One of the most important traits in any character is their voice: how they speak, what kinds of things they say, what phrases they like to repeat, and so on. In my Forgotten Stars books, Lieutenant Rasharri has a number of sayings she is fond of saying all the time: “Think on what you know” being a main one. A lot of the best writers are good at giving characters specific voices. This is one of the better aspects of George RR Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series: think of Tyrion’s sardonic wit, or — my favorite — Dolorous Edd’s eternal conviction that he and he alone will suffer all of the worst possible fates.
But sometimes you’ll have a character whose voice is extremely limited, for one reason or another. How do you allow them to show emotion, then? How you do make a three-dimensional character when they can’t speak, or can only speak in very limited ways? Let’s look at two such characters: Groot from Guardians of the Galaxy, and Lying Cat from Saga.
Groot is a walking, talking tree with enormous strength and a number of other interesting skills. He is also incapable of saying anything other than “I am Groot.”
In the Guardians movie, it’s not really spelled out until later on in the film that Groot is capable of deeper, complex thoughts. He just goes along, saying “I am Groot”, and shouting it in rage when a bunch of prison guards start shooting at him. The first half of the film suggests that Groot is little more than a brainless tree-creature, but then we get some real insight into him. Half the heroes are captured by Yondu (long story), leaving Groot and Rocket Raccoon behind. Rocket wants to flee to the farthest corner of the Galaxy, but Groot has other thoughts, and begins saying “I am Groot”, over and over, but in a different tone of voice. “I am Groot!” he says, and Rocket Raccoon responds incredulously: “Save them? How are we gonna do that?”
An even more determined “I am Groot!” follows, to which Rocket responds again. This scene does more than just establish that Groot has feelings; it establishes that despite Groot’s vocabulary of three words, Rocket actually understands him.
Groot’s biggest moment comes in a moment of self-sacrifice, when he uses his own body to protect all of his companions from certain death. Rocket asks him why he is doing this, and for the first time, Groot says something else: “We are Groot.” Somehow…that is perfect. We know exactly what he means, even though his words don’t mean that at all.
So by using tone of voice, context, and a perfectly-placed change, this character with a vocabulary of three (or is it five?) words becomes one of the most expressive in the story.
So, what about Lying Cat? She comes from a comics series called Saga, which is an adult-themed space opera. (How adult? The opening scene is an alien woman giving birth, and her first line is, “It feels like I’m shitting!”) The comic has an immense cast, but mainly it follows two young people from different species who have fallen in love and had a baby together, despite their respective species having been at war for a long time. Saga is violent and full of sex and has as much shocking death as any George RR Martin novel, but it is also loaded with humor and heart.
The important character for my purposes here is Lying Cat, the traveling partner of a bounty hunter known as The Will. Lying Cat is just a big, nasty-looking cat who lurks about, but she can detect when anyone speaking is saying something untrue, at which point she says a single word: ”LYING.” This natural lie-detector is quite convenient for anyone in the bounty-hunting line of work.
What does this illustrate, along with Groot? Even if you have characters whose expression is extremely limited, there are still ways to give them good character moments that stretch their expressive boundaries and allow them to be seen as characters. It’s a challenge, but worth it! These respective stories would suffer greatly without Groot and Lying Cat.
I kind of wonder if George RR Martin has some kind of moment like these in store for Hodor….
UPDATE: I originally identified Lying Cat as a male cat, when she is actually female. I have fixed this. I don’t know how I managed to get through thirty-plus issues of Saga without correctly identifying Lying Cat’s gender, but in truth, it simply isn’t a plot point in any way, and I can’t recall at all when this would have been established. I’m sure it was, though, and I missed it, so the error is mine — and it probably says something that my default assumption was male. That’s a post for another time, though.