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Body Language: Facial Expressions

There are myriad muscles that control the brow, chin, eyes, jaw, nose, and mouth. Some people can wiggle their ears. Different cultures utilize different expressions. Looking away may be deceptive in America, but indicative of respect in Japan. The important part when revising for body language is to note when and how you relate facial expressions and to avoid repetition and purple prose. One should not wriggle one's eyebrows while leering.

A character cannot control fleeting micro-expressions, the initial emotional response, but he quickly recovers from them. Facial expressions reflect our feelings about what is done and said, sometimes more eloquently or more obviously than we intend. Someone told me that there were only two true emotions: fear and love (or pleasure and pain). All other expressions stem from those two. The micro-expression field of study acknowledges seven. Love isn't one of them.

Unless the character is a professional interrogator, he is not going to hook Dick up to a lie detector, register his body heat and pulse, or measure the dilation of his pupils. There are, however, emotional triggers and signs that humans register in the space of a second. Most of your characters aren’t trained to recognize them. There are several personality types that pick up on nonverbal cues exceptionally well. If you want your detective to be a natural lie detector, pick one of them.

If you pay attention to what is happening in the body when a heightened emotion is experienced, you can make your characters believable. Highlight the places in your manuscript where you discuss emotions. Take a careful look at the choreography and word choices.

Anger: The jaw clenches. The lips thin and lift in a snarl. The nostrils flare. The eyebrows draw together. Aggression is a response to fear or a response to boundary violations. When Dick is angry, he may puff himself up to appear larger and stare his opponent into submission. His brow furrows. His blood pressure rises. The stress triggers a neurochemical cocktail in response to the fight or flight instinct. He flushes and clenches his fists. His sweat glands kick in. His muscles are primed to strike. He may shake his fist or point his finger. He may drift forward slightly, or step forward deliberately, depending on how much of a threat the opponent represents. His tone either lowers in warning or rises, depending on the circumstances. His anger may continue to simmer after the altercation. He usually vents to other people or indulges in a physical action to release it.

Anger can be expressed passively. After the initial response of jaw, nose, and lips, Jane may turn silent and look away. She may mutter under her breath or fake smile. She has the same physiological response, but her conscious instinct is to hide it. Passive people who are angry often cry when furious. As her throat closes and her blood boils, she becomes incoherent. She goes into wait and watch mode. Her anger simmers but she holds onto it. She is more likely to gossip and indirectly sabotage the person she is angry with. Temperament plays a role in how anger is expressed.

Contempt: A corner of the lip tightens and lifts. Contempt is in response to an intellectual boundary violation. Dick may make scornful or sarcastic comments. He may consciously override his initial response in an attempt to hide his disdain. He could state his true feelings in the matter. Contempt is in response to something or someone he does not believe, agree with, or like. He may deny his contempt, but his face betrays him.

Disgust: The nostrils clench and upper lip lifts. Dick may frown and pull back. He may flinch or purse his lips. He may utter exclamations of disgust in response. His heart rate slows. Disgust is in response to something he fears or abhors at gut level. His body retracts. He may put out his hand or wave someone away.

Fear: The upper lids and eyebrows lift. The lips stretch wide and pupils dilate. Fear is in response to a physical or emotional violation. Dick can react with mild fear or outright terror, depending on the stimulus. His response is instantaneous and involuntary. Dick's senses go on high alert. His fight or flight response is triggered. He either freezes or retracts. He may gasp. His muscles prepare to escape or avoid. He sweats. He shivers. The hair shafts stiffen. His pulse rate increases. He may go into shock, depending on the stimulus. His flesh may feel cold as the blood rushes to prime the muscles in his hands and legs and fuels the brain. He may step back or turn to run. He may cover his face and head with his arms. The rush of neurochemicals leaves him feeling shaky after the stimulus is dealt with.

Happiness: The corners of the lips lift, the teeth may show. The cheeks plump. The muscles around the eyes are engaged and wrinkles appear. The eyes may widen, or narrow if the nose wrinkles. Jane's posture relaxes and expands. She moves toward someone or something. Her body language is expansive. Neurochemicals induce a high. She may laugh. She is verbal and inclined to touch. She may be mildly delighted or completely overjoyed. Her focus may broaden to take in others. She wants to share her feeling.

Sadness: Pupils narrow. Upper eyelids droop. Corners of lips turn down. Sadness is a response to loss or hurt feelings. Jane's body language closes in protectively. She may cross her arms, lower her head, or turn away. She may grow quiet and have trouble speaking. Her throat feels constricted. Her eyes and nose prickle and water. Her chest feels heavy. She may become more aware of her pulse and breathing. A strong stimulus can feel like a blow to the viscera. She may gasp, cover her abdomen, or bend over. She may transition to shock. Sadness may be followed quickly by anger. With extreme grief, she may scream or yell. Her body may crumple to the floor. She holds herself and rocks back and forth. Crying can be soft and silent or guttural and loud. It can pass quickly or go on for minutes. The initial blast may be followed by softer gushes as Jane calms down.

Surprise: The eyebrows lift and eyes open wide. The forehead furrows. Surprise can be a response to something positive, negative, or neutral. Jane can have a quick startle or a longer shock wave. The reaction can be followed immediately by fear, joy, or confusion. Depending on the stimulus, the jaw drops. Surprise is usually quick and over, but the stimulus sometimes makes Jane ruminate on it for some time. She may share her surprise with others in an attempt to understand it.

Next time, we will take a look at gestures.

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