Writing a Deaf Main Character
by Lynn Kelling
My new release, Hush, isn’t the first book in which I’ve written a deaf character, but it is the first time I’ve done so with the main character—Rune, the main character of Hush, first appeared as a secondary character in my novel Bare. I was so thrilled and energized to tell Rune’s point of view as someone with a different means of communicating, that the story flowed quickly onto the page. He doesn’t speak and is recently, completely deaf. Because of this, he is quite focused on the before and after of when he lost his hearing. He’s learning how to let go of the life he had before the motorcycle accident that caused several injuries, and actively figuring out how to adapt to brand new circumstances. The people in his life are not experts at American Sign Language, to say the least, but technology (and patience) help fill in most of the gaps.
As the writer of this story, having a point of view from a main character who rarely engages in traditional dialogue with quote marks posed some technical challenges. I needed to decide how I was going to convey exchanges in sign language, or in written form via mobile apps or old school notepads. It was crucial to me that dialogue still be recognizable as just that, even without the visual cue of quote marks, so that the narration of the story is distinguishable from the conversations. For the most part, italics are used for this purpose in Hush. In my research, I saw this approach in other novels with deaf characters who sign and don’t speak (such as Joe Hill’s The Fireman), and it seemed to work well. I also describe the way the signs look wherever it adds to the scene or story, though I didn’t want to be too heavy-handed with descriptive passages either.
Aside from the practical hurdles, I really enjoyed getting to tell a good portion of Hush from the point of view of someone who struggles to fit into a world that doesn’t make it easy to do so for people who are differently-abled. Rune doesn’t ask for much of others—just to be recognized as an equally-valid presence and given some respect. He’s seen people let their gaze slide over him, avoiding interactions that might challenge them. He’s well familiar with how things might be awkward in some cases, such as using apps like Grindr to hook up with guys, when there’s a chasm of silence standing in the way once it’s time to meet face-to-face.
But this story isn’t about his hearing loss. It’s about the choice to not live life as a victim, but as someone capable of making positive change in the world. Rune’s not interested in becoming the guy he was before the crash. He wants to be better, stronger, braver, and he wants it all to mean something in the end.
I found there’s a lot of beauty and humanity in the ways Rune communicates. He’s always mentally engaged, putting more effort than most of us do into everything he tells people, just in trying to make himself understood. So, it could be seen that the things he tells others carry more weight. He uses body language more than my characters usually do. He’s an expert at reading a room, and because he’s become used to watching people’s movements closely for signs of them trying to speak or sign to him, not much gets passed him. There’s an added intimacy to his ASL conversations, to the letters he writes, the texts he sends, because most of the time they’re intended only for the eyes of the recipient. He does feel isolated because of his deafness, so any small gesture of simple human kindness that’s extended his way is absolutely treasured.
I learned a lot by living in his world, and found it’s a really beautiful place to be. Continue reading