Nonverbal Characters

I’m not exactly sure why, back in 2014 when I started drafting my portal fantasy novel, I thought it was such a great idea to saddle my main character with not one but three side characters who can’t speak.

It’s a quest narrative too, so there are literally pages and pages where the heroine is traveling through unfamiliar territory with her ten-month-old daughter, a horse, and a lion.

The only problem is I still like the book and the characters. In some ways, the central conflict is psychological, and the heroine’s emotional isolation is on purpose, as are the strategic interruptions by characters with whom she can discuss her concerns and receive feedback. And even though the other three characters she travels with are all nonverbal, they each have a unique relationship with the heroine that develops over the course of the book, as well as relationships with each other.

The baby is probably the easiest of the nonverbal characters to work with, because she is broadly communicative and has human desires and problems. Without words, she still has plenty of facial expressions; she fusses and cries and smiles and giggles; she crawls and is curious and experiences developmental milestones during the book. Most of the babies I’ve read/seen lately in books and TV shows are unfailingly sweet-tempered (I’m looking at you, Keeping Faith), so I’ve tried to give Aida some attitude. But she’s a baby nonetheless, and her basic needs and responses aren’t terribly surprising, even if they are recognizable and relatable for readers.

The lion may be my favorite of the nonverbals, though, probably in no small part because I would love to have a magic lion who followed me around. He also has the most contentious relationship with the heroine, which repeatedly leads to misunderstanding and frustration (and maybe even some mystery for the reader). Conveying this without dialogue can be difficult, especially without reusing specific phrases, cues, or actions. There is, after all, only so many times that the lion can swish his tail with displeasure, or growl, or stare at things with his golden eyes. It’s a challenge I enjoy, however, and it allows me to explore a different sort of character dynamic.

The horse, poor thing, is just a horse. She’s a lovely horse—quick-witted and loyal—but nothing magical whatsoever, and her relationship with the heroine is pretty much as expected. She likes carrots and getting rubbed down, and she mostly does what she’s asked, although I occasionally have to ask Google to make sure I’m not having her gallop for absurd distances or carry too much for too many hours in a day. The horse has some interesting backstory—previous owners and that sort of thing—and the heroine’s attachment to her grows throughout the story.

I worry that having so many nonverbal characters makes the prose too thick on the page—dialogue is much less frequent than in my other manuscripts. But I figure a lot of the action and description is still interpersonal and communicative. Hopefully that’s what counts.

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