100 Words for Facial Expressions

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Face it — sometimes you must give your readers a countenance-based clue about what a character or a subject is feeling. First try conveying emotions indirectly or through dialogue, but if you must fall back on a descriptive term, try for precision:

1. Absent: preoccupied
2. Agonized: as if in pain or tormented
3. Alluring: attractive, in the sense of arousing desire
4. Appealing: attractive, in the sense of encouraging goodwill and/or interest
5. Beatific: see blissful
6. Bilious: ill-natured
7. Black: angry or sad, or see hostile
8. Bleak: see grim and hopeless
9. Blinking: surprise, or lack of concern
10. Blissful: showing a state of happiness or divine contentment
11. Blithe: carefree, lighthearted, or heedlessly indifferent
12. Brooding: see anxious and gloomy
13. Bug eyed: frightened or surprised
14. Chagrined: humiliated or disappointed
15. Cheeky: cocky, insolent
16. Cheerless: sad
17. Choleric: hot-tempered, irate
18. Coy: flirtily playful, or evasive
19. Crestfallen: see despondent
20. Darkly: with depressed or malevolent feelings
21. Deadpan: expressionless, to conceal emotion or heighten humor
22. Dejected: see despondent
23. Derisive: see sardonic
24. Despondent: depressed or discouraged
25. Doleful: sad or afflicted
26. Dour: stern or obstinate; see also despondent
27. Downcast: see despondent
28. Dreamy: distracted by daydreaming or fantasizing
29. Ecstatic: delighted or entranced
30. Etched: see fixed
31. Faint: cowardly, weak, or barely perceptible
32. Fixed: concentrated or immobile
33. Furtive: stealthy
34. Gazing: staring intently
35. Glancing: staring briefly as if curious but evasive
36. Glaring: see hostile
37. Glazed: expressionless due to fatigue or confusion
38. Gloomy: see despondent and sullen
39. Glowering: annoyed or angry
40. Glowing: see radiant
41. Grim: see despondent; also, fatalistic or pessimistic
42. Grave: serious, expressing emotion due to loss or sadness
43. Haunted: frightened, worried, or guilty
44. Hopeless: depressed by a lack of encouragement or optimism
45. Hostile: aggressively angry, intimidating, or resistant
46. Hunted: tense as if worried about pursuit
47. Impassive: see deadpan
48. Inscrutable: mysterious, unreadable
49. Jeering: insulting or mocking
50. Languid: lazy or weak
51. Leering: see meaningful; also, sexually suggestive
52. Meaningful: to convey an implicit connotation or shared secret
53. Mild: easygoing
54. Mischievous: annoyingly or maliciously playful
55. Moody: see sullen
56. Pained: affected with discomfort or pain
57. Pallid: see wan
58. Peering: with curiosity or suspicion
59. Peeved: annoyed
60. Petulant: see cheeky and peeved
61. Pitying: sympathetic
62. Pleading: seeking apology or assistance
63. Pouting: see sullen
64. Quizzical: questioning or confused
65. Radiant: bright, happy
66. Roguish: see mischievous
67. Sanguine: bloodthirsty, confident
68. Sardonic: mocking
69. Scornful: contemptuous or mocking
70. Scowling: displeased or threatening
71. Searching: curious or suspicious
72. Set: see fixed
73. Shamefaced: ashamed or bashful
74. Slack-jawed: dumbfounded or surprised
75. Sly: cunning; see also furtive and mischievous
76. Snarling: surly
77. Sneering: see scornful
78. Somber: see grave
79. Sour: unpleasant
80. Stolid: inexpressive
81. Straight-faced: see deadpan
82. Sulky: see sullen
83. Sullen: resentful
84. Taunting: see jeering
85. Taut: high-strung
86. Tense: see taut
87. Tight: see pained and taut
88. Unblinking: see fixed
89. Vacant: blank or stupid looking
90. Veiled: see inscrutable
91. Wan: pale, sickly; see also faint
92. Wary: cautious or cunning
93. Wide eyed: frightened or surprised
94. Wild eyed: excited, frightened, or stressful
95. Wistful: yearning or sadly thoughtful
96. Withering: devastating; see also wrathful
97. Woeful: full of grief or lamentation
98. Wolfish: see leering and mischievous
99. Wrathful: indignant or vengeful
100. Wry: twisted or crooked to express cleverness or a dark or ironic feeling

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18 thoughts on “100 Words for Facial Expressions”

  1. Hello! I loved this post!
    I read your blog on a regular basis because I’m a writer as well. I just wanted to tell you something: why don’t you put Google + buttons so I can +1 your articles? I don’t have Twitter or Facebook and I want to show my appreciation. Thanks!

  2. This is fine, as far as it goes, but most critique groups land squarely on me for using ANY form of “he looked wolfish” or “he grinned wolfishly” (which is, admittedly, an adverb). They want alternatives to “he grinned” and “he smiled” and “he ran his hands back through his hair.” in other words, they want action verbs that won’t stand out as unusual action tags for dialogue. The problem there is that you can get outlandish. “He jumped off the Empire State Building into the waiting nets” or “he landed the plane in the East River,” frex.

    So you still have a few problems even if you have a list like this.

    As for smells, Francisco, smells can be fresh, smoky, rotten, searing, and sulfuric . . . among other things. Look around the Web and you’ll probably find a list.

  3. I am surprised that one piece of FACE can wear so many expressions, including expressionless face! I was wondering how many VERBS can be used to express what can be done by FINGERS and HAND … pinch, press, pick …. shake, rub, touch, hold …

    Agus – West Java – Indonesia

  4. Nice list, but I think someone may say that the use of such terms is ‘telling,’ not ‘showing.’

    For a change of pace, I try to use descriptions, e.g., “The corners of her mouth twisted.”

    It’s easy to come up with these; just be visual instead of — what — adverbial?

    “His eyebrows arched.” “She pressed her lips together.”

    You get the idea.

  5. @CL Manges, how is saying his eyebrows arched or she pressed her lips together make anything any better. I’ve read so many characters with hyperactive eyebrows at this point, I’d much rather read about a character’s bug eyed face.

  6. Thanks for the list.

    IMO using these words in a subtle manner that flows with the writers style could paint a picture for the audience. However if a word stands out, or if the narrator would not use the word then slash it. Sometimes simple is better.

  7. Thanks for the list.

    One of my readers, though, is stickler for the strictest form of showing not telling. So if I say someone has a wry expression on his face, he’ll say “That’s telling. What does a wry expression LOOK like?”

    So to please this sort of critter, I’m sort of stuck with things like the corners of his mouth drooped, or one side of his mouth twitched upwards, or his eyebrows shot up etc.

    Problem is, these basic descriptions of mouth, eye and eyebrow position start to sound repetitive after a while (like those hyperactive eyebrows someone mentioned upthread). And of course, raised eyebrows can indicate surprise, alarm, skepticism etc. A twitching cheek can indicate anger, worry etc. Context can help some of the time, but not always.

    I usually write in limited third or first pov, so I don’t think it’s necessarily wrong to “interpret” an expression as your pov character interprets it, rather than just using an “external camera” to catalog facial expression as pure, objective description. I think it’s probably good to mix it up, though. Sometimes a more elaborate description of someone’s posture, expression, mannerisms is in order, other times it’s better to breeze through a description more quickly.

  8. Thank you for this list. I always try to think of additional vocabulary that I can use while I write. This list has made a huge difference for me recently.

  9. Thanks for this excellent list. By dabbling with all sorts of lists (like this one), we can add variety to our writing. It doesn’t have to be all show; in fact, show gets tiring after a while too. And if everything was show, the book would be twice as long, and the story would drag.

  10. Thanks for the list! i am gonna bookmark it. I just start writing and need all these kind of words to memorize in my brain.

  11. Instead of giving us just facial expressions, why don’t you inform us about other expressive words? ‘The dress he wore, although shaggy and dull, made him look ”’stately””

  12. I’m interested in those facial expressions which happen when people first meet, become interested on each other, feel affection, feel sadness, feel pain, feel like singing, etc. Also, concentrating (focused), questioning, interested, overwhelmed. I imagine cartoonists have already figured these things out.

  13. As a writer, I need this kind of vocabulary to describe characters’ facial, physical, emotional, love/hate, and suffering pain/stress expressions.

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