Please give a welcoming WITS hello to Ruthie Knox who’s here celebrating the launch of her latest novel (releasing today, btw) and talking about why she chose to write about a flawed hero.
So I wrote a romance novel where the hero stutters. A lot.
Actually, this is only partially true. For the first third of the story, he barely speaks. He never speaks to the heroine. THEN he stutters a lot.
This is . . . this is not done.
In Julia Quinn’s fabulous The Duke and I, the duke is a former stutterer who occasionally stammers a teeny, tiny bit (and he’s also awesome). Edie Harris’s forthcoming The Corrupt Comte has a stuttering heroine. But in the land of contemporary romance, I believe I’m on my own. (If I’m wrong, tell me! I would love to read more romance novels with stuttering characters.)
You know how sometimes when you’re writing, you plunge head first into something that you think will be fun without stopping to wonder if there’s a really good reason no one else has done it?
But I love these accidental immersions—at least in retrospect—because they’re such amazing opportunities to learn.
When I decided to write a stuttering hero, I knew my heroine already. Katie Clark was a character in the preceding book, fully fleshed out. I also knew who the guy was I wanted to hook her up with, but he was only the barest suggestion of a character in that earlier story. All I knew, in fact, was that he rarely talked to anyone, and he never talked to Katie. I didn’t know why.
For reasons I can’t remember, I decided that Sean Owens is a man who spent several years of his life escaping his stutter. It essentially destroyed his childhood, which he left behind—a trauma he ran from instead of dealing with it. But now he’s back in his hometown, and he just knows that if he tries to start something with Katie (his unrequited high school crush), the past will come rushing back, stutter and all.
“Real” fictional stuttering?
Is this realistic? Sort of, yes. It’s simplified, of course, because fiction simplifies. But it is the case that many people who do intensive therapy are able to stop stuttering completely. It’s also the case that a large portion of these people do, at some point, begin stuttering again, and that emotionally stressful situations can be a trigger.
Romance novels are inherently emotionally stressful. 🙂
In reading about stuttering, one thing I discovered right away is that stuttering is widely variable. It doesn’t have clear and absolute causes, a standard pattern of development, or an accepted “cure.” It is, like most things human, variable, complicated, and malleable. There are some common developmental patterns, some therapies that help a lot of people, some things that make it worse. Everyone’s mileage varies.
This was tremendously liberating, on the one hand, because it meant that I could take a free hand with how I developed Sean’s stutter. But it was also kind of alarming, because it highlighted the degree to which I really wanted to be responsible in the way that I depicted Sean’s speech disfluency. It’s not a cheap thing to be manipulated at my will, after all—it’s real. People stutter. And I would hate for someone with a stutter to open the pages of this novel and find all the worst stereotypes reproduced here, or, just as bad, the struggles of their own lives repackaged and spat onto the page for cheap emotional payoff.
So, yeah. Just get everything right, Knoxie. No problem.
The balancing act
The tricky thing, for me, was not the technical details — which sounds make him stutter; how to represent repeated, prolonged, or blocked sounds on the page — but in the balancing of authenticity and story, research and romance. I wanted to write a book about a man and a woman falling in love.
My hero, Sean, has emotional baggage. He has deep vulnerabilities. And in a very real way, his stutter is bound to these vulnerabilities. It reminds him of a past he doesn’t want to deal with. The act of stuttering triggers feelings of helplessness and exposure that he loathes.
BUT — and this is such a big but — the stutter is not the problem. His feelings about stuttering are the problem, and really only the surface layer of the problem, at that. As the story digs deeper, it becomes obvious that Sean’s feelings about stuttering are tied into the same emotional vulnerabilities many of us carry out of childhood: those complicated emotional legacies of conditional love, feelings of inadequacy, and misdirected ambition that haunt our adult lives.
Which is to say, I wrote a hero with an on-again, off-again speech disfluency, but I didn’t write a hero who is only “hot” when he’s speaking fluently.
I wrote a hero who stutters when he is under emotional strain, but who also stutters, pretty much always, on the hard “c” sound that begins his heroine’s first and last name: “K-k-k-katie C-c-c-clark—a stutterer’s worst nightmare,” as Sean puts it.
I wrote a hero who, like all of us, is weak when he is weak and strong when he is strong. And he stutters. But his stutter is not a weakness.
Happily ever after
When you construct an arc for a character who stutters, but whose stutter is not the basis of internal conflict, the question arises: What does his happily ever after look like?
This is a bit of a spoiler, but at the end of this novel, when quizzed about why he wants to be with the heroine, Sean says “She makes me stutter.”
I’ll admit, I did write this line in part to flip convention on its head. No magical healing! Yay!
But I also wanted to convey the peace Sean has found by the story’s end with the sound of his own voice. I wanted to show him beginning his journey to reconcile past with present. And, finally, I wanted to get across his acceptance that the woman he loves is a partner for him not because she is perfect already, or because he is—far from it—but because she brings out his imperfections and forces him to grapple with them.
I like to think this is what all of us search for in a partner—someone who loves and accepts who we are now, but who also encourages us to grow into the best people we might become.
Have you ever written a flawed character? Why did you decide on that flaw?
USA Today bestselling author Ruthie Knox writes contemporary romance that’s sexy, witty, and angsty—sometimes all three at once. After training to be a British historian, she became an academic editor instead. Then she got really deeply into knitting, as one does, followed by motherhood and romance novel writing. Her debut novel, Ride with Me, is probably the only existing cross-country bicycling love story. She followed it up with About Last Night, a London-set romance whose hero has the unlikely name of Neville, and then Room at the Inn, a Christmas novella—both of which were finalists for the Romance Writers of America’s RITA Award. Her four-book series about the Clark family of Camelot, Ohio, has won accolades for its fresh, funny portrayal of small-town Midwestern life. Ruthie moonlights as a mother, Tweets incessantly, and bakes a mean focaccia. She’d love to hear from you, so visit her website at www.ruthieknox.com and drop her a line.
I love her flawed stuttering character already. It is a heavy responsibility to write a flaw that millions of people suffer with. Getting it right, both physically and emotionally is a huge task. My WIP includes a child with a split personality. Deeply disturbed and I feel the burden of getting it right.
Can’t wait to read this book to see how she handles it. Thanks for sharing.
My pleasure! And I’m very interested in your split-personality character. I think we have to just dive into these things and do our very best. 🙂
Reblogged this on Writing Under Fire.
I can’t spend much time commenting here. Your voice and the passion with which you describe character development popped this book to 36 point and bold TBR status.
Yes! I love that you didn’t end this with what might be considered a predictable “his stutter disappears”. His line at the end rocks.
KUDOS on stepping outside the boundaries of conventional wisdom. I like to think I have wisdom hidden beneath my snark, but have no delusions that I play well in the same sandbox as Conventional.
Thank you! I hope you enjoy it!
Wow, Ruthie, you’ve inspired me. I’ve been toying with a crazy idea that’s SO far from what I usually write, it terrifies me!
After reading this, I’m putting it on the production line – though it still scares the crap out of me!
Kudos to you, for pushing the envelope! Can’t wait to read this one!
YAY, Laura. Looking forward to this one. 🙂
Laura, that’s a great sign that you should DO THAT THING. Fear is your unconscious telling you that something is hugely important.
I agree with Joel — if it’s scary, it’s got legs! And it will be good for your soul. Go for it!
Ruthie, you’ve inspired a few of us! Thank you so much for this great post!!
Delighted to visit, Orly!
I appreciate that you felt such responsibility for presenting stuttering in a way that was not cliched or demeaning. Thank you for this. Lots to think about.
Ruthie, I can’t imagine a better inner conflict than a stutter. What a great choice! In a play I wrote several years ago I had a minor character with a stutter, but I was worried about the audience getting bored listening to him struggle with hard Cs, etc. Did you find you had to trim some of your dialog to keep the story moving?
I can see how that would be a consideration in a play. I didn’t worry about it, in part because his stutter comes and goes, and in part because I think when we read dialogue with stuttering, our eyes tend to skip straight to the “meat” of the word, so the stuttered consonants become almost just a visual cue that “stuttering is happening here.” I haven’t heard any advance readers saying that it affected their reading experience in any way — would be interested to learn if it had!
My heroes aren’t especially flawed, but they’re not supermen either. It does make a main character memorable when they have some obvious shortcoming to struggle with.
I considered a series of mystery novellas with a heroine named Liz Dexia, who was dyslexic. Then I did my research, wanting to be both authentic and respectful, as you’ve been with the stuttering. In the end, the only mature way to handle it was not to do it at all.
I’ve come to that decision, as well, on other books. I thought once about writing a romance with a professional football player hero, but I concluded that the job is so demanding and in many ways relentlessly AWFUL that it would be way too difficult to write it realistically and with a convincing happy-ever-after.
Ruthie, your book sounds wonderful I applaud you for writing a hero who has a handicap like this. It’s orginal and can’t have been easy. I can’t wait to read it!
Ruthie, I just know that it will be a great story. It will suck me in as your stories always do. Your flawed, messed up characters are always lovable in some way or another. My favorite parts of your stories is the vulnerable parts. We all are vulnerable in some way. I cant wait to read this one.
Congrats on your book Ruthie! Nicely done with the stutterer. I used to do that when I was growing up. It still happens, but I smile and tell people I’ve got “rented lips.’
I’m personally working with a heroine who’s an epileptic coffee addict. She can be a bit…fun.
Ruthie, did you hear about the head of Save the Tigers (or at least I think it was Save the Tigers)? Growing up in NYC, he had a bad stutter and his parents and teachers thought he was stupid. The only beings he could talk to were animals. When he spoke to them, the stutter disappeared. He vowed when he grew up that he would do something to repay the creatures who eased his loneliness as a boy. Now, he travels all over the world, speaking with presidents, dictators and other heads of state to save big cats. Wonderful story, isn’t it? When Stephen Colbert interviewed this man, Stephen said, “You’re the first guest to make me cry.” (I cried, too.)
What a moving story!
Isn’t it sweet. Now, he’s a man I could fall in love with.
Oh wow! I love that!!!
What a cool idea, Lara.
Thanks, Orly! We’ll see if I can get her past all the first-novel issues and bring her to the public.
Lucky me, I received an ARC courtesy of Random House. When I began reading, I was convinced the stuttering would get tiresome at least halfway through. But it never happened. Instead, I found myself loving Sean’s imperfections and rooting for him to overcome his past. For me, he’s the best kind of hero – flawed, yet adorable in every way. This is definitely a must-read!
This is interesting because we were having a conversation about this over on LinkedIn last week. One of my writer friends there mentioned he was sick of the flawed yet brilliant detective type. He said he was going to write a really nice, well-rounded, essentially non-flawed detective. I applaud his motives but I felt moved to point out that surely even a truly nice hero, needs a flaw or two? I didn’t want to say I might be so bored by a perfect hero, that I’d fail to read the book, friend of the writer or no…
Maybe instead of the flawed but brilliant detective, it could be someone who’s really good at his job, but hates it with every fiber of his being. His skill set is such, however, that’s the only thing he’s really fit to do. (Sorry if that doesn’t make much sense – it’s pre-coffee still.)
Thanks for this really thoughful and thought-provoking post. You make a lot of really good ponts about not simply using the stutter as a cheap tool, being sensitive and also keeping in mind that the stutter isn’t the core of the character – the emotions are. I’m writing a story from the point of view of an animal that starts from birth and am finding all kinds of challenges regarding consistency, assuming knowledge, vocabulary etc. I think that writing in dialect or with a speech impediment brings similar head scratchers!
Truly hope your book encourages other romance writers to develop less-than-perfect characters. My grandmother was crippled with RA, my mom was blind & I’m in a wheelchair from MS, so I long to read about characters with disabilities. Fiction is a wonderful way to break down bigotry and stereotypes, but too often, the romance genre only offers heroes and heroines who are unrealistically gorgeous, talented, rich and charming. As someone with a lifelong disability, I can’t even count the times people have told me I should only look for love among others with disabilities–in other words, “stick with your own kind.” Maybe books like yours will help break through that invisible barrier. Thanks–I look forward to reading this!
Ruthie, I applaud you for tackling such a difficult “flaw.” It can’t have been easy to write. I’m about to begin a series of short books featuring a handicapped heroine. I’m handicapped myself with a form of muscular dystrophy, so I have plenty of firsthand knowledge. The trick will be to not let the character’s physical problems totally dominate the story. Like you, I want to get to the person inside, the one who may dream of walking and running but who accepts her limitations and makes the best of them — while taking on a responsibility that tests her courage and will eventually bring love into her life.
I look forward to reading Flirting With Disaster.
Great post, Ruthie. I tweeted.