It is very important that my protagonist is mute. A lot of this character's motivations are informed by - though not entirely focused on - him having suffered laryngeal cancer and recovered due to a full larynx removal. However, I am finding it difficult to find how that effects his life, without making that all his character is. I want him to be "Damian who survived cancer", not "Cancer Survivor Damian", especially since I don't want to explore illness in the work, I'm more focused on the theme of control. I've done a lot of research that has let me understand a lot about the cancer medically, but there's very little on what it's like to live with, from personal experiences. How do you write illness - or 'tragic backstories' in general, without making that all a character is? And are there any sources on life as a mute person or as a laryngeal cancer survivor?

2 Answers 2


The same way you write about anybody, from personal experience. That experience doesn't have to be your own, but you should go out into the world and meet people with disabilities. Online as a second choice to in person.

There aren't a lot of people out there who are mute but hearing and without a neurological or intellectual disability (for example, a lot of autistic folks are mute, but that's very different from your character).

So I'm not saying go out and learn about mutism. But do go out and learn what it's like to be disabled. Especially a disability acquired as an adult. Trust me, no disabled person wants to be "tragic" and pretty much none want to be "inspirational" either (at least not in the sense where you no longer own your own self but are held up by non-disabled people as an "example." It's something that makes most disabled people want to barf.

Learn what it's like to live with a disability. How it changes your life and how it doesn't. How so many of your challenges are social.

That's how you will be able to write an authentic character.


Mention it as the reason he cannot speak and then touch lightly on it. If cancer in remission means an altered diet, include that. I have a cousin who must get more sleep to help keep cancer at bay.

Technically, I have a disability. I have epilepsy and never thought of it as anything more than a mild inconvenience. I take medication and go on with my life. If you were to ask me to list ten things about me, my epilepsy would not make the cut. If you were to ask why I took medication, or why I avoid alcohol, I would mention the disorder.

I will say, there is an odd pride some people take in a disorder. Claiming kinship of a sort with Julius Caesar because of a shared diagnosis, or claims that such people tend to be more intelligent can be an intriguing aspect of the ‘culture of the diagnosed’.

A friend of mine was confined to a wheelchair for most of her life due to cerebral palsy, but she never let that define her. She was herself, a whole person with loves, hobbies and ambitions. She ran a print shop for twenty years. I used to say, half in jest, that she ruled the world with a stick in her mouth. If you called her disabled, she would forgive the slip, but if it happened too often, she might rev that chair at you as a reminder of the person she was. Her greatest disability was the attitude of those who saw a woman in a wheelchair and thought her defective. Nothing angered her quite so much as the stupidity of others.

Since your character cannot speak, he must adapt. He might carry a set of cards with common questions and answers written on them. His mutism might end up being beneficial to him, depending on his character.

One of the Paul Harvey ‘Rest of the Story’ tales involved a man in Massachusetts who would electroplate his coins. At that time, a five dollar coin and a five cent coin were identical except for colour, the five dollar one being gold. This man would take his gilded coins and buy five cents worth of something and be given change. He did this many times and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts had him arrested. He was found not guilty because for fraud to have been involved, he would have had to ask for change, but he never did. As a deaf mute, it was impossible for him to ask, therefore his disability became his defence.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge that you have read and understand our privacy policy and code of conduct.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.