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Beware the Biting of the Lips: Body Language Found in Fiction That You Don't See in Real Life August 12, 2014

A few days ago, after many moons of waiting, I finally received a book I'd reserved at the public library—a work of women's fiction that has topped bestseller lists and earned critical praise from several impressive-sounding newspapers and journals. I wasn't much interested by the premise, but I felt I should keep an open mind and see what the fuss was about.

I read approximately one and a half pages before I ran into the fatal flaw, the dead fly in the soup that ruined the entire meal: the lip-biting.

Lip-biting is one of those contagious habits that fictional characters pick up from other fictional characters. It hops from one book to another, from paperback romances to cozy mysteries to thrillers. A heroine biting her lips is fictional shorthand for "she's nervous, indecisive, and weak-kneed in general."

Now I ask you—and think about this carefully—when is the last time you saw somebody bite his or her bottom lip in indecision? If I may venture a guess...never?

The only times I've seen people bite their lips, they weren't nervous—they were acting coy. Search for "bite lips" in Google Images and you'll find female celebrities trying to look humble or sexy by biting their bottom lips. They think it looks primal and alluring, like Angelina Jolie. Or they simply have an overbite, like Kristen Stewart.

The biggest clue that it's not a natural behavior: you rarely see it done by heterosexual men, either in fiction or on the red carpet. Have you ever read about a hero who bites his lip shyly? No. It's a cutesy feminine behavior, and one usually calculated for effect.

People do have nervous habits. They wring their hands, pick at things, chew their nails, and jiggle their legs. Perhaps a few do bite their lips, but as I've never yet encountered one, they can't possibly bite them nearly as often as heroines do in novels. I recently read a book that contained more than twenty instances of the exact phrase "I bit my lip." That unfortunate heroine must have had to deal with chronic bleeding of the lips by chapter five.

Some other things characters do in fiction that people rarely, if ever, do in real life:

  • Twirl locks of hair flirtatiously
  • Loosen neckties nervously
  • Remove spectacles dramatically
  • Juggle hot things comically
  • Pucker nipples in excitement
  • Faint in shock

And so on.

Modern writing is heavy on facial expressions. We convey surprise with a widening of the eyes, anger with a knitting of the brows, and displeasure with a pursing of the lips.

I've heard writers who grew up pre-1950 blame this trend on the invention of the television. I blame many things on the invention of the television, but this is not one of them. Long before the television, long before the light bulb even, writers filled their books with facial expressions.

From Jane Eyre, published 1847:

He had a dark face, with stern features and a heavy brow; his eyes and gathered eyebrows looked ireful and thwarted just now...The frown, the roughness of the traveler set me at my ease: I retained my station when he waved to me to go, and announced—

"I cannot think of leaving you, sir, at so late an hour, in this solitary lane, till I see you are fit to mount your horse."

He looked at me when I said this: he had hardly turned his eyes in my direction before...He stopped, ran his eye over my dress...In two minutes he rose from the stile; his face expressed pain when he tried to move.

From Middlemarch, published 1871–72:

Dorothea wondered; but the smile was irresistible, and shone back from her face too. Will Ladislaw's smile was delightful, unless you were angry with him beforehand: it was a gush of inward light illuminating the transparent skin as well as the eyes, and playing about every curve and line as if some Ariel were touching them with a new charm, and banishing for ever the traces of moodiness. The reflection of that smile could not but have a little merriment in it too, even under dark eyelashes still moist, as Dorothea said inquiringly, "Something amuses you?"

Or from The Age of Innocence, published 1920:

As Madame Nilsson's "M'ama!" thrilled out above the silent house, a warm pink mounted to the girl's cheek, mantled her brow to the roots of her fair braids, and suffused the young slope of her breast...She dropped her eyes to the immense bouquet of lilies-of-the-valley on her knee, and Newland Archer saw her white-gloved finger-tips touch the flowers softly. He drew a breath of satisfied vanity and his eyes returned to the stage.

In most books you pick up, you'll see similar emphases on the movements of eyes, mouths, and lungs. It's so common that finding the samples above took only ten minutes; I simply plucked old books off the shelf, opened them to semi-random pages, and had my pick of suitable passages to copy here.

Books in other languages and cultures do it too. I remember in Romance of the Three Kingdoms, a fourteenth-century Chinese classic Sweetie read a while back, the author described the tearful eyes and shy smiles of a duplicitous temptress in detail. It's not the fault of television, it's the fault of human nature.

When we interact with people, our eyes stick to their eyes, with the other facial features in the periphery. Most of our communication is through tone and expression; we read people from their eyes and voices, and the words they say are largely immaterial to our impressions of them. Voice can't be conveyed well on a flat page, so naturally writers rely on facial expressions to show emotions.

And this is fine in small doses, but it's too often overdone or simply inaccurate. The epidemic of lip-biting—or hair-twirling, necktie-loosening, etc.—is the result of authors regurgitating what they've seen written in other books without thinking. These writers need to spend more time observing people in real life, instead of relying on fictional accounts of them.


A woman cinephile (April 23, 2020 4:43 pm)

I agree and started a database on instagram: @actresses_biting_their_lips

Pooja (July 2, 2020 9:59 pm)

Wow. Thank you for sharing this. I thought I was the only one who felt that way. Awesome work.

LVB (December 1, 2020 3:41 pm)

This is so funny, because every time I listen to an audiobook and they go "she bit her lip" I just wanna scream! 不不不不不不

Gabriel Johnston (September 30, 2021 3:07 am)

I 100% agree. Body language can be tempting over simplify. If a writer is tempted to make a character bite their lip, what would you recommend they replace it with?

T. K. Marnell (September 30, 2021 8:35 am)

When a writer wants to make a character bite their lip, they're probably either trying to convey that the character is nervous or hesitant, or they're simply filling space between lines of dialogue.

You can often replace body language in the main character with interiority. Show what they're thinking from their point of view.

For example, if a character isn't sure whether to believe something someone said, your first draft might say, "I bit my lip. 'Are you sure?'" You could revise it to say: "I suspected he was wrong about that, but he was supposed to be the expert. 'Are you sure?'" Or if the character is nervous before an unpleasant confrontation: "This was going to be a disaster, but I had to get through it. Danny had always taken charge of these things before. Now I had to learn to take care of myself." And so on.

If a non-POV character is biting their lip a lot, there are many other ways people show nervousness or hesitancy. You can use one of them, like how people's mouths tend to tense up or quirk to one side as they're saying, "Mmm..." before disagreeing. Or you can state outright, "She looked like she didn't agree, but she didn't want to be impolite." Or show their emotions through their speech. "'Are you sure?' she asked. 'I mean, you're the expert, but...'"

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