Q&A

How Can I Depict Lipreading Respectfully Without Making Dialogue Tedious?

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I’m writing a story in third-person limited and my protagonist has been completely deaf since the age of nine. The setting is Renaissance England, so technological help isn’t an option and there’s no magic in this world. She primarily interacts with others by lip-reading, which in real-world settings is far from perfect (30-60% accuracy).

Once I have established that she needs people to repeat words or write them down, can I simply eliminate the multiple times she might ask for clarification? I don’t want four out of every ten lines of her dialog to be, “I’m sorry, can you repeat that?” I want to portray her as realistically as possible, but that would lead to incredibly unconventional (and, from most readers’ view, off-putting) dialog.

Thanks again,

– Stephen

A quick note on language: Deaf with a capital “D” refers to Deaf culture and community, while deaf with a lowercase “d” refers to the physical condition. Depending on a person’s experiences, they may identify as Deaf or deaf. The term d/Deaf is used when being inclusive of people with different identities. You can find more information on language, including both respectful and disrespectful terms, here.

Stephen,

We’re glad Mythcreants is helping you!

Your question is about portraying things that are repetitive in real life in a way that doesn’t erase it, but also doesn’t drive readers up the wall. Chris is going to speak to this concern below. However inside this question is a broader one about portraying deafness that I am going to speak to.

Now, I want to start by saying that I am a hearing person and I only know a little bit about deafness and Deaf culture, but the main thing that I do know is that there is a lot more to being d/Deaf than the challenges of communicating with hearing people. While your question is focused on one specific challenge in representation, I feel that it is important to make sure this is clear. It is also important for you to be aware (if you aren’t’ already) that there is a lot of frustration in the Deaf community about the many inaccurate portrayals of d/Deaf people in media. Because of this, it is my strong recommendation that, if at all possible, anyone writing a d/Deaf character should hire a d/Deaf consultant who can address these issues from their lived experience.

Because I can’t find an article that explains the broader ways that deafness affects a person’s life in a way that is directly applicable as writing advice, I’m going to pull out two examples that will hopefully make this idea clearer. The first is that being d/Deaf is going to impact how this character makes decisions, especially choices about when, how, and with whom she chooses to communicate. She might really value spending time with other d/Deaf people and do that whenever possible. There could be situations when she deliberately avoids communication with specific people because of bad past experiences. In addition, if written communication is more effective for her, she might put a lot of effort into communicating through writing whenever it is possible. Not only would this affect how she communicates in person, but also this could result in her choosing to correspond with someone through letters so as to avoid in-person communication.

The second example is the different cultural norms that Deaf people have for time usage, sometimes called Deaf time. Many of these norms have direct roots in the experience of being d/Deaf or hard of hearing. This short article by William G. Vicars talks about this in detail. For example, “In situations involving ‘line of sight’ opportunities (or ‘make the best use of amplified / residual hearing’ opportunities) — many of us arrive early to claim the best seating.”

I’m going to end by sharing some examples of writing advice for creating d/Deaf characters that were written by people who are d/Deaf or hard of hearing: “Writing Deaf Characters” Part 1 and Part 2 by T. Frohock. Also, this tumblr article by Every Book Has a Secret has a collection of posts and articles about writing deaf characters.

I really hope that this answer helps, and I wish you the best of luck with your writing project!

— Fay from Writing Alchemy


Hi Stephen,

To illustrate how her communication with other people works, in her first one or two conversations I would have her ask whoever’s talking to her to repeat themself or write something down at least a couple times. You can consider keeping those conversations short if it becomes too much. After that, you won’t want to fully narrate every time she asks, that would indeed get tedious, but it’s also important that this aspect of her conversation doesn’t just disappear. If it disappears altogether, you’ll lose an important part of her experience, and after a while, it won’t feel like she’s lipreading anymore. Besides being poor representation for d/Deaf people, this will also make her character feel inconsistent in general. So I would look for ways to make sure that aspect of her communication still comes through in a more abbreviated manner.

In the perspective you’ve chosen, conversations with writing will be easier. If the person she’s talking to is writing back to her, you can create a back and forth that looks much like regular dialogue, with the waiting time and action of writing mostly clipped out, but you’ll want to work in body language next to the other person’s lines that have to do with the motions involved with writing. You can also consider italicizing written lines instead of putting them in quotes to communicate that it’s writing instead of spoken word, but be aware that italics aren’t as comfortable to read, so it’s not great when you have a whole paragraph of someone speaking.

The lipreading is a little tougher. If you were writing in omniscient or doing a first-person retelling, you could simply state that the conversation is paraphrased, while mentioning some of the clarification that was involved to keep it present. Writing from third-person limited means staying with your character’s experience, and your character’s experience includes not understanding what others are saying seamlessly. If people speak lines to her and she understands every word, it will be breaking the viewpoint you’ve established. So if you’re doing third limited, I would combine a number of different strategies that will all help a little.

  • Be a little optimistic about how much she can understand. (I recommend getting the advice of a d/Deaf consultant on how optimistic you can be while staying authentic.)
  • Look for places where the conversation isn’t as critical, and summarize it instead of writing it out. Your summary can include some direct quotes and reuse of the same wording from the conversation, so it’s more engaging than a regular summary would be.
  • Make your character’s difficulty understanding others serve the story. Trying to fill in the blanks of what she can’t understand could be an interesting puzzle if what was spoken was plot important.
  • Alternately, you can also show words she doesn’t understand but where filling in the blanks is intuitive, so it doesn’t slow things down. We use lots of repeated phrases where one word isn’t important. If filling in blanks is intuitive, you can probably even write the words she guesses into the dialogue lines, marking them off with italics or question marks. The reason why I’m reluctant to tell you to do that for words she asks for clarity for is that the dialogue would probably deviate too far from her experience to be in viewpoint or feel consistent. Stopping and asking for clarification means the dialogue will move at a very different pace.

Regardless of what else you decide, consider all the impacts this method of communication has on her. It’s common for people to turn away while they’re talking, and that would be frustrating for her. She might have occasional miscommunication. Maybe she keeps one of the notes someone gave her after writing their words down, and having that written record comes in handy. Her conversations would take longer, but maybe she occasionally has to cut them short because she runs out of time.

I hope that gives you some ideas,

Chris

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Comments

  1. Nowan

    Fortunately for you, I just happen to have an instance of a story with a deaf character on hand and I think it was handled pretty well.
    The story in question is issue #19 of the Matt Fraction and David Aja run on the Hawkeye Marvel character. On this issue, Hawkeye has gone deaf after an accident. Being a comic, Fraction and Aja had at their disposition visual tools you can’t use on a purely written work, but most of their dialog techniques can be replicated.

    First and most important thing is clear visual distinction. Everytime Hawkeye is lipreading, the text font is different. Fraction and Aja opted for Cambria, which has a more robot-y or mechanical feel, but I’m not sure how that will look on a book page. Maybe try [square brackets]?

    The comic authors also opted for showing the inaccuracy inherent to lipreading through parentheses and ellipses to represent Hawkeye struggling to put together the sounds. Here are some two from the comic book:

    “[(indistinct)… you are (n)ot fully dead(deaf) ?).]”
    “[That son of a (h)itch.]”

    I should add that these were translated by me, the comic book I have is not in English. I would assume Fraction and Aja did some research to have a good grasp on what sounds and words could plausibly be misinterpreted by a deaf person. I don’t have the resources to do that, but it’s some research you should probably do.

  2. Stephen

    Hi Fay and Chris, thanks again for putting so much time and effort into this. It might not have sparked much discussion, but I think that’s because it was so incredibly thorough in the first place! No doubt it will help make my writing better and more accurate.

    Stephen

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