perception of a potential threat.” We block automatically, as soon as something negative is heard, so when writing dialogue this would be one of the best possible indicators that something was not being well received. I have one key scene where a major family row is imminent. Rose is oblivious, but Ian knows, and he sinks his head into his hands briefly. I’m definitely keeping that.

I’d never specifically thought about it before, but I spent some time last night trying to identify authors who use eyes effectively to convey character or emotion. My favorite is Patricia Briggs. Her werewolves change eye color when they shift from human to wolf, and the change is involuntary when they’re in the grip of strong emotion, which makes fantastic shorthand. Whenever Adam the Alpha werewolf reaches for his dark glasses, my heart beats a little faster.

What do you think? Do your characters make the most of this important behavior? And do you notice when other authors use eye responses well, or does it feel so right that it adds credibility to their characters in an almost-invisible way?

12 thoughts on “Jilly: Here’s Looking At You

  1. Amazing post, Jilly.

    My focus lately has been on layering in the accompanying physical changes that might occur with a given feeling (like your Sasha, Hawk’s lips go thin and white to the point of disappearing when he’s displeased), but I hadn’t thought about blink rate or some of the other mannerisms you mention. I agree that eye contact can layer in characterization is an “almost-invisible” way, but I think we also have to be careful when using it. Too much can become tedious and obvious.

    Cheyenne and Reed make a lot of eye contact and I’m trying to thin that down a bit. I want to use “shared looks” judiciously and in a way that shows the stages of their relationship. Yes, they’ve exchanged looks that telegraph interest, but their connection right now centers on Hawk as the common enemy so their looks tend to be the “I’ve got your back” kind of glances. To me, that only happens when two people are on the same wavelength.

    I dated a police officer once who mentioned that people tend to look up and left (or was it right?) when they’re lying. Not sure if that’s true or not, but eyes are the window to the soul, so it makes sense.

    • Kat—I think it’s up and to the left. I’ve read that, too. And just recently I saw an animal behavior program on TV that said that dogs that wag their tail to the left have different intent than when they wag to the right. One is hostile or at least wary, and the other is reserved for friends and family. I don’t remember which is which now, but it seems that directional movement is important for a lot of species!

      • I think Jenny C has used the dishonest eye slide as a tell once or twice. I love the idea that dogs have a directional tail wag – could somebody who has a pet please check that one out and report back??

    • Have to say, Kat, I love it when the hero and heroine finally understand each other well enough to be able to say ‘I’ve got your back’ with just a look. That’s how it works in the best relationships, and it’s the kind of body language that would makes me believe in their HEA.

  2. Thanks for the great post, Jilly! I’m not doing nearly enough with the eyes. I have a different book by Joe Navarro; I’ll have to look into it again and see what else I can glean from it. But it’s clear I have to include more eye action for my characters, which is a great way to convey emotion without being too obvious about it.

    • Glad you liked it, Kay. I’ve been going back through some of my favorite books to see how much subtle eye action there is that I never noticed. There’s much more than I expected.

  3. Useful stuff here, thank you, Jilly. I do think research has debunked some of these findings as being accurate predictors of anything, but that doesn’t really matter, does it? What’s more important is how our audience interprets these eye movements, not what they really mean.

    I agree with Kat in that sometimes authors over-use eye descriptions. They can become so obvious they make me want to roll my eyes. 😉 You have a really light touch, though, and I can’t see you getting too heavy-handed with eye-related description. I just have a vivid memory of a series I otherwise really liked, but that had characters signalling to one another with their eyes two or three times on every page. It was distracting.

    • You’re right, of course 🙂 . If it feels real to the reader, that’s what I care about. I keep wanting to write eye action because it feels honest and it bothers me when I substitute something else that feels weaker, but I was worried I was being heavy-handed with it. I think the only thing I can do is to write it the way I want and then, as Kat said, thin it down a bit if it feels like too much. And luckily I can rely on you to tell me if I’m still over-doing it 🙂 .

  4. Lots to think about here!

    One thing that really confuses me is when they say “up and to the left” — to the observer’s left or the person’s left? There’s some kanji memorization technique that says you need to move your eyes and think/visualize in a certain order. I can’t remember now . . . which tells you how my kanji memorization is going these days, too.

    I do like using the eyes as shorthand, and I can “see” the characters doing it (sometimes feel it, if the POV is deep enough).

    Body language is a whole ‘nother layer of goodness.

    I think someone told me that Scrivener will order your words into number of times used. So, for example, if you see you’ve used “rolled” 14 times in a book, you can go through and see how many times “rolled his/her eyes” comes up. And then, you can think about alternative expressions to show frustration. I do tend to use snorts and gurgles a lot. So, I need something non-eye, and non-grunty. Of course, it may turn into a “tell” that makes the reader closer to the character as the story/series goes on. (-: Like reaching for dark glasses, or Amelia Peabody’s husband ripping his shirt again.

  5. Pingback: Elizabeth: Discovering Faces | Eight Ladies Writing

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