I am the author of three middle-grade children's books, and I blog on the side. My favorite topics are movies, writing, and pop culture.
Dialogue is an integral part of modern filmmaking. Some of the most famous quotes in history have been spoken in films, but what happens if you have a character who can’t, or won’t, speak? How do they contribute to the story?
Silent characters can sometimes be the most memorable, using body language, flashbacks, and tone to convey information and bring the character to life. What can seem like a limiting trait can also be freeing and lead to creative choices from the actor and filmmakers that stick in an audience’s mind. Below are some examples of silent characters in movies, why they exist, and how they use their silence to their advantage.
Also, check out my related article on Movie Characters with Language Barriers.
The Silent Era
In the early days of filmmaking, nobody spoke. There was no sound aside from the live music being played in the theater until sound could be recorded to sync up with the images. It took even longer for dialogue to come into play.
Filmmakers told thousands of stories this way from Disney’s animated Steamboat Willie to The Phantom of the Opera. When sound arrived on screen, it ruined the careers of those who made a living telling stories exclusively with their body language.
There was an art to the way they moved and an exaggeration in their facial expressions. Once dialogue came into play, they were no longer as captivating on-screen, and a new collection of stars rose to fame in the talkies.
Decades later in 2011, The Artist was released, releasing a silent movie to modern audiences who responded enthusiastically. Not only was the film intentionally silent but it was about an actor who couldn't transition to sound, perhaps because of his thick French accent, or maybe he just wasn't as engaging as in the silent films that made him famous. Incidentally, this film about an obsolete form of filmmaking won the Academy Award for Best Picture and Best Actor for Jean Dujardin.
Silent for Scares
Silence adds a sense of mystery to a character. In horror movies, it can also increase the scare factor.
Not only can they sneak up on you, but by not speaking, it also makes the character feel less human. Our complex speech patterns are one of the main factors that separates humans from all of the other primitive species of the world.
They can’t tell you their motive. They can’t stall with exposition. They are pure action and emotion with no reason to speak or to explain why they do what they do.
Michael Myers, Jason Voorhees, and countless other movie killers don't say a word as they're chopping their victims to bits. Their actions say it all.
Sometimes a character’s reason for not speaking is purely medical. Perhaps they are missing a tongue or vocal cords or are simply deaf and can’t replicate sounds they have never heard.
These people exist in the real world. So it only makes sense to represent them in the movie’s world, especially if it brings something to the character or story.
Mr. Cotton from Pirates of the Caribbean is the perfect example of the rough life that the pirates in the film lead, having had his tongue cut out, he communicates via his pet parrot. It’s an absurd yet intriguing character trait that adds weight to this simple adventure story.
A lack of speech can be purely psychological. Maybe a character has been traumatized in their past. Maybe they are in shock during a traumatic event taking place on-screen.
Because they are not engaged in conversations they are often ignored and left to absorb critical information that distracted characters miss. They are the ones who find the trap door that gets them out of a room. They are the ones who overhear important information and relay it to other characters through sign language or by writing it down. Their silence makes them seem vulnerable, but they use this to their advantage to become vital characters.
Boo Radley may be the most famous example of that. Clearly a victim of his past, the To Kill a Mockingbird character has a very mysterious reputation, especially among the children. The fact that he will only come out at night scares them, turning him into a neighborhood legend.
So, it’s shocking when he is the one who saves the children from Mr. Ewell’s attempted murder and fitting that a character so unfamiliar with strangers doesn’t speak a word throughout his brief appearance on screen. To do so keeps him larger than life but also paints an entirely new image to him in the young Finch kids’ minds.
Not speaking can make characters seem innocent and childlike. For characters who are already children, it illustrates their intimidation when stuck in adult situations.
Young Star in Terminator Salvation never speaks a word in the movie. The thought of living in a post-apocalyptic world is enough to keep a kid silent, but it also presents her as a symbol of innocence and hope in a hopeless world.
She offers a comforting hand when characters need it most, and she gives Kyle Reese someone to fight for besides himself. She brings out the generosity in all characters and reminds them what it is to be human to keep them from turning into the machines that hunt them.
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When They Do Speak, It's Powerful
Sometimes a character is silent through a large portion of the movie only to speak at a crucial moment. Whether they were kept silent out of fear, mistrust, or for comedic purposes, the result is often surprising.
Sometimes they speak merely one word or one sentence. Other times, they become a regular chatterbox for the remainder of the film. Saving dialogue makes every word the character speaks thereafter important in some way.
It humanizes them, makes them more relatable, and gives you a better sense of who they are. That’s not to say that speech is essential for communication, but speech that is selective and crucial is more effective. It shows how we take speech for granted and how we ourselves use it to both expose and mask our true intentions.
Speaking creates a kind of catharsis, solving the mystery for the audience as to whether or not the character is actually going to do it. Not speaking builds tension.
If that tension is never released, that character remains a mystery on some level. It gives the actor the freedom to play within the confines of their restrictions and gives the character a type of power to see things that others don’t see and maneuver in ways that others can’t, whether to their benefit or doom. Either way, they have always been important characters to a film and will remain that way for as long as films are made.
Study Boo Radley by buying a copy of To Kill a Mockingbird here!
Who are your favorite silent characters in films? Leave your answers in the comments below!
Questions & Answers
Question: In your last slide you speak of a man called Ed. Who is this character and what films/s is he in?
Answer: He's a character from the movie "Almost Famous" who doesn't have a line in the movie until the very end. Definitely check it out if you've never seen it.
Lawrence Hebb from Hamilton, New Zealand on November 06, 2018:
I recently watched the Nicholas Cage movie 'Gone in 60 seconds' for the first time.
In that, there's a character played by Vinny Jones who doesn't speak a word throughout the movie, right up to the last, and you're left thinking the character is a bit of a psychopath, until he speaks that is, and not just you the audience, but the gang he's with are stunned when he comes out with a very British and 'Shakespeare' accent.
All the way through you think he's a seriously bad dude, but the use it to relax the tension at the end of the movie.
Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on October 11, 2018:
@Laura, Poppy & Darius, you are welcomed. This is a good observation for me. However, I had not seen Mr. Bean play dumb. Let me know the name of the film to buy my copy. Bean is a very interesting character, that makes me relax my mood at a very tense moment. Enjoy the day.
Darius Aguilar from 236 Brgy. Sotero Nuesa, Roxas , Isabela on October 11, 2018:
Just because a character is silent doesn’t mean they’re dumb or don’t have anything to say. These silent fictional characters prove that. Who are your favorite characters who never speaks?Mr. Bean, Jason Voorhees
Laura Smith (author) from Pittsburgh, PA on October 11, 2018:
Thanks for the comments! It's always more interesting when there is a quiet character to balance out the loud mouth characters.
Poppy from Enoshima, Japan on October 11, 2018:
Astute and fascinating observations. I especially like that you said it’s powerful when they finally do speak. In the children’s cartoon Phineas and Ferb, Ferb usually only speaks once per episode, usually near the end. He often says something wise, although the cartoon itself is a comedy. Characters are a huge part of storytelling and giving them quirks like this, whether there is a reason for it or not, makes them all the more memorable. Thank you for your article.
Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on October 11, 2018:
Hello, Laura, I had not met any silent character in all the western films I had a watch. But I was once fortunate to start to watch the Pirates of the Caribbean, and the disc did not play well.
There was a local film I watch in which the character seems completely deaf. But his body language was interpreted by his mum to her friends during a visiting. But whether the character was actually deaf or not, that I do not know. But can deaf and dump play actings in movies? Thank you.