Dialogue plays a huge role when it comes to writing a story, so it can be a bit daunting to include a character who doesn’t (or can’t) speak. Many writers make mistakes when writing a nonspeaking character, or they end up relying on old stereotypes and tropes that frankly everyone is tired of seeing. However, that doesn’t mean you should shy away from including this kind of representation in your stories! In fact, a well-written mute character can end up being quite meaningful to some of your readers.
As a note, before you dive too deeply into this article, I want to point out that some people may consider the term “mute” to be offensive. I will continue to use this term so people can find this article (thanks, Google algorithm), but you should consider synonyms like “nonverbal” or “nonspeaking” for your own work.
Decide Why the Character Doesn’t Speak
There are many reasons why a person cannot (or chooses not to) speak. Unfortunately, in fiction, the most prevalent method for rendering a character speechless is by literally cutting out their tongue. Although that can be a fun bit of trauma to attach to a character, that’s not the only method that should be getting attention. People who are born without the ability to speak are ridiculously underrepresented in all forms of media.
So what are some reasons that explain why a person is completely or partially nonspeaking? There are many options, including, but not limited to:
- Physical trauma, including a car accident, a gunshot wound, and yes, getting their tongue forcibly removed.
- Brain injury, particularly affecting the frontal and temporal lobes, and the left side of the brain. This can be an extension of physical trauma, but it can also result from asphyxiation, stroke, and other illnesses.
- Neurological disorders, such as Autism, ADHD, learning disorders, and some forms of epilepsy.
- Mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia, depression, anxiety, and PTSD.
- Physical disability, particularly those affecting motor skills and speech production, such as muscular or respiratory problems.
- Deafness, although considered a physical or neurological condition (depending on its causes), deserves its own category. Most deaf people technically can speak, but many (especially those associated with the larger Deaf community) choose to prioritize sign language over vocal speech. There’s a lot of nuance to this topic that can’t be covered in a single bullet point, so I strongly suggest doing more research!
- Magic, if that makes sense for the genre of story you’re writing. Characters can be stricken speechless because of a curse, a magical oath, or some other kind of fantasy element. (Think of Ariel from The Little Mermaid!)
When writing a nonspeaking character, it’s important to keep in mind that most people are not 100% mute all the time. Mutism is a spectrum!
A person who is nonspeaking could struggle with the vocalization aspect, the part that involves actually making noise with your mouth and throat, or they could struggle with the language aspect. Or, they could struggle with both aspects, or it could vary based on their mood and other circumstances. Being nonspeaking doesn’t mean a person has no capacity for language and/or vocal communication.
Other Methods of Communicating
If you’re going to write a nonspeaking character into your story, you have to give them some way to communicate with readers and other characters. If they can’t do that, you’re going to struggle with making them interesting and relatable to readers. Just because your character can’t speak doesn’t mean they can’t communicate at all!
There are many different ways of communicating that don’t rely on speaking. Some examples are:
- Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) Devices
- Sign Language
- Gestures, Vocalizations, and Expressions
I’ll go into each of those in their own dedicated sections below! Keep in mind, however, that many nonspeaking people know how to utilize more than one of these options depending on the context of a situation.
How to Write a Character Who Uses an AAC Device to Communicate
AAC refers to all of the nonvocal methods of communication a person can use to communicate, including body language and gestures. For the purpose of this section, however, I will be addressing Speech Generating AAC Devices (SGD).
AAC devices come in many different styles with varying functionality depending on the needs of the user. Fundamentally, however, an AAC device is designed to help a person communicate their ideas when they cannot speak. The ways in which they do this varies, however.
Some AAC devices are small boards with buttons on them, while others are programs that can be downloaded from an app store on most smartphones and tablets. Some devices are picture-based, while others rely on typing words or sentences in for the device to say aloud. Depending on the complexity of the device and how the character uses it, the device could sound very similar to or very different from normal conversation.
For example, if a character uses a text-based AAC program on their phone, they would likely write out complete sentences for the device to read out loud for them. In this case, there might be a longer delay between their replies, but the only difference between how they speak and how someone else speaks is the fact that their voice comes from the machine in their hand and not their mouth.
When asked how they are feeling, they may respond with “I’m feeling okay, but I’m a bit hungry. Do you want to get pizza for dinner tonight? I’ve been thinking about that place we tried last week, and it’s the only thing on my mind.”
In this case, there is nothing stopping them from communicating their thoughts exactly as they are thinking them, including their personal phrasing and sense of humor, as long as their conversation partner is patient.
On the other hand, a person who used an image-based AAC device might struggle to communicate their exact thoughts and feelings, and thus, a lot of humor and personality may be lost with their replies. When asked how they are feeling, their response could be limited to “hungry” or “pizza.” To compensate for this, they may rely more heavily on expressions and body language to convey the meaning behind what they are trying to say.
Not all image-based devices are so simple, but they can get bloated and overwhelming if there are too many options to choose from. For this reason, many more complicated image-based devices allow for categorization and customization, to make things easier to find and to facilitate faster communication without sacrificing a variety of choices. Unused words can be removed, custom words can be added, and the layout can generally be completely customized to fit the needs and desires of the user.
If you want your character to use a Speech Generating AAC Device, you should download an actual AAC program or app onto your phone. Play around with the program, and take notes about how it works, how it sounds, and how it feels to use.
How to Write a Character Who Writes to Communicate
Writing is a simple and elegant solution to the dilemma of being unable to speak. This is also the most popular option for people who are selectively mute since it is simple, accessible, and easy for everyone to understand.
Most modern people carry a phone around with them at all times, and almost everyone is familiar with texting to communicate. Therefore, when a person cannot speak, it is fairly simple for them to simply text someone what they want to say. This only works if they have the person’s phone number, however; otherwise, they would have to type what they want to say, get the attention of the person they want to talk to, and show them the screen of their phone. Of course, this kind of communication could leave them stranded if their phone battery drops to 0%.
Obviously, technology like that isn’t going to work for every character in every story. In that case, the character could carry around a notepad and a pen for when they go nonverbal and need to communicate. There are some obstacles involved with communicating like this, however. If a character writes on paper, then they won’t be able to communicate in the dark. Handwriting can also pose an issue. If they have terrible handwriting or they write in cursive, not everyone is going to be able to read what they wrote. The character may have to slow down to write legibly, and by the time they get their ideas out, the topic of conversation may have already changed.
How to Write a Character Who Uses Sign Language to Communicate
Sign language is probably the most obvious choice when it comes to communicating nonverbally. However, there are a lot of things you need to keep in mind when choosing to write a character who communicates using an entirely visual language.
When writing a character who uses sign language to communicate, you might think it’s as simple as writing out exactly what they’re signing—but that’s not exactly how sign language works.
American Sign Language (ASL) is actually its own unique language with a grammar structure that is completely different from English. If you wrote out exactly what your character was signing, it wouldn’t sound anything like a normal sentence in English. ASL is used primarily within the Deaf community, and it was developed independently from the English language. If your character uses ASL to communicate, it may be a good idea to include a character to translate what the mute character is signing on behalf of readers and other characters.
Alternatively, Signed Exact English (SEE) is a system of signing that is meant to be perfectly representative of the English language, with the same grammar and sentence structure that primary English speakers would be familiar with. It is much easier for English speakers to learn since the grammar is the same, so it makes sense for someone who periodically goes nonverbal or for someone raised within a normal environment to prefer to use SEE instead of ASL. In this case, you can simply write out exactly what they are signing, and it will make sense.
The distinction between ASL and SEE is important. If you are going to write a character who is fluent in sign language, make sure you specify which language they use, and write it appropriately.
Regardless of which sign language your mute character uses, however, they can run into some trouble when it comes to communicating with others. Sign language takes a long time to learn, and if no one is willing to learn with them, then they will be learning a language that no one close to them understands. Other characters have to be willing to put in the effort to learn at least the basic vocabulary to be able to communicate with the nonspeaking character.
With that said, the character doesn’t need to be fluent in an entirely different language in order to rely on it to communicate when they need to. If a character only goes nonverbal periodically, their sign language vocabulary might be limited to the basic necessities, in which case the distinction between ASL and SEE doesn’t matter. They may be able to use single signs like “bathroom,” “hungry,” or “noisy” to communicate the most important things they are feeling.
How to Write About Gestures, Vocalizations, and Expressions
When writing a character who relies primarily on gestures, vocalizations, and expressions to communicate, you’re going to want to make very heavy-handed use of the idea of “show, don’t tell.”
People who aren’t averse to vocalizing are still able to make noises that sound affirmative or negative, including other vocal exclamations like “uh,” “hmm,” and “oh” with varying tone of voice. When a character is vocalizing, but not speaking real words, the tone of their voice becomes incredibly important. Consider the sound “huh.” It can indicate confusion, triumph, attention, suspicion, and a range of other emotions, just based on how it is said.
Rather than just saying “he sounded confused,” however, you can rely on other cues to tip readers off to how that “huh” sounds. For example, some of the telltale signs of a confused expression are a frown, lowered eyebrows that are pulled together, squinting, and eyes that dart around searching other peoples’ expressions for answers. In terms of body language, they could tilt their head to one side, slump into a downcast posture, or cover their mouth with their hand.
In addition to the emotional aspect of communication, expressions and gestures can easily communicate things such as “yes” or “no,” and the character can very easily point at whatever they want to draw attention to. Even more complex ideas can be communicated through body language alone—just consider how expressive the original Tinker Bell is, and she never says a word!
I strongly recommend you check out these articles for more pointers! They go more in-depth into the specific techniques you’ll need to utilize when writing this kind of communication.
Show, Don’t Tell: What It Is and How to Use It
How to Describe Facial Expressions in Writing
Writing Body Language: Bringing Your Characters to Life
How to Write a Character Who Uses Magic to Communicate
Of course, I have to include a little section for fantasy writers. If your fictional world contains some magical elements, your mute character could have more options for communicating with their companions.
Telepathy—being able to communicate by sending thoughts directly to another person’s brain—is the obvious choice, but it is also the most predictable and overused choice. If a character can simply speak into someone’s brain, what was the purpose of making the character mute in the first place? This sort of approach could end up feeling like a slap in the face to disabled readers hoping to see representation in fiction.
Although I’m not fond of telepathy as it appears in most stories, there are a few cool ideas you could use to make this form of communication more interesting. Rather than simply “speaking” into someone’s brain, the nonspeaking character might only be able to communicate in the abstract. Rather than words, they could send images, music, noises, sensations, colors, and other things of that nature. This kind of communication would require more interpretation on the receiver’s end, but that can be a good thing. Communication difficulties can contribute to interesting developments in the plot.
Another magical form of communication is illusions. A magical nonspeaking character may have the ability to simply conjure illusions to illustrate their point. If they are asked what they want for dinner, they can simply create the illusion of a pizza. These illusions could look like anything: they could be indistinguishable from reality unless someone tried to touch them, or they could look more like holograms, or something else. Illusions can also be lights or sounds, or they could appear to modify the existing surroundings. There are many options to explore!
As with any sort of magic, however, you need to decide from the beginning what the limits are. What does the magic allow them to do, and what is still impossible? Does the magic come from an external source (like a location or an object)? If so, what happens if the character is not close to that anymore? How powerful is the magic, and is the character still learning how to control it? Figure this out first, otherwise, your characters could end up being too powerful.
For more tips on writing about magic, be sure to check out my other article: How to Write About Magic.
Writing a Selectively Mute Character
Selective Mutism is an anxiety disorder characterized by a person losing the ability to speak in situations in which they feel uncomfortable or scared. This type of mutism is dependent on the character’s environment and how they respond to it.
A character with selective mutism may lose the ability to speak every time they are nervous, or they may have specific triggers that make them go nonverbal. If you go with the latter option, then you’re going to need to find out what the character’s triggers are, and why those things are triggering for them. If they have been abused in the past, they may go silent when someone raises their voice at them. If they have had bad experiences with a specific person, that person’s presence (or even their name being mentioned) could be enough to trigger the selectively mute character. If they’ve been attacked by a dog, they may go nonverbal in the presence of other dogs.
If you want some pointers for writing a character’s backstory, check out How to Create Compelling Character Backstories.
And while you’re at it, you might as well check out How to Write a Nervous Character too.
Once you know how the character’s backstory influences their anxiety, you need to make a list of all the reasonable triggers the character has. Keep that list, and use it to keep the character’s reactions consistent throughout your story.
If the story is being told from the perspective of the selectively mute character, you may want to show readers how the character feels when they go nonverbal. Depending on their experiences, they may subconsciously feel that speaking puts them in danger, or it could become physically painful for them to speak. The adrenaline response they would feel could tighten their throat and make them tremble, which would also make it more difficult to speak. Alternatively, they may simply lose the knowledge of how to speak in their panic. You can use the character’s reaction to subtly hint at things they’ve experienced in the past, or even to foreshadow future events.
Remember, selective mutism has no effect on a character when they are feeling safe and happy. It is only when they begin to feel anxious that they lose the ability to speak. However, the character is aware of how they react in certain situations, and may get anxious just thinking about being in those stressful situations, and the repercussions of going nonverbal. If the character is in danger when they go nonverbal, after all, they won’t be able to call out for help or tell someone what they need.
How to Write a Silent Protagonist
If you want to make your protagonist mute, that’s great! Not many stories can boast representation like that—in fact, I’ve never seen a story that is centered around a character who doesn’t speak (for nonmagical reasons).
When your story is centered on a nonspeaking character, it’s important to give readers more insight into how that character thinks and feels—not just about their condition, but about everything. It’s easy to make a character all about their disability, but don’t forget that everyone is an individual, and chances are, your protagonist is going to be thinking about their favorite food, their friends, their goals, and what they need to do within the context of the story’s plot.
It’s important to show the vibrant personality that the character has, even if they don’t often open their mouth. This is obviously easier with a first-person or omniscient point of view, but you don’t have to be inside the character’s head to show readers how they interpret something. Rather, you can rely on the alternative methods of communication discussed above to reveal anything about their thoughts and feelings that could otherwise be communicated with dialogue.
However, that’s not to say that they’ll never be thinking about the fact that they can’t speak. Being unable to communicate reliably can have a serious psychological impact on someone, and depending on the character’s personality, they may struggle with this quite a lot.
Communicating using alternative means can be quite slow and frustrating, not just for the nonspeaking protagonist, but for all the characters involved. The protagonist may feel that what they have to say is not worth the effort of trying to say it, especially if it’s just small talk or a joke. This can lead to them feeling ostracised from others and lonely. For this reason, it is almost always a good idea to include at least one character in the story who is patient and willing to understand the protagonist, even if they’re just a minor character in the larger plot. Otherwise, you run the risk of turning your protagonist into nothing more than the object of readers’ pity.
How to be Respectful when Writing a Nonspeaking Character
Works that involve minority characters, especially disabled characters, can play a huge role in normalizing those identities. If all your characters treat a disabled character like any other person (think Toph from Avatar: The Last Airbender), then that could influence how your readers interact with real disabled people in the future.
Make your nonspeaking characters complex and fully-realized characters with backstory, goals, motivations, and struggles outside of their disability. Nonspeaking (and other disabled) characters do not exist to be pitied, inspirational, or quirky. They’re often just people trying to live their lives, or driven like any other character to achieve something in the plot.
Including a well-written nonspeaking character in your story can feel simple to you, but that simple gesture can have a huge impact on disabled readers who never get to see themselves as the protagonist in stories. Being able to see a mute character succeeding and achieving their own goals throughout a story can be incredibly meaningful to them. Don’t forget that.
Remember, writers: It’s not a stretch to assume your work will have real consequences for the world. Make sure your impact is a good one.