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Writing a mute, nonverbal, or nonspeaking character can allow you to explore new ways of expression, communication, and interaction. Novels depend heavily on dialogue, so when someone appears who doesn’t speak verbally, you are challenged to improve your understanding of your world, characters, their personalities, and how to write detailed, compelling narratives.

It doesn’t come without work, though. When creating a mute character, it’s critical to consider key factors about them and how they affect your story – from the underlying reasons for their mutism to conflicts that are unique to their experiences.

Before you can do any of that, you must know what types of mutism exist and what causes them. Having that foundation will help you remain respectful in your portrayal of mutism and add layers of authenticity to your work.

Understanding mutism

Mutism is defined as the inability to speak. It’s important to note that mutism occurs on a spectrum. Most people with mutism are not mute 100% of the time. It can be triggered and calmed, or worsened and become better, over situations and time.

Causes

Mutism has physical and psychological causes. Physically, a person may be mute due to damage to the brain or to speech-related parts of the body, such as the vocal cords, tongue, mouth, or lungs. Brain damage can be the result of traumatic brain injuries (ex: car accidents, falls), illness (ex: seizures, dementia, nervous system disorders), surgery, or medication.

Neurogenic mutism can be short or long term, and may present as static or progressive conditions, depending on the region of the brain that is affected. For example, surgery for brain tumors is suspected of creating lesions on the cerebellum which can affect speech starting immediately after or days following the procedure.

Additionally, some people are born mute – sometimes this is due to physical disabilities or deformities as already mentioned. Deafness can be considered as a cause for mutism, however most people in the Deaf community are able to use their vocal cords and learn how to communicate verbally. *If your character is Deaf/Mute, consider their Deafness as their primary characteristic and mutism as a secondary characteristic.

Psychologically, mutism is affected by various and, oftentimes, concurrent mental and emotional factors. Sudden life changes, feeling threatened or in danger, and stress all play a role. Risks of mutism include disorders such as anxiety, autism, and sensory or auditory processing difficulties. Other risks are reduced opportunities for social interaction, extreme shyness, or growing up in a bilingual/multilingual environment.

Psychological mutism can show itself as total mutism, when a person does not speak under any circumstance, although this is less common. Total mutism is often a result of traumatic mutism, when a person undergoes such a traumatic experience that they stop speaking entirely. More commonly, it appears as elective (inability to speak due to psychological issues) or selective (inability to speak in certain situations even though a person wants to) mutism.

Selective mutism is not the same as shyness or someone choosing not to speak. It is a very real problem that interferes with a person’s ability to experience daily life and interactions with others. In this case, a person can speak in some circumstances (ex: at home, not at school) or with some people (ex: with their best friend or a parent, but no one else). It is as if they have lost the ability or that something is stopping them.

Treatments

There are many different ways that a person with mutism can receive treatment, depending on the causes and frequency of their condition. Most commonly, nonverbal persons will undergo speech-language, physical, behavioral, or occupational therapy. They may also receive medication or technological aids.

Mutism in fiction

Now that you have some background knowledge on mutism, you can begin to craft your character. Begin with a backstory and cause for their mutism, then determine what treatment they’ve received and what communication methods they rely on.

Why doesn’t your character speak?

In fiction, traumatic mutism is one of the most common representations of nonverbal people, alongside a character getting their tongue cut off. Neither of these are very common in realistic circumstances. Other causes of mutism in fiction include:

When creating your character’s backstory, you can consider the causes behind other fictional characters’ conditions and the realistic causes discussed above. Ask yourself which cause fits your character or the plot best.

Dive deep into what this means for your character. How old were they when it happened? How were they affected by the cause? By the mutism itself? Did they have to change their lifestyle? How did their family and friends react? Who was and is still their support group?

Once you figure out their backstory, identify any and all reasonable triggers for their mutism. If your character suffered a brain injury, they may only have a one-time trigger – the event that caused the mutism. However, a character with psychological mutism will have other triggers, such as being in a particular location or seeing a particular person. Whatever triggers they have, write them down in list form and refer back to it as you write to maintain consistency. These may be important for points of conflict in your story.

Think of triggers as descriptive practice during your drafting process. Since the character cannot speak, you must show that something is happening to them. Think of how you can show the reader that they want to speak, but can’t. Maybe there is an element of danger – an adrenaline rush, trembling, a tight throat, a spark of pain somewhere.

What treatment have they had?

Consider what kind of help your character has received for their mutism. Have they gone to therapy? Which kind? How often? Is it complete or are they still going?

Who was there for them professionally and in their personal lives? This can look like a strengthened or weakened bond with others, which should be reflected in their relationships during the story’s timeline.

What struggles did they face while getting treatment? Did they have proper access to resources? Were there any setbacks in their care or recovery?

Have they reached a normalized stage in their life by the time your story begins, or are they still learning to live with their condition? This is important when determining how to portray your character’s relationship with their mutism. A character who has had it for years may feel comfortable with it. Meanwhile, a character who has only recently become nonverbal may find it difficult – it can be frustrating and scary to be unable to speak. Frustration – especially bottled up frustration – can turn into anger, which will affect your character’s thoughts and actions.

How does your character communicate?

Dialogue is obviously the primary factor affected by having a mute character. When it comes to writing nonverbal dialogue, authors have taken different approaches. Sometimes mute characters are given dialogue in italicized text, lead-ins with dashes, or their quotation marks are replaced with guillemets. Members of the Deaf/HoH community have noted that they prefer it written the same as verbal speech, with quotations.

Italicized

Ron looked up from searching the bag. “Did you forget the spare key again?”
Suzie’s eyebrows raised. What? No, she signed. It’s definitely in there. Give me that.

Dashed lead-ins

Ron looked up from searching the bag. “Did you forget the spare key again?”

Suzie’s eyebrows raised.

– What? No – she signed – It’s definitely in there. Give me that.

Guillemets

Ron looked up from searching the bag. “Did you forget the spare key again?”
Suzie’s eyebrows raised. «What? No», she signed. «It’s definitely in there. Give me that».

But before you can decide how to type your character’s dialogue, you should know how they communicate. The following are some popular methods.

Writing

This option is popular due to its accessibility – as long as your story takes place within a relatively educated society. It wouldn’t make sense for a fourteen-year-old common girl from the medieval era to carry around ink and paper, let alone know how to read and write.

Writing makes it easy for everyone to understand. Characters can keep a pen and notepad on them to talk to others, or in a contemporary timeline, carry their phone with them. They can text people to talk or use the notes app to type up what they want to say.

If you choose writing as your character’s communication method, keep in mind some of the drawbacks. Writing on paper isn’t possible in the dark. Not unless there is a portable source of light, like a flashlight or candle, but if your character is trying to hide, the light will reveal them to whomever is hunting them. Moreover, their handwriting might be unreadable to others, whether that’s due to shaky letters or cursive. Writing can also take up a lot of time, so some characters may not feel it is worth it to try to say something – by the time they write down their thought, the conversation will have moved on.

For mobile typers, a character would need a constant power source because once their phone dies, they can’t communicate. They could carry a portable charger with them, but even those have a risk of running out or being damaged.

Sign language

There are many different sign languages. For this article, we’ll stick with American Sign Language (ASL) and Signed Exact Language (SEE).

If your character uses sign language, be sure to identify which one it is. ASL is a separate language from English, with its own vocabulary, phrases, and grammar structure. A character who speaks only in ASL will need a translator with them. SEE represents English in its exact form, so it is easier for English speakers to learn and does not require translation in the same way.

Think of your character’s mutism to decide which language they use. Someone who is born mute or was raised in a Deaf/HoH community may find it easier or more convenient to learn ASL. Someone who became mute later may prefer SEE. However, if your character is only periodically mute, they may only know basic vocabulary from either language in order to get their point across until they can speak again.

Make sure it makes sense for your character to know sign language. They should interact regularly with others who speak the same language as they do, whether that means they live in a mute community or their support group learned it alongside them in order to understand them. Once your character is away from their friends and family, will they meet others who can use sign language or will they have to find other ways to communicate?

Gestures, vocalizations, and expressions

Descriptive language can show how a character feels through physical cues like gestures or facial expressions. If you watch any person use sign language, you will notice that their expressions are a tool in their communication – some hand signs are meaningless without the accompanying facial movements. There are dozens, if not hundreds, of ways you can describe a character’s emotions or what they are thinking based on their facial expression and posture.

Examples

Mutism as a spectrum means that even if a person can’t speak full words, they may still be able to vocalize sounds, which can say a lot. Think about how many times you say “uh,” “hmm,” “oh,” or “mhm.” Now think about the tone in those syllables.

A low “oh” can be a sad surprise, disappointment, or confusion. A long “ohhh” can mean understanding. An “oh” that starts low and ends high is a question. A sharp, high “oh” can mean a happy surprise. The tone changes what is meant, and a mute character can say a lot just with these.

Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) devices

AAC technology is made specifically for people with speech and language impairments. There are many options for AACs, as there are many people with different levels of communication. Some common ones include

These tools allow a nonverbal person to express themselves, however it may require patience from their listeners. As it can be very frustrating and lonely if no one takes the time to listen, make sure there is at least one character who is always willing to hear what your mute character wants to say.

Keep in mind that less expressive forms of communication mean that some of their personality or humor will be lost.

Magic

Magic means endless possibilities. However, make sure it is integrated into your worldbuilding. It should have limitations, if not consequences.

What magic is in your world? What is possible with it? How does your character use it? Externally or internally? Does it have a power source? What happens if the character loses it or is taken away from it? Is the character a novice or a master at using it?

Some communicative magics are telepathy and the ability to create illusions. These can be predictable, though, so try to find a creative angle if you’re going to give them to your character.

A mute character is still a character

Sometimes nonverbal characters are there to make a point or act as a token. They don’t get to be the hero of their own story. Don’t let your own character fall into the background if they were intended to stay in the spotlight.

Their life is not only about their condition. They have goals, desires, needs, relationships, and a personality. Be sure to show the reader their thoughts and feelings about everything, not just their struggles related to their mutism. Making this character well-rounded and realistic will help normalize mutism for your readers, rather than making them a target of their pity.

As always, do your research. Not only is it sensitive and respectful to the topic, but it makes your story come alive. Read other books with mute characters. Reach out to people with mutism, find interviews, watch YouTube videos. There are infinite resources available through the internet – all you have to do is look.

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Let us know: What condition does your nonverbal character have? How do they communicate with others throughout the story?