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.