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In a book I’m writing, the main character (a 15-year-old girl) has/struggles with selective mutism. I’ve quickly run into the problem where she is in a “mute situation” where she doesn’t talk. I’ve tried just focusing on what other characters are saying and doing, but I feel as though the story forgets the MC in a way.

Which brings me to the question; what do I have the main character do if she isn’t speaking?

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This is definitely a bit of a writing challenge, as a character who doesn't speak may be harder for readers to automatically relate to and connect with. However, as an introvert myself, I think it's safe to say that there are many ways people can be relatable and interesting beyond being chatterboxes, and there are many alternatives to spoken dialogue! Here are some ideas.

Write what she's thinking.

You've probably seen this technique before - if a POV character is mute, or just a bit quiet or introverted, a good way to make them more relatable and develop their character is to show what they're thinking and feeling on the inside. How does she want to respond when people talk to her? What do their words make her feel? How does she conceptualize situations internally and plan what she does next? All of these internal thoughts and feelings are relatable, even if they're not spoken aloud through dialogue.

You could even just have her think out what her responses to people would be, to keep the flow of conversation going.

"You must be exhausted," said Sylvi, with a glance in her direction. "Been out there for hours."

Yeah, she thought, that's about right.

"Figures." Sylvi folded her arms and leaned back in her chair. "It's that time of year."

Write her body language, facial expressions, or other nonverbal cues she's giving.

Humans don't just communicate with each other through verbal means. We communicate through body language, in a thousand subtle ways - gestures, shifts in body posture, twitches of the eyebrows, movements of the fingers. There are many ways to get across what your character wants to say without actually having her say it, and presumably other characters will audibly react when she lifts an eyebrow, frowns, or scowls.

Does she nod or shake her head? Does she convey discomfort by shifting from foot to foot? Maybe she points at something when she wants to direct attention. She's an adult, presumably, so she wouldn't act like a child in this respect; but she could definitely find creative ways to communicate her point without needing to speak, and you can have fun as the writer brainstorming unique interactions this way. It's also worth noting that when people are quieter in real life, people often pay more attention to their nonverbal cues than they would with a person who's blabbing their head off, since they would need more information to know how they're feeling.

Have another character who can read her like a book.

There's often that one person you know where it feels like they can read your mind, even if you're quiet or not expressing how you feel out loud. They just seem to always "know" when you're in a bad mood, or feeling sad, or when something stressful is going on and you're not acting right. It could be a partner, a spouse, or just a very close friend, but either way, this could be a very useful writing technique for a character who doesn't talk much. You could consider giving your character a pseudo-"Watson" who can tell other characters how she is feeling if she has trouble articulating it aloud.

Vanessa didn't know what to say; there was a clamp in her throat that refused to let her speak. Fortunately, Richard always seemed to know what she was thinking, and he spoke for her. "I don't think that's a good idea, Debra. What if we get hurt?"

"We won't," Debra said, firmly. "I promise."

Richard looked back at Vanessa questioningly, as if verifying how she felt about the whole thing; clearly the slight scowl on her face gave him the answer. "Yeah, no," he said. "I think we're good."

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  • Actually (probably should have mentioned this), she’s around 15 years old. Sorry about that!
    – Lea
    Jan 8, 2022 at 3:02
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    @Lea That's okay - I think this all still applies, as I tried to write it generally for any character who might be mute/introverted. But if you need more specific advice for a teenage character I can try to tweak it.
    – Sciborg
    Jan 8, 2022 at 3:41
  • When you said child, I assume you meant a small child(?), so it still applies.
    – Lea
    Jan 8, 2022 at 3:47
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    @Lea For sure - I was more trying to convey "don't write her like a toddler" assuming she was older than one.
    – Sciborg
    Jan 8, 2022 at 3:48
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The obvious frame challenge is whether you need direct dialogues at all when your MC is not talking.

While this may sound strange at first, you may realize that it presents the story to the reader with a deeper perspective on your MC and it makes a much stronger statement about her selective mutism. In my opinion it would also be more respectful of her condition.

No direct dialogues is not the same as saying that no one is talking. It is just that you never record the words they say.

To give an example:

Bob and Alice are in the room with MC.

"I think we need to go to the cinema." said Bob.

"You are right!" said Alice.

Vs

As MC stared at the absurds shapes that Bob's fat lips made when he spoke, it was decided to go to the cinema.

This gives you free room to focus on the description of the world around the MC, on the setting, and on the action.

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