As 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?