The Dragon Prince’s General Amaya is powerful, forthright and funny. She’s also a deaf woman of color who uses American Sign Language to communicate. Her appearance in the new Netflix series, created by one of the head writers of Avatar: The Last Airbender, marks an unprecedented step forward for a genre that’s historically had very little representation of people with disabilities, and she’s been met with an outpouring of love from fans—many of them deaf or hard of hearing (HoH) themselves.
Amaya’s deafness is integral to who she is and how she engages with the world — she signs back and forth with Prince Callum, the protagonist, and in most scenes, she’s accompanied by her faithful interpreter, Commander Gren — but it’s by no means her defining trait. Above all else, she’s King Harrow’s most trusted ally: the woman he tasks with both protecting the princes and holding the line at the Breach. She’s as fiercely loyal to her kingdom and her family; when Viren attempts to claim the throne for himself under the guise of devotion to Katolis, she calls bullshit. (Although Gren might choose to politely interpret it as “bull droppings.”)
Polygon spoke to two of the show’s senior writers, Devon Giehl and Iain Hendry, about creating Amaya and Gren, how it feels to watch the reaction to your work in real time, and what they hope comes next for the series.
[Note: The rest of this article contains mild spoilers for The Dragon Prince.]
Polygon: The Dragon Prince team has spoken about the importance of building an inclusive fantasy world. Did you set out to ensure you had a deaf character in this universe, or how did that come about?
Devon Giehl: We knew we wanted an aunt for Callum and Ezran who was in the military, and we wanted her to come back mid-season and be someone who could actually stand up to Viren. And we knew upfront, she’s a leader, people follow her, she’s worked her way up through the chain through fierce determination. And then one day, we were in the middle of writing the script, and Aaron [Ehasz, the show’s co-creator] had this idea: “What if she’s also deaf?” Coming from Avatar, which had Toph, who’s blind, I think he thinks about stuff like that. We really thought it emphasized aspects of her character that brought her to life in ways beyond what she had already established herself to be … It really just added depth to her character.
In a Reddit AMA earlier this week, Aaron mentioned that you spent a lot of time talking to and working with members of the Deaf community. What was that process like?
Iain Hendry: We both reached out to deaf and HoH organizations, which have great online resources that helped us understand the challenges and the way deaf and HoH people approach the world. And then to get a more personal view, I went to deaf and HoH Facebook groups, so I’d chat with people … It helped us to stay connected and understand their experience as best we could.
So many people had a hand in creating this character, from us writing the lines to people doing the animation and every other part of this process, and a lot of them had a friend or acquaintance that they could talk to. And on the more professional side, we had a huge amount of help from ASL interpreters we worked with directly, Lucy Farley and Darcie Kerr, so when we were doing video references in the scenes where Amaya is doing ASL, we could say, “Does this come across as authentic? Are we going in the right direction with the character?”
Some of Amaya’s most intimate moments are untranslated — was that a conscious choice?
Devon: That was very deliberate. We went back and forth on it, but we decided that when Gren wasn’t speaking for her, she spoke for herself. The scene where she’s at her sister’s grave—we were worried, because it’s a show for children, that we might lose people. But then the animation came back, and she was so emotive, and it’s so beautiful. I think even in the absence of subtitles, it really stands on its own. And she’s a deaf character — we wanted it so that understanding what she’s communicating here is for the deaf audience.
I also want to talk about Gren, her interpreter — he and Amaya have this great dynamic, and they’re kind of an unlikely pair. How did that come about, and how do you envision their relationship?
Devon: Because we didn’t initially have Amaya as a deaf character, Gren was originally a lieutenant—and looking back, we had made him maybe more comic relief than we should have. He was this bumbling assistant to her, and we gave him this cute little catchphrase where he would say, “Very good!” all the time. And we cast this character before we had done this reimagining of [the episode in which they first appear] with Amaya as a deaf general … So, when Adrian Petriw came in to record, he had no idea he was also going to be recording all of Amaya’s lines. He brought so much to the character that I honestly believe wasn’t written into the page. There were so many things that could’ve gone wrong, and we worried when we were writing the script, like, “When Gren gets his own lines, are people going to be confused? Is it going to play well on screen?” But the acting just brought both of them to new heights.
You’ve both been pretty active on Twitter since the show dropped. What has the fan response been like so far? Is there an interaction that’s really stayed with you?
Iain: There was a person who, when you see the flashback with Ava, they sort of rolled their eyes on Twitter, like, “Oh, this puppy lost its leg and then it was magically healed, I’ve seen this a hundred times.” So, we were nervous and wondering if they’d even bother continuing to watch the show. (Laughs.) But then they reached the part where it’s explained that the leg was an illusion and Ava was happy with or without it the whole time — and it turns out this person actually owns a three-legged puppy and has a very strong bond with their own real-life Ava. So, it was really amazing to get to see their reaction unfold in real time.
All of the love for the show so far seems like a good sign. If you do get another season, what do you personally hope comes next for Amaya and the story as a whole?
Iain: Without going into possible spoiler territory, I think Amaya could be a really great way to explore another part of the world. She’s heading back to the Breach, a place that connects Xadia and the human kingdoms, at a time when tensions are really coming to a head, so if she has to hold the line there, she’ll have to deal with some trials and tribulations, and we’ll get to see more of Xadia. Season one is so focused on the human kingdoms, and specifically Katolis — if we get to tell more stories, we’ll get to pull back that camera on the wider world, and Amaya would be a great viewpoint for that.
Alex Barasch is a writer based in New York City. His work has appeared in Slate, Variety, and the Washington Post.