In one of my stories, my main character was once able to speak, but after being alone for 3 or 4 years in his early 20's without speaking a word, he became mute, unable to speak at all.

Is this situation credible, or would people who speak normally become mute only as a result of accident or illness?

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    Without a reason to block speech I'd say this wouldn't be credible. It would take time but you'd eventually start talking again; after all, if someone was talking to you you'd be inclined to respond, and you need a damn good reason not to. You'd be better with some sort of emotional trauma, but that's pretty clichéd by this point. Of course, this is a site for writing, not medical advice, so you may get a better response from a professional :) – CLockeWork Aug 23 '13 at 14:21
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    This question is on the borderline of what's on-topic here. While questions looking for answers to research questions are off-topic, this isn't that. Not quite. Would you consider editing to make this more about the angle asking if this is credible? – Goodbye Stack Exchange Aug 23 '13 at 17:45
  • There are progressing conditions that could make you mute. Throat cancer, for example. Of course, without medication he's dead in another 6 months. – SF. Aug 25 '13 at 14:17
  • @SF. Absolutely, but that falls under "physical trauma/illness." The OP doesn't want that, apparently. – Lauren-Clear-Monica-Ipsum Aug 25 '13 at 16:32
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    @Shkeil I suggest rephrasing it in a way that focuses on whether the situation would be believable/acceptable to the readers, or whether they would likely be confused and expect a medical explanation. – Travis Christian Aug 30 '13 at 20:44

The issue is that you have your character losing the ability to speak as a young adult. There has to be some kind of trauma (physical or emotional) for that to happen. The neurological pathways for language are formed starting in infancy (they really get going around 9-10 months) and continue for several years. If your character knows how to talk at 20, he's not going to abruptly lose the capacity just because he didn't use it for several years. It's not like walking where you lose muscle tone.

(Also, I don't know about you, but I talk to myself all the time even when there's no one else around. I laugh out loud at things I read, I call the cat, I sing along with music, I talk back to the TV, I yell obscenities if I hurt myself, I mutter if I'm looking for something. Being in isolation for several years does not by itself mean I won't speak for several years.)

Now, there's a difference between losing the ability to speak (he wants to, but can't) and losing the desire to speak (he can, but doesn't want to).

It might be more interesting if the reason for your character's muteness is a mystery which the other characters (and the reader) have to figure out. There either is some trauma which makes him afraid to speak, or he took some kind of vow of silence so he's choosing not to speak. That could be political, religious, cultural, or just personal persnicketiness.

  • Being alone is traumatic enough, if he decided so. Each person reacts in different ways to the same psychological stimuli. That's why I suggest the book, sometimes such tools are great for writers – Psicofrenia Aug 23 '13 at 14:57
  • @Psicofrenia I agree; it's an individual response. But that would mean the character suffered emotional trauma. I'm simply saying that isolation does not automatically mean trauma for everyone. – Lauren-Clear-Monica-Ipsum Aug 23 '13 at 17:04
  • To be alone wouldn't be the most important trauma for this character, only one of them. But if a trauma is necessary to be mute, I could easily decided to be alone would be the decisive trauma to being mute. Because he haven't tried to speak after being alone, he wouldn't know about being mute until he tried to speak. Anyway, in my case, I stay more often totally mute when I'm alone, even with or animal and my character didn't even have this. Only the wind could answer his yells. – Shkeil Aug 23 '13 at 17:34

I've seen so many books and movies with similar reasons for people to lose their ability to speak that, in a mere reader point of view, I would have no reason at all to doubt that it could happen. I don't think many readers would doubt it could happen also.

But I think if you really want to know for sure, research is the way. There's a nice -- and helpful book -- titled Writer's Guide to Psychology: How to Write Accurately About Psychological Disorders, Clinical Treatment & Human Behavior that I believe could do the trick.

I have a psychology degree (although I graduated 1999) so I just wanted this as a backup. I found it would be perfectly accessible to the layman, making all mental health and psychological issues easy to understand and imagine. If you write about this subject, or are interested in brushing up skills to work as a carer in mental health, you could do worse than buying this book.

  • Thanks for this help. I didn't have any knowledge in psychology, so any help in this domain is welcome. I'll think about this book, even if psychology isn't the main part of my story, it's important to be as realistic as possible. – Shkeil Aug 23 '13 at 17:22
  • I don't know much about psychology, but it doesn't seem impossible. And even if it is impossible, most readers would not know that. I think you'd get away with it easily. – Jay Aug 23 '13 at 17:42

Is the point of the story to realistically discuss how this person became mute, in some clinical sense, or to spin a story around the initial premise that he is mute?

If the story is intended to be a discussion of medical or psychological realities, than this is the wrong place to ask. You should be asking this on a medical web site, or studying books on the brain and language development.

But if the point of your story is just to explore what happens to this character after he becomes mute, how it affects his life or whatever, than I wouldn't worry too much about how realistic it is. Just through in a couple of lines about how the psychological trauma caused him to become mute or how that section of his brain atrophied from disuse or whatever. If it's important for your story for X to happen, then just make up some maybe-plausible-sounding explanation and do it.

Writers do this all the time. As premises for a story go, this would be far from the most implausible thing that a writer has ever tried to pull. I sincerely doubt that it is possible to travel in time and there's lot of good physics that says it's impossible to travel faster than light, but characters in science fiction do these things all the time and my technical doubts do nothing to diminish the entertainment value of the story. I find it implausible that Perry Mason only gets murder cases with innocent clients and that the person who really did it always breaks down and confesses in court. I don't believe that the thin and sexy little girls on Charlie's Angels can really beat up not just any man in the house, but every man in the house simultaneously: Women I've met who were tough enough to beat up any man in sight also tended to look tougher than any man in sight. Etc. If the story is entertaining, readers will accept an implausible premise to get it rolling.

  • My character is mute but it's not the main part of my story. It's just an important caracteristic of the character and the first one others character will see about him. The story is pure fiction and I only want to be as realistic as possible (even in an absolute imaginary world). It's not really important for my story, but I prefer when it is. – Shkeil Aug 24 '13 at 7:53

Speaking as a physician, I find it implausible at best. As a professional writer, I find it an inadequately developed motivation. I would urge you to think quite a bit more about why such a profound life change would happen to someone. If you can't come up with a really convincing reason, then why is it in your story? In my opinion, it's not merely the fact of his muteness that should play a part in the story, but the reason for the muteness that should have something to do with the heart of the story.

  • The muteness is just a particular point of the past of my character. Other character and even readers don't know if my character was able to speak before and they don't care. He's mute 'now', and his past doesn't matter. – Shkeil Aug 26 '13 at 6:50
  • If no one knows about any of this, and his past doesn't matter, then why do you even care? How can it not matter? It's an awfully important thing about a person, but if it really isn't important, if you don't want the readers to know, and you don't want the characters in the story to know, then of what use is the information you are asking for in your question? – John M. Landsberg Aug 27 '13 at 6:41
  • I have to correct myself: it doesn't matter now, but maybe in a future story with this character I could introduce an other character who want to know. And I prefer to be as precise as possible about my main characters, even on small details, even if I don't use them directly. – Shkeil Aug 27 '13 at 7:46

Neurological illnesses or a conversion disorder can cause muteness with no apparent reason. See this related question over at cogsci.stackexchange.com: https://cogsci.stackexchange.com/questions/4458/why-does-a-person-temporarily-go-blind-without-any-apparent-cause

  • It speak about blindness, paralysis or others, but I don't see anything about muteness. – Shkeil Sep 2 '13 at 7:55

Loneliness can do anything. It can make a person mute without any reason. What our subconscious mind decides strongly, it can do. It doesn't require any reason.

So, your character is apt.


  • But it's still be considered as a trauma. So it's absolutely the same answer than Psicofrenia said in his comment. – Shkeil Sep 2 '13 at 7:58

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