Elizabeth: Discovering Faces

Lie_to_MeAs I believe I’ve mentioned before, when I’m not working or writing I enjoy relaxing with a good television show. Although I have a preference for light, humorous, happily-ever-after type stories, sometimes I get caught by something completely different, and it’s often a specific character on a show that catches and keeps my interest. I talked about some of my past character crushes in this post last year.

My current character crush is on Dr. Cal Lightman from the series Lie To Me. The show ran from 2009 to 2011, but thanks to the wonders of Netflix, it’s new to me now. What has captured my attention isn’t the lead actor, though Tim Roth is excellent, the ensemble cast, who are all entertaining, or the main character’s relationship with his teenage daughter, which is brilliantly done. It’s the skill-set of the main character that has me fascinated.

Basically, Dr. Lightman is a human lie detector. He and the rest of the members of The Lightman Group use their ability to read facial expressions to determine, not only if someone is lying, but also to uncover the truth. The show was inspired by the work of Paul Ekman, the world’s foremost expert on facial expressions and, while not everything portrayed on the show is grounded in reality, the basic concept is.

I find this ability to read facial expressions fascinating in part because I have so little ability to “read” people myself. In my day job, as a manager, it is a skill I wish I had. I’m no better at reading family than I am at reading my co-workers. When I asked my son how often I get it right when attempting to determine if he’s happy, sad, etc., he said I get it right about 50% of the time. That’s with someone I have known their whole life. My ability to read people I didn’t give birth to is substantially worse.

Since I can’t rely on people being truthful 100% of the time or always saying exactly what they mean/feel, I’ve been working my way through Ekman’s book Emotions Revealed to learn about emotions and their associated visual cues. Before starting the book, I took the “Recognizing Faces” test at the back of the book (as directed). Out of fourteen faces, I was only able to correctly read six of them. I’m hoping by the time I finish the last two chapters I’ll be able to make a much better showing. The book has a lot of great, detailed information – not something to plow through in a single sitting. Like the true geeky-analyst that I am, I’ve put together a spreadsheet with the information I’ve learned; the cues for the various emotions discussed, along with sample faces for reference. Hardly feasible to carry it along with me whenever I talk to someone, but a useful reference to have.

So, what does all this have to do with writing? Well, I’m always looking for ways to add more depth to my own characters. With my new emotion-expression reference sheet, I can go through my draft and identify places where I can add cues/expressions to strengthen the story. Although none of my characters are facial expression experts, Michael is a spy, so he should have some basic skills in that area, and Abigail had the kind of upbringing that would have caused her to develop some reading skills of her own. I think I can really have some fun with this, especially in the scenes where they are trying to keep information from each other.

Interested in learning more? You can find out more information on Paul Ekman and his work on his website and you can try this short quiz to see how well you read people. Also check out Jilly’s related post Here’s Looking at You that talks about what our eyes can say.

So, are you good at reading people? How about your characters?

13 thoughts on “Elizabeth: Discovering Faces

  1. I took the quiz on the web site and got 15 out of 20 correct. The interesting thing for me was that I got wrong every expression about sadness. All I can say is, when the people I know get sad, they don’t use the facial characteristics shown on the quiz. Primarily, they don’t look down. They look at me when they’re talking. But it’s interesting work, and it’s always great to have more things to draw on when we write characters. I liked that TV show, too.

    • Kay, it’s interesting to see which expressions we get both right and wrong. I tended to get the “anger” faces right, but few of the others. As you say, not everyone is going to show the “standard” characteristics, but it does give something else to draw on when writing characters. Glad you liked the show too.

  2. 12 out of 20 and that’s better than I would have expected. Generally, when I debated between two expressions, I picked the wrong one, which should give you a pretty accurate picture of how my personal life works.

    I bought Ekman’s book a few years ago and frequently pull it out when I’m trying to describe a particular emotion.

    • I got 12 out of 20 also, Jeanne, and it is better than I expected. I don’t read people well. That book sound like an excellent resource for describing characters. Adding another to my list of books to buy.

      • Michille – I’d love to hear what you think of the book once you’ve read it. It can be a bit dry/slow at times, but the information is good. I’ve also got another book of his on order, one written in conjunction with the Dali Lama. Sounded very interesting.

    • 12 out of 20 sounds pretty good to me, considering my own score 🙂 I had the same problem choosing between two expressions and choosing the wrong one. I’m hoping with practice I can improve in that area. Glad you have found Ekman’s book helpful.

  3. 16 out of 20 for me. I don’t create characters, but I definitely appreciate it when authors use facial expressions and body language to more richly convey the emotions of their characters. “Jane crossed her arms over her chest and turned away” gives a visceral feel that is lacking in “Jane became defensive”.

    • Scott, good job on the 16 out of 20. I agree that using facial expressions and body language can enhance a story and make it richer. That’s definitely something I’m trying to be conscious of as I work on revising my story.

  4. I got 15 out of 20. What was surprising to me is that I had no trouble with Asian faces, but I did have trouble with the others. (-: Shouldn’t be a surprise, I’ve been looking at mostly Asian faces for the last 25 years. I should diversify my friend pool!

    I guess I do use facial expressions in my writing, but maybe not enough. I’m a little afraid of curling lips and raised eyebrows being trite. But . . . they are cliche because they are accurate and concise.

    • You’re right Michaeline, they can be kind of cliche. I guess the art is in using them sparingly enough that they convey the message you want without hitting the reader over the head.

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