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I have a character who struggles to put his thoughts, feelings and opinions into words - he finds words somewhat too contained and specifically defined to adequately convey what he wants to say. He uses 'hums' of varying pitches to express himself, so he doesn't have too much trouble being understood. The problem I'm running into is how to describe these various hums. I've used a few descriptors like 'downtoned' and 'clipped' but it's comeing across stilted at times, and I'm sure there's a better way to do this.

(One person advised me to describe them as 'hesitant' or 'unamused' at the time that seemed to much of a tell rather than show, but would that be better?)

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  • Seems like you're setting yourself a needless problem. Why have a character do something that you can't represent in writing?
    – Stuart F
    Jul 21, 2022 at 13:59
  • Who's the narrator and what's their relation to this character? Why is everyone around him able to understand his hums?
    – Laurel
    Jul 21, 2022 at 14:26

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I think it would be very bad form to directly describe the hums or any other non-verbal expression. You will communicate badly that way. There are several ways that nonverbal gestures can be translated for the reader very effectively.

Take for example, Lemony Snicket's Baudelaire children. The youngest child was too young to speak, and he used the third person POV to interpret her noises with very good effect:

Sunny was at an age where one mostly speaks in a series of unintelligible shrieks. Except when she used the few actual words in her vocabulary, like "bottle," "mommy," and "bite," most people had trouble understanding what it was that Sunny was saying. For instance, this morning she was saying "Gack!" over and over, which probably meant, "Look at that mysterious figure emerging from the fog!"

Sure enough, in the distance along the misty shore of Briny Beach there could be seen a tall figure striding toward the Baudelaire children.

Your character can engage in dialogue entirely through the third person POV this way:

"Now look here, Thomas! I really have had enough of her nonsense!"

Thomas continued looking at his morning paper with renewed interest, but had at least the courtesy to hum out, "Oh, I am sorry you feel so strongly about that!"

"She has no right–NO RIGHT I tell you–to spread her trite gossip around the office, and go on as if no one will be hurt by it. Well, I am hurt by it! I was supposed to get that office, but now. NOW! Everyone thinks I am some sort of... Well, I don't know what they think!"

Thomas hummed compassionately. The furniture sales seemed to be quite good as well.

"Am I wrong about this Thomas? I mean, you've always been honest," at this his shoulders deflated from their defensive posture, "and such a good listener. How will I repair my reputation?"

Thomas lifted one brow and hummed querulously. This was apparently taken as, "Are you sure you didn't actually do it?"

"Now wait just one minute! Do you really think I would... Thomas! I am a MARRIED man!" His chest puffed up once again, and his head snapped up to his go-to bust-of-d'Hilliers pose that came whenever he felt his honor under attack. A fleeting moment went by in contemplation before he recountered. "By God! You think I did it!"

Thomas was visibly moved so much that he turned the page, and his face took on a new expression. The new recliner with built-in USB chargers was on clearance, but only for two more days. He hummed out a deep disappointment.

"I don't have to take this. Not from her OR from you!"

As the door slammed shut, Thomas took a sip of his coffee. "Espresso? They have my curtains in espresso!"

There is a great deal more you can communicate if you stop describing actions and sounds, and instead describe reactions and feelings. Just be sure your POV is able to access the feelings you express, and be careful to avoid head-jumping.

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