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Character Development: The Deaf Character

Anonymous asked writing-questions-answered: I have been writing for quite a bit now and have recently started a new story. The main character in this story uses sign language to communicate. What do you think is the best way to represent this?

The best way to represent sign language in a novel is to just say that a word was signed or note that the person used their hands to speak. Dialog can begin with or be followed by “he signed” or “she signed” in place of “he said” and “she said.”  If you want the character to say something without using the signed/said tag, you can use italics.  Here are some examples:

First Person

- “What time are we leaving?”  I signed as soon as John looked up.

- I signed the word for “sorry” and hoped that John wasn’t too disappointed. 

- As soon as Mandy focused on me, my hands furiously began to detail the saga of my afternoon.  You won’t believe who I ran into at Starbucks…

Third Person 

- Andrea slid down from the stool and quickly signed, “Let’s go.”

- With a sad look on her face, Andrea raised her hands.  I can’t do this anymore, John.  I’m sorry.

- John waited until Andrea’s hands stopped.  Then, frowning, his own hands formed the words, “I know.  I can’t, either.”

In some cases you might be able to use words like “gestured”, “motioned”, “indicated”, “signaled”, etc.

Facial expressions and general body language can also be important in sign language, and many deaf people speak as they sign.  Deaf accents range from barely noticeable to difficult to understand.  All of this might be useful as you describe your character speaking, though you’ll want to refrain from describing the hand motion of specific words unless you’re really confident you’re describing it accurately.  You should also avoid transliteration, and if your character does speak as they sign, it’s probably best not to render their accent phonetically as this would only add confusion.  If you want to get across that your character does speak but is difficult to understand, this can be noted by another character or even the narrator if you think it’s important.

Here’s a great list of novels with deaf characters if you want to see how others have done it.  You can also watch video of deaf people speaking on YouTube to get some ideas about facial expressions and body language.

I hope this helps!  :) 


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