A few decades back, I posted on ways a face can express the emotions sadness and agony, suggesting there’s a great wide world for the writer beyond descriptions of crooked eyebrows. Paul Ekman, in his book Emotions Revealed, gives us a lot of think about when considering yet another powerful mood, anger.
Before I get to facial changes, I want to touch on what’s behind anger so we know when to write it. Warning: This is a long post. (Kathleen’s going to kill me.) I’ll ask you to humor the psych major in me, but if you really only want the skinny on faces, skip to the end! Grumble, grumble, grumble…
How anger starts. Anger can kick off when we’re feeling frustrated, rejected, disappointed, when we’ve been offended, attacked or the recipient of someone else’s anger. Everyone has different thresholds, but when anger happens, it’s because someone’s personal line has been crossed.
The goal of anger is to gain some control over a situation or to retaliate or punish, and there are almost always warning signs in a person’s expression and action. Says Eckman,
It is the person who harms without anger who is not understandable, and who is often seen as truly frightening.
(Bring to mind the visage of people convicted of heinous crimes who barely blink when their terror is laid before them? They are scary!)
How anger evolves. It usually begins with annoyance/irritation, but it can evolve like a storm—one that gets wildly out of control or passes quickly. This is because it’s easier to get mad once we’re already irritated; our tolerance for things changes because we’re looking at the world through shtank-covered glasses. Anger distorts us. It makes it easy to say things we don’t mean – or things we do mean but wouldn’t normally say – and it can lead us to do things we might regret.
How anger erupts depends somewhat on personality. Intolerant people seem always primed for a fight, while others have a lot of self control; they choose not to take “fight bait” in the first place and refuse to “up the ante” with more heated words and actions when others try to escalate an argument. (Note: If someone who’s trying to control his/her anger is finally baited into argument, their response may be volcanic.) Some people react to anger by “stonewalling,” meaning they don’t respond to it at all. Some might get a kick out of anger, looking for a good fight wherever they go. And some people who feel anger deeply may be able to transform it to sexual passion on a dime.
The family connection. People can get madder at their loved ones than anyone else, because, as Eckman says, “…those are the people who can hurt us and disappoint us the most.” People can also use family as the dumping ground for displaced anger, venting at home when they’re really upset about something or someone else entirely.
Bedfellow moods. You should know that there are a bunch of moods that may go hand-in-hand with anger, including fear, disgust, guilt and shame. A tough character might feel angry instead of being afraid, and anger can even provide energy when we might need it in a flight-or-fight situation. Anger can even be a substitute for depression.
More than a mood. Resentment that lasts a long time evolves beyond a mood to becomes a condition. It’s the same with hatred. Still, it’s easy to feel anger again if you think hard on the thing or person that makes you feel resentful or whom you hate, or if you find yourself retelling the story of something that made you angry once; in short, these instances become a quick-trigger for anger. Long-standing resentment and hatred can also breed the perfect storm for revenge. Another toxic form of long-term anger is hostility—a sort of “I hate the world and you too” attitude that some wear boldly.
Using anger in your writing. Consider:
• Characters facing frustration, rejection, someone else’s anger
• Characters with different anger thresholds
• Characters with different “hot buttons”
• Characters who experience emotions intensely
• Characters who displace anger
• Characters with a history of anger, with different hereditary and environmental influences
• Characters with angry personalities in general (note: angry people are unappealing to most others)
• The story gold of the resentment/revenge relationship
What anger feels like. Consider:
• muscle tension
• pressure in the jaw area
• increased heart rate
• heat (literally feeling hot under the collar)
What anger looks like. It’s interesting to note that anger looks the same in every culture. Changes in facial expression usually come before a raised voice, angry words and physical movements. Note that irritation may show up in just a flash of emotion, quickly suppressed, whereas hostile personalities may wear an almost permanent glare, with lowered brows and raised upper eyelids. Here’s what you may see when a person’s angry:
BODY: movement toward object of anger; may wave arms, crane neck, make a hand gesture or two
JAW/CHIN: thrusts jaw forward, jutting chin out
TEETH: upper teeth locked against lower teeth; alternately teeth may be exposed
BROWS: eyebrows drawn down and together (yep, the brows)
EYES: glaring eyes, open wide, looking out over those drawn-down brows
EYELIDS: eyelids tighten (annoyance) or upper lids lift (glare)
LIPS: tense lips, narrowed, thin, pressed tightly together; or open and angular (note: pressed lips especially are a sign of controlled anger; thinned lips are one of the earliest signs of anger)
Reality check: Let’s take a look at how anger can play out in best-selling fiction. The clip is from Anita Shreve’s Where or When, right after Harriet learns that her husband is leaving her for another woman – on Christmas day.
“I’ll come back,” he says. “Before the kids are up. I’ll spend the night, or what’s left of it, someplace, maybe a motel, and then I’ll come back to be with them when they open their presents. We’ll tell them together, tomorrow night or the next day.”
She lies still on the bed, her face shielded. He thinks she will not speak, that she acquiesces with her silence, as bewildered on this foreign territory as he is. But then she sits up sharply, facing him. Her mouth is tight, a thin line of anger. There are vertical lines above her upper lip that he has never seen before.
“Don’t you dare to come back here,” she says evenly. “Don’t you come back here ever. You want your things, you can send someone else for them. Or I’ll put them out on the street. This is my house now, and you are not to come here again.”
Note how little description you need to make it play authentically, as long as what you include IS authentic. I especially love the even tone of her voice, the suppressed rage. And lookie: no brows!
This time, I’ll say that I’ll be back EVENTUALLY to post about what surprise and fear look like. For now, let’s just say they look like this. =:-0