Speechless: Writing Dialogue for Characters Who Don’t Speak
Written by Evie Manieri
It’s fair to say that creating dialogue for the characters in a story isn’t just about putting words in their mouths. Facial expressions, gestures, and tone of voice can convey just as much information – or more, especially when a character is being less than honest. We rely on them to convey the speaker’s state of mind.
When the Norlanders invade the Shadar at the opening of Blood’s Pride, the Shadari give them a gruesome nickname: the Dead Ones. They are gaunt, pale – and seemingly entirely without speech. Not only are their words inaudible to the Shadari, but they have no facial expressions, no gestures and no body language of any kind. Their language occupies a middle ground between the spoken word and mind-reading: it developed as an adaptation to the harsh environment of their homeland, an unrelenting landscape of cold, snow, and dangerous predators.
There’s a unique challenge, then, in writing dialogue for the Norlanders. On the one hand, it keeps those dreaded, over-used gestures from creeping in. There’s nothing like a character who wouldn’t know the meaning of an eye-roll if you hit him over the head with it to keep you from getting lazy. On the other hand, it chucks an entire lexicon of physicality straight out of the window.
The Norlanders aren’t without emotion: far from it. They project words to each other as in traditional speech, but they also experience each other’s emotions in a direct and intimate way, often perceiving them metaphorically as colors, images, or a sense of movement. So, in place of the knowing smile and the sidelong glance, we have a paint-box of shades and motifs that any Impressionist would envy. It’s a trade-off I’ll take any day.
Interactions from the Shadari point of view are even more challenging. The few Norlanders who trouble themselves to speak Shadari do so without facial expressions or vocal inflection of any kind. The Shadari have to look for more subtle clues: for example, a Norlander who finds speaking painful may be uncomfortable with what they’re saying. An agitated person might muddle their syntax or have trouble finding words. Someone who cringes when spoken to might not like the content of what they’re hearing, and not just the effect of the sound on their hyper-sensitive ears.
It’s no coincidence that the protagonists in Blood’s Pride are all translators of sorts, navigating between verbal speech and silent speech, the spoken and the unspoken, protective lies and ugly truths. Their heroism comes from their courage to forge and fight for relationships with each other despite the obstacles. That is, until they get around to inventing the emoticon. ;–)
From the Tor/Forge February newsletter. Sign up to receive our newsletter via email.
More from the February Tor/Forge newsletter:
Leave a Reply Cancel reply
- The Week in Review
- Starred Review: Mirror Image by Ice-T and Jorge Hinojosa
- Book Trailer: The Planet Thieves by Dan Krokos
- Goodreads First Reads: Drift by Jon McGoran
- New Releases: 5/21/2013
- The Week in Review
- Find Tor Books at BEA!
- Goodreads First Reads: Thieves’ Quarry by D. B. Jackson
- New Releases: 5/14/2013
- Book Trailer: The Navigator by Michael Pocalyko
- Were you there on opening night? RT @GeekDads: What You Take With You: Return of the Jedi Opening Night '83 ow.ly/2x6hAe #StarWars 36 minutes ago
- Happy holiday weekend! Any plans for Memorial Day? BBQs? I'm hoping to get some backyard reading in. Fingers crossed for good weather! 19 hours ago
- Our brains are nearly done, and luckily, so's the week. Here's The Week in Review to help pass the time til freedom! bit.ly/198f9nn 20 hours ago
- MT @BastardBooks: Open to US/CAN/UK, #giveaway for any 1 novel of MALAZAN EMPIRE series by Ian C. Esslemont bit.ly/14He974 21 hours ago
- Greek Myth in #GameofThrones: Stannis as Apollo & Renly as Dionysus; Stannis’s Crew as Daedalus, Icarus, & Cassandra bit.ly/10qLLCc 22 hours ago
Urban Fantasy Sweepstakes
- Let’s Sort the Arrested Development Cast Into Hogwarts Houses
- A Private Little War (Excerpt)
- Star Trek: Deep Space Nine Rewatch: “Move Along Home”
- The Man From Primrose Lane Ebook is $3.99 For Two More Weeks!
- Publishing Jargon-Buster: Ten Words Unpacked
- Guns Don’t Kill People—Monkeys With Guns Kill People!
- Two Weeks Left to Get The Hum and the Shiver for $2.99
- Malazan Re-read of the Fallen: Toll the Hounds, Chapter Eleven
- Three Short Stories With Stranded Time Travellers
- The Healer Sweepstakes!
- Friday Beefcake: Men in (and out of!) Uniform
- First Look: Jill Sorenson’s Freefall (May 28, 2013)
- Taking a Great Author Out from the Underlight: Why You Should be Reading Jax Garren
- Playing the Part: Exclusive Excerpt
- Catching Up with Continuum (And Its Ships!)
- Don Jon Movie Trailer
- First Look: Molly Harper’s A Witch’s Handbook of Kisses and Curses (May 28, 2013)
- Fire Inside: Exclusive Excerpt
- Watch It!: Voyeurism in Romance Novels
- What Fan Fiction Would You Like to Read?
- Tropical Summer Reads
- It’s All in the Duds: What the Well-Dressed Detective is Wearing
- Gangster Cinema, British Style: The Long Good Friday
- The Purrrr-fect Spy: Operation Acoustic Kitty
- Nobody Expects the Space Inquisition: Warhammer 40K Tie-in Novels
- Thinking of Manderley: The Strange History of Stonemere
- Art and Science Collide: Be Careful Where You Leave Your DNA
- Why I Believe in Blue Bloods
- Fresh Meat: Wounded Prey by Sean Lynch
- The Dreadful Beauty of Top of the Lake