One of the hardest characters I have written so far is Nicholas, one of the joint protagonists of The Shifu Cloth, because Nicholas is disabled.
He cannot speak.
And given that dialogue is a swift way of delineating character and ratcheting the narrative up a notch, how to do it when one’s character is non-vocal?
I’ve only had laryngitis once in my life and it was accompanied by a dire cough, so not speaking was fine, soothing … and temporary. I didn’t care overmuch because I knew my voice would return when I got well in a few days.
But Nicholas’s physical voice may never return and so there is a whole novel where he will not vocalise a word. He is twenty, virile, intellectual, a brooding thinker. So I have to be able to show the gamut of his emotions, silent as they may be – depression, frustration, rage, grief, even humour and love.
To give him another kind of ‘voice’, I place thoughts in italics, putting them on their own line so they hopefully elicit more power – a style I tend to use in all my novels. In addition his body language may be more marked, but given that half the narrative is from his POV, emphasis on body language begins to look egocentric and one thing that Nicholas definitely isn’t, is egocentric.
He also uses a basic sign language and scribbles notes when he wants to make himself understood. But they are scribbles, not treatises. So in essence it’s a method of communicating in single words to his companions and there’s not much you can imply with single words.
I love Nicholas. To me is multi-layered. He has enormous flaws made more raw by being mute. But he is stalwart and compassionate and that is what I want to show – otherwise the ending will have no meaning whatsoever.
In the meantime, I am trying so hard not to be repetitive in conveying nuances.
But if I am, I guess my sharp-eyed editor will pick me up on it…