Is He Staring at Me? Depends on How You Look At It

In several books I have read recently, I’ve noticed the word “look” and its myriad synonyms have taken something of a beating as of late.

Characters stare when all they need do is look. They gaze when they should glare. And they glimpse when they should gaze.

Word usage can be confusing, especially if you don’t give serious consideration to what an action or actions mean. But you want to give the reader the right idea and that means using the correct word.

Consider these words and their definitions (courtesy of

Look: to turn one’s eyes toward something or in some direction in order to see.

Glance: to look quickly or briefly.

Stare: to gaze fixedly and intently, especially with the eyes wide open.

Glare: to stare with a fiercely or angrily piercing look.

Gaze: to look steadily and intently, as with great curiosity, interest, pleasure, or wonder.

Gape: to stare with open mouth, as in wonder.

Glimpse: a very brief, passing look, sight, or view.

A glimpse is less than a glance. A glance is less than everything else.

To glare at someone implies anger or irritation.

To stare is intentional; looking at someone without blinking but with concentration.

Gaze and gape are similar in that both words apply pleasant wonder.

To look is just that: to look at something.

I feel compelled to differentiate between these words because they are not interchangeable. Each word has a different meaning and denotes a different facial expression. For instance, in a few books I recently read, the sentence “He stared at her” kept popping up.  However, the situations didn’t warrant staring. “He looked at her” would have sufficed in most cases. There was one instance where “He glared at her” would have been more appropriate because the male character was angry with the female character.

Each of these words carries the weight of emotion.

Staring suggests the person staring is not pleased with the subject being stared at.

Example: He stared at her for her ludicrous suggestion.

On the flip side, staring can also mean a pleasant obsession.

Example: He stared at the dancer onstage, drinking her in.

Either way, the word staring suggests varying degrees of obsession. It also suggests surprise and fear.

To glance at something is to quickly look at something then return attention to the matter at hand. Returning the attention is understood when using the word glance.

Example: She glanced at the letter in his hand and continued reading her book.

To catch a glimpse of something is to not even get a good look at it.

Example: She glimpsed movement from the corner of her eye.

Gaze and gape are similar, but to gape at something includes an open mouth, thus enhancing the emotion of wonder.

Example: He gazed at the pool of water shimmering in the moonlight.

Example: She gaped at the starship standing before her ready for launch.

As stated before, I point these out because when reading these words I expect a certain emotion to accompany them. When the male character was staring at the female character, I really couldn’t understand why he would be staring with wide-open eyes. The male character was not surprised, fearful nor upset or angry. Just looking at the female character, maybe as though she had lost her mind, but just looking at her, all the same.

It may seem a little on the picky side. But when I am reading a book and visualizing the characters, I feel disappointed when the facial expression in the book doesn’t relate to the one I see in my head. Not because I cannot visualize but because the improper word for the facial expression was used.

When setting your characters up to look, stare, gaze or glance be mindful of the situation at hand, how the characters feel and how they relate to one another. You want to send the right message to the reader so the reader can experience what the characters are experiencing.

You want to leave the reader with wide-eyed wonder.


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