Writing facial expressions – three different reasons to smile

Body language, and in particular facial expressions, are a vital part of getting across characters and emotions in a story. Lists of their common meanings such as this cheat sheet or the database compiled by the Center for Nonverbal Studies, can be invaluable for writers in getting this right. But as a teacher I saw first hand that there are exceptions to even the most obvious of rules.

To most of us, a smile is a smile. It’s a way of expressing our happiness. Sometimes we fake it, but people can often tell the difference. One small high school class I taught, consisting of only half a dozen kids considered ‘challenging’ in their ability to learn or behave, showed me how many other things it could mean.

Aiming to misbehave

O was your classic troubled pupil. I never found out what was going on at home, but he had the attention span of a fruit fly and the gleefully malevolent humour normally seen in cartoon devils. O could have been a capable student if he could just sit still for three minutes at a time. But O didn’t want to learn. There was only one thing O craved, and that was attention.

When O smiled it was because he knew that attention was coming, and he didn’t care why. As the quickest route to attention was normally to misbehave, 90% of O’s grins meant that he was acting up, or plotting to act up. In a sense, O’s smile was still a happy smile, but it was a dark sort of happiness.

This isn't how O smiled, but it's how most teachers saw his grin.
This isn’t how O smiled, but it’s how most teachers saw his grin.

These things that I have learned

M was an adorable, politely spoken lad with a smile like an angel. You could have sat him and O on someone’s shoulders and thought you were in a Hanna-Barbera cartoon. M was also autistic, so far along the spectrum that he could only function in a mainstream school with full time support.

If you’ve watched Scandinavian police drama The Bridge you’ll have seen a detective who is apparently autistic. She doesn’t understand social rules and conventions. She doesn’t smile because she isn’t having the same emotional experience as everyone else. Her face is set to a default.

M was similar, except that his default was a smile. I think he was genuinely happy most of the time, but that smile only showed a surface learning of the emotion. He didn’t understand how it worked in others, or how to expand upon it for himself. He just knew that nice people smiled, and so he smiled.

Smile like you mean it

Q was the most heartbreaking person I have ever met. He and his family had fled Afghanistan at a time when that country was in horrifying turmoil.

Q smiled a lot. It was a huge, nervous grin that split his face in half. He smiled when he was happy. He smiled when he was nervous. He smiled when he didn’t understand what people were saying, which happened a lot because his English wasn’t great. He smiled when he was being told off, which led many teachers to conclude that he was a troublemaker who they needed to deal with strictly. But punishing Q led to more inappropriate grinning, led to more frustration from teachers who thought their message wasn’t getting through, led to more trouble, led to more grinning, led to… You get the idea.

A couple of months after I first met him we found out what had happened to Q and his family in Afghanistan. He had seen horrifying things that had traumatised him for life, brutal crimes committed against people he loved. Somewhere in all of that physical and emotional violence he had learned to suppress his feelings beneath an uneasy smile. For all I know that smile kept people off his back for a while, maybe saved his life. But it made it almost impossible for him to function in the ways we’re used to. Our universal signifier of happiness had become, for Q, a signifier of fear. If he smiled on happy occasions it was just because he feared that the happiness would be snatched away. Most of the time, he was smiling because he was confused and afraid and had no idea what else to do.

Whatever makes you smile

Years later, thinking of those kids brings a tear to my eye, but it also makes me smile. I miss them more than anyone else I ever taught. I miss that whole class – O, M and Q, the sweetly gormless smile of P, the ever-changing expressions of the wannabe-rebel G. They were amazing kids, and ones our education system has almost certainly failed by now.

As a writer it’s incredibly useful to be able to use a single expression as a signifier of a standard emotion – smile means happy. It cuts through the clutter to convey emotion to the audience. But reality isn’t that simple, and if you can find ways to use other forms of smiling, other reasons to smile, then you can show your readers unexpected depth of characters, like I found with the real life characters in that class.

One day I’ll write a story about those smiles.

 

Picture by Randy Robertson via Flickr creative commons

Disagreeing with both sides – Mockingbird, Gove and the literary cannon

I have to make a confession, and I fear that my British readers are going to judge me harshly for it. It’s a stance that makes me wretchedly uncomfortable, but that I feel I must make. So here goes.

I don’t agree with a criticism of Michael Gove.

I'm as surprised as you are Michael.
I’m as surprised as you are Michael.

 

There. I’ve said it. Happy now? People are throwing stones at our much-maligned education secretary and I don’t agree with them.

But why?

The enemy of my enemy is not my friend

Lets be clear, I’m not saying that I agree with Gove. If we were to meet face to face we might just about agree on the benefits of breathing oxygen and not getting caught in bear traps. Except that we’d each wish that the other one was silenced by the trapper’s steel jaws.

When Gove says that the English curriculum should be about Shakespeare and Dickens I don’t agree, for the same reason that I don’t agree with his emphasis on dates and facts and British events in the history curriculum. I think it’s an old-fashioned, small-minded approach that limits pupils’ perspective, causes problems for teachers and misses many of the benefits of education.

But.

The wrong fuss

Many people I respect, including the Interesting Literature blog, have leapt up to defend the books being abandoned under Gove’s reforms. They point out the merits of books like To Kill A Mockingbird, which are being lost to the generation of pupils about to be taught under the Gove curriculum. They want them to stay on the curriculum.

I don’t doubt for a minute that the books they’re defending are greats, and that many pupils would benefit from reading them, but I think that misses the point.

Like Gove, these critics are defending a literary cannon. They are implicitly saying ‘these books mattered to me, so everybody should read them’.

And, not to put too fine a point on it, I think that’s crap. That’s the same thinking that got Gove to where he is, and that got their beloved books taken off the curriculum.

Skills and emotions

Education isn’t about cramming kids’ heads full of facts. They don’t need that. They have the internet.

Nor is it any longer about access to the classics. You can get them from a library, a charity shop, an online e-book store. In the UK, even those without my privileged access to technology can get hold of these books cheaply and easily.

Education is about teaching skills and building passions. Lessons in literature should teach pupils how to engage with books in an excited, critical way. They should build their passion for reading. And both of those things will be better achieved by letting the teachers pick the books. That way they can find books that they and their pupils will get excited about.

A pupil who is given a story they like, who develops a passion for literature, may discover countless excellent books in life. One who has books that mean nothing to them crammed down their throat will be put off.

Everybody’s tastes are different. Not everyone is going to love Macbeth or Grapes Of Wrath. Yes, some pupils will be surprised to find they enjoy them. But many will be unsurprised to find that they don’t. The person who can best make that call, who understands the pupils in each class, is the trained expert in literature and education who’s in there with them. Not a politician, not a literary critic, not a blogger or an outraged reader signing a petition, but an individual teacher living at the chalkface.

By all means criticise Gove’s narrow curriculum, but don’t try to replace it with one of your own. Instead give teachers the freedom to do their jobs.

Think of the children – e-reading’s messy future

Have you thought about where e-readers are taking us? I don’t just mean emptier shelves round the house and less weight to pack for holidays. I mean the bigger changes that they’ll bring, as change ripples out through the institutions built on old technology.

Yesterday’s post provoked some interesting responses about publishing, and I’ve written before about why kids will still want old style books. But there’s so much more to it than that. Because our default concept of reading is based on privately owned paperbacks, but the reality of books is far more complicated.

Mike Licht

Textbooks

Glenatron mentioned textbooks in response to yesterday’s post. And he’s quite right – they could be vastly improved by using the benefits of an electronic medium. They could be repeatedly revised and updated, colleges and schools buying into the updates instead of whole new books. No more battered, out of date books with notes in the margin and penises crudely scribbled onto the photos.

But getting there is very complicated. Because for schools to use e-books in classrooms they first need e-readers, but to justify the e-readers they first need the textbooks to go on them, so there’s a tricky circle to be broken. Not to mention the risk of e-readers going missing – schools will probably need them cheap and sturdy.

Then there’s a bigger academic issue, because part of how we legitimise knowledge as correct and of value is by publishing it through established academic houses and then keeping that edition of the book set, unmoving and easily referenced for years. That’s an approach that doesn’t work so well with the changes going on.

E-readers have the potential to radically change both education and the knowledge economy around it. But it’s going to be a tricky thing to do.

Libraries

This was another point raised in response to my post yesterday, this time from Sheila. Our model of publicly shared books – which is to say the library system – is built around books that are trapped on the physical page. New lending models and legal frameworks will be needed to cope with lending e-books. Those new models could make books more accessible than ever, or shackle the electronic age with assumptions from the paper one.

And what about libraries as public spaces? If we start borrowing and referencing by download from library webpages, how will those centres of communal activity be supported, never mind the experience and wisdom of the librarians?

Copyright

When a book’s published electronically it’s much harder to stop people copying it, just like with music. And that has huge implications.

I could go on for hours about this one. Suffice to say that old models of intellectual property are poorly designed for the modern age, but big companies insist on wielding them to hold back their profits against the inexorable tide of change. It’s not just copyright – look at the pharmaceutical companies getting outraged about life-saving knock-off medicines, or King’s battles to protect its dubious gaming trademarks.

The best companies will respond by innovating to appeal to customers and by finding ways to profit in an age when you can’t realistically stop low level copying. Others will continue on the defensive, keeping the lawyers busy as they go down fighting. The end results should be innovation and a richer culture, but the journey there may be messy.

What have I missed?

What are the other implications to the shift to electronic books? What angles have I missed? Leave comments, share your wisdom.

Just don’t try to stop people copying your opinions – that one’s a losing battle.

 

Picture by Mike Licht via Flickr creative commons

Some of my other writing – sf+f in education

I have to confess, this is not the only place where I blog. It’s the place where I blog about my favourite things – books, writing, science fiction and fantasy. But in my attempts to get paid for words, I also post elsewhere.

One of those places is Enroll.com, where I contribute to a blog about education. And being the nerd that I am, I let my sf+f interests enter into that from time to time. So, here are a few of the other nerdly things that I’ve written, in an attempt to indoctrinate young minds and their teachers into all things sf+f: