What our authors say…

Non-speaking characters can stand out in a book’s cast. I focus on the things they do, the actions they take, and how they respond to another character’s distress or frustration or other emotion. -Nina Post

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Just a note: This rant includes all the types of non-speaking characters I could think of, not just those born mute.

This rant is brought to you by the letter C.

1) Cause.

So, how’d your character wind up mute, anyway?

For some reason, the most common cause in many fantasy novels is the character having his tongue cut out. Of course, such a character rarely gets to be the hero of his own story, any more than a kicked puppy does. He’s there to show the OMGEVIL of the person who cut his tongue out. The hero will pat him on the shoulder and take care of it, while the mute character gazes at him in speechless adoration.

Personally, I think it’d be much more interesting to follow someone after he loses his tongue, instead of following the person who kills the evil queen or duchess or landlord. How does he adjust, particularly when he’s probably already lived a good portion of his life able to speak? How does he cope with the looks of pity and horror he’ll get, and the quick, nervous apologies from people who forget he can’t talk? How does he become anything other than a walking testimonial for OMGEVIL?

Or he could be the kind of person who cut his tongue out himself. I’ve read a very few stories like that. They weren’t interesting, because, once more, that person wasn’t the protagonist. Come on. Imagine someone doing this out of religious devotion, or to keep from betraying his side’s secrets to the enemy. If you like to write about intensity, there’s something intense right there.

Then there are the characters driven mute by a trauma. I’m not greatly worried about them. They always recover by the end of the story, anyway.

Born-mute main characters are extremely rare. I don’t think I’ve read about one who wasn’t also telepathic. (See below, under “Communication.”) Not taking such an obvious step around the rules produces its own set of problems, of course, since there aren’t many novels where the hero doesn’t speak. But, man, explore this in a fantasy world and you have got all the internal conflict you ever could ask for. I suppose you could ramp it up by making the mute person also the savior of the world, but you wouldn’t have to.

Okay, I take that back: One kind of born-mute character is not rare. Intelligent but non-speaking animals are around in many fantasies. Of course, most of them are also telepathic, and the ones that aren’t have no trouble conveying quite complex messages, such as, “There is a mage with one broken arm who needs your help trapped under this wall.” Perhaps, since they’re usually wolves, they all interbred with Lassie. Hey, most fantasy wolves act nothing like wolves in reality anyway.

There are also characters who are stricken with muteness by a disease—also usually recoverable, but if not, then you’ve got the same set of conflicts/problems as someone who gets his tongue cut out in adulthood—and by magic. The magic thing could be extremely damaging against wizards who have to speak their spells aloud. Of course, not many people think of using it that way, and even then, it’s easily reversible.

Why make such a big deal of this? Because I think you should know what you’re dealing with. Not all non-speaking characters are created equal. Deciding on the cause of their muteness will influence the way you handle them.

2) Communication.

Ah, yes, the big problem. Most mute characters will need to communicate at one point or another. How do you get it across?

The most common choices are:

  • Telepathy. A bit depressing, since it’s telepathy without limitations of distance or what minds it can reach. Most of the time, I wonder why the author bothered to make the character mute.
  • Sign language. A better choice; human hands are eminently flexible, and one would assume the hands of most nonhuman races are as well, unless we’re talking dragons and similar. But it’s not without problems, either: unless the character lives in a community with reason to develop a common and long-standing sign language, each person he comes into contact with will have to learn it. (See “Context” and “Centralization.”)
  • Gestures and facial expressions. I wish authors would describe these more—not only to prevent the inevitable talking head syndrome that occurs in long passages of dialogue, but because it would be a way to get characterization across without resorting to flat statements like, “I am angry.” With a mute character, one who might be a complete stranger to the people he meets and unable to rely on a common system of signs, they will become intrinsic. Be sure to mention them.
  • Writing. Again, a good choice, since it doesn’t depend on magic and can fit into societies that had no reason to develop signing. Just make sure the context is right for that, too. (Really, just go pay point 4 a nice long visit).
  • Pictures. If a mute character doesn’t know how to write, he could still know how to draw. Have him practice at it long enough, and he could become not only good but quick. The main problem would be cultural barriers. The sign that means “rising sun” in one culture could mean “setting sun” in another, and there goes the vital message that he left behind to guide his companions. Or, if the message is complicated enough, it might result in an increasingly long game of Pictionary while the enemy draws closer and closer.

I’m sure there’re others I’ve missed. If you can come up with them, by all means, I think it would be interesting to use them. But remember: telepathy’s only on at the top of the list because I see it so often, not because I think it’s really the best solution.

3) Clarity.

A short point, this, because to many authors “mute” means “unable to make a sound at all.” If you don’t care to have your character speak, then skip down to point 4. (It has cookies).

But, if your character was stricken with mostly silence, but not complete silence, you have the opportunity to land somewhere in the middle. Perhaps the character with his tongue cut out can still make sounds, though without his tongue to tap against his teeth and curl it’s very hard for him to form recognizable words. Perhaps the character who was stricken silent by disease recovers some of his ability to speak, but not all of it. Perhaps the character who can’t speak coherently thanks to trauma still has the ability to scream, to laugh, to cry.

Once again, your choice. But there’s no reason to just clap down complete silence. One of the most affecting scenes for me in Guy Gavriel Kay’s novels is a minor character who did indeed have his tongue cut out deciding to speak again, after he’s spent years in silence. The people who love him most quickly learn to understand him.

4) Context.

The cookies point. The point, other than, maybe, the first one.

Your mute character will be alone in a way that most characters in your fantasy world will never experience. This goes double, triple, ten times again if he doesn’t have telepathy. Not only will many of his thoughts and insights never be shared—it’s tiring to write down every single thought you have—not only will he be unable to leap casually into a conversation to add his own point of view or correct a mistake or share a joke, not only will he not be able to join in songs and chants and cheers, not only will he probably have to cope with uneasy fascination from people who look sideways at silence, but he’ll rely on both his body and the world around him in a way that most people never have to.

Consider: If he writes, what happens if he doesn’t have something to write on or with? There are sticks and sand, of course, but that’s going to be hell to someone who’s used to working with a quill and paper. Writing complicates and slows matters, and there’s always the chance that the person who’s waiting for him to spell out his thoughts will get impatient and leap ahead, trying to second-guess him and finish the conversation.

What happens when he’s trapped? A speaking character who gets caught in a dungeon or a cave-in still has the ability to yell for help until she’s hoarse, unless she was gagged first—and then all she’d have to do is remove the gag. The non-speaking character will need to shift rocks or pound on the door or do something else to alert a rescuer. And when you’re bound with ropes, or caught beneath a ton of stones, it’s either hard, a really bad idea, or both to move.

If the mute character knows a sign language that’s native to her village, developed because she was born or became mute and needed a way to communicate with people, what happens when she has to talk to strangers? Or what if she leaves her village and travels somewhere without taking an interpreter along? The hectic circumstances under which most fantasy protagonists leave home barely allow for a change of clothes, let alone a chance to be sure that someone in the party speaks the same language you do. Normally, that’s not a problem, because the Wise Old Mentor speaks the same language as the Dunderheaded Young Hero, and the Young Hero can talk (and talk, and talk, and talk). But will a Wise Old Mentor who just snatches up the first candidate to save the world know the meaning of the angry gestures she’s making at him, demanding to know why he took her away from home?

Finally, what happens to a mute character who gets dropped among people who don’t even speak the same language as she’s been used to hearing all her life? She may learn to understand it, eventually, but she won’t be able to speak it back. She may have to develop a new sign language to use with her hosts, or rely exclusively on gestures and expressions, which a) are a lot slower and b) may also differ from culture to culture. Most of the time, if a fantasy heroine goes into a new culture, she masters the language quickly and is making herself understood in a few months. For a mute character, it’s going to be slow, grinding hell.

A large part of the context in any mute character’s life is going to be frustration. Another is whether the people around her can understand her, even when she’s doing her damnedest to communicate, and how much of an effort they’re willing to make to understand her. Another is whether she has the ability to draw or write, or the materials that will let her do so. And if she’s injured, especially if she injures her hands, she doesn’t have something else to fall back on the way that a speaking character wounded in the throat can fall back on her own hands.

…Yeah, now I think I understand a little more about why so many authors turn to telepathy. But I still think you could write a really good story about a mute character facing and overcoming trials like these, or even struggling to master the telepathy that will make her life so much easier. (Most telepathy is used as an inherent trait, a gift easily snatched from the air once the character in question makes the slightest effort. Once again, there’s no reason it has to be).

5) Centralization.

Perhaps, after all, your mute character does not have to go through so much. She’s been reared in a telepathic society, or a society where so many people—everyone?—are mute that they’ve developed a widely-used sign language. Perhaps, if her muteness is linked to another trait, such as magic or a blessing from the gods, she’s taken from a speaking society into one that, once she masters its context, will make her a lot happier.

This can be a short point too, really. My main reason for including it is that so many fantasies with mute characters seem to assume a centralization that doesn’t exist. People know sign language for no good reason. What would be the push to develop it if most people could speak? Or a character who has no literate acquaintances can read and write, and, moreover, has tons and tons of books in a world where the printing press hasn’t been invented. Muteness is one of those character traits where an otherwise carefully-developed world will show up its inconsistencies. Check on your technology level and your societal development when you’re trying to decide how many problems your mute character will have adapting.

6) Care.

This is the corollary of point 1, and something that it’s sort of sad I have to say. But I feel I have to say it.

Most fantasy characters with their tongues cut out are not the heroes of their own stories. Most born-mute characters are trusted servants who keep their masters’ secrets to the death, not heroes. Most characters who can’t speak, period, for whatever reason—unless they’re animals—get mentioned in the narrative as “strange” for not laughing, or not sobbing aloud, or not joining conversations, or keeping their thoughts to themselves, or speaking with their hands.

As if they had any choice about any of that.

Be very careful with mute characters, or you’re going to wind up treating them as exotica, in the way that disabled characters are often portrayed when they’re not the heroes. The difference here is that there are plenty of authors who do use disabled heroes, especially maimed ones, because, hey, wow, they can have silver hands now! Or they can be shown as “cool” for their disabilities. Or they can be made objects of pity, especially if they’re suffering insanity.

There are very few authors who use mute heroes. If they do, as I noted, they usually gift them with telepathy. It’s as though not being able to speak aloud is seen as an intractable strangeness, one the authors can’t deal with.

Quit it. You made these people this way. The very least you can do is treat them as something more than furniture. If you can’t do anything else, then treat them with the same care that you give non-speaking animals…no, wait, only do that if you can write non-speaking animals who are not walking stuffed animals or monsters.

Phew. That got longer than I expected, and more serious.

But at least the letter C is happy.