Wednesday, 24 April 2013

Faces and Fiction Your/My Novel and Work in Progress

Dublin, Ireland ----- A young girl attends the 2012 St. Patrick’s Day parade in Dublin wearing a dress made by her great grandmother. Members of the Irish Traveller community, her family follows a tradition of passing down handmade clothes to younger generations. The girl’s mother also wore this dress.
Think how we refer to the face in our language: the term face is already loaded with metaphor and ulterior meaning.

Putting a good face on it; facing someone down; facing it;  facing up to things; being two faced; facing the consequences

The physiology of the faces has its own message system:
Eye being the window to soul; hollow eyes; haunted eyes; shadowed eyes; bright eyes; folded lips; wide smile; rigid jaw

Movements of  the face are part of the action in our prose:
The Writer's Challenge:
There's no art to find
 the mind's construction
 in the face.
 frowning, raising eyebrows; smiling widely; grinning,  winking, smirking, winking, leering, sneering, glowering, eyes narrowing. Every micro expression has meaning that you may use..

The face is work in progress. It tracks the passage of time:
Faces seem to seem  remain the same yet alter  through time: plain faces become handsome, distinguished with time;  pretty people become plain with the passage of years. 

Faces are the place where the act of living maps your experience:

He had the look of one who had drunk the cup of life and found a dead beetle at the bottom.  P G Wodehouse.

( A thought: A child's face  is hard to paint and hard to write, How do you paint or write a blank canvas? Even great painters have problems with children, Look at Van Gogh! We can portray children more through their emanations and actions, their wriggling and rolling, their screaming and chattering...) 

Returning to the grown-ups and how in our prose we use faces in our prose to indicate feeling, drama and action. 
 His eyes made a person think that
he heard things that no one else
 had ever heard, that he knew things
 no one had ever guessed before.
He did not seem quite human. 

Carson McCullars
Very strong genres do use direct description to establish the character so that we know very quickly the appearance of the hero/ine so we can  fit them into the shorthand stereotype of handsome hero, surly but good-looking  detective, beautiful maiden, sultry temptress, dark but handsome villain; or/burly but attractive action man. Guidelines for purely genre fiction assert quite rightly that we need to see our main characters  early  in the novel. Straight  description is very efficient for this.

My preferred way is to use the face in the process of the storytelling.I prefer not  to describe directly 
but to  allow the reader to  infer indirectly as the narrative grow. What happens in the face is part of the whole gradual package of the novel as we get to know the characters, their age and demeanour, their motivation, their transitory meaning as part of the ongoing narrative: 
What different things happens in their face as they speak to someone they love, they hate, they despise, they need? 
What happens when your character focusing on a particular task? eg the tip of my tongue shows when I am concentrating on drawing or writing.

[Irish spinner and spinning wheel. County Galway, Ireland] (LOC)
My comforr is that old age,
that ill-layer up of beauty
can do more spoil upon my face

More from Shakespeare:
-  Of course the face can tell lies. God has given you one face and you make yourself another.
- False face must hide what false heart must know
- I never see they face but I think on hellfire.

And one from JG Salinger
- She was not one for emptying her face of expression. 

Of course we don't have to make our characters gurning, grinning puppets but the use of  the mobility of the face to indicate character, drama and action is available to us and if we use it artfully and with restraint it will add vivid layers to our prose.

To illustrate: Work in Progress from my current novel :

... He spoke to them in the old tongue but both brothers answered in Latin. Kynan grinned at Magnus’s surprise. ‘Our father had us spend two seasons in the house of a merchant in Rome, an agent who sold our lead right across the great inland sea.’...

(In the context of the narrative the word 'grinned' has much more meaning here than the baring of teeth,..,,)


  1. I've found this so helpful and will have it in mind when I write.

  2. The trick is to consider the idea, internalise it and put it somehwere near the back of your mind. Then it will appear naturally in the flow of your writing. It is also useful when you are doing a creative edit to add layers to the meaning of your story, wx



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