April 12, 2011


Pop Quiz:

You place your protagonist in a frightening situation. Does s/he:
a.  scream/shriek/squeal
b.  faint
c.  stutter
d.  forge ahead, heart quaking,  knees shaking, etc.
e.  turn tail and run

If you answered (c), ask yourself why.

Think about it. Ever stutter when you're afraid? Know anyone who does?

A true stutterer will stumble over many words, not just the first one in a sentence. There's debate over how much is psychological and how much is physiological, but everyone agrees it's a verbal handicap.

I'm not saying characters can't have weaknesses, but if you're going to deprive a character of a clear and strong voice, make sure there's a reason. Give us a bit of backstory, some context that explains why this person stammers (a traumatic event, a parent who insisted on perfect diction at all times, etc.). Be creative, don't settle for a tiresome cliche.

Better yet, show us your protagonist's unique reaction to a fearful situation. Find the words to make us feel their anxiety. Your writing will shine and your readers will thank you for delicious thrills.


  1. Very interesting!! I know editors get tired of the biting of the tongue and the sighing, so I watch for those. But stuttering.... I think you're right. I don't know if I've ever heard someone do that in a stressful situation.

    My character has a tendency to run away. :) But that's the theme of her life... which is why the book is called Prodigal. :)

  2. Heidi: It's not a common response, which is why I hate to see it used so frequently. Surely as writers we can come up with more interesting ways to show fear or stress! ;-)

  3. Good to know. I've never made a character stutter due to being frightened.

    Just this morning I learned first hand what a character like me would do. It's a).

    Two new very big dogs in our neighbourhood that I hadn't met before broke out of their backyard and charged at my two dogs hooked to me via their leashes. I have a black lab and an 8 lb yorkiepoo. I screamed for someone to get those dogs and while frantically scrambling to pick my little yorkie up to safety and prayed my lab wouldn't get bit in the process all at the same time.

    When the owner finally did come out, my lab was growling at the dogs, but the dogs kept rooting to sniff her, but no biting, so I knew they weren't nasty. But still, I was in such shock that when the owner apologized I just strutted away as fast as I could--no words could escape my frazzled soul.

    Must apoligize to her next time I meet her for my silent rudeness.

  4. You're right. I regularly stumble over my words when I'm anxious. In other words, I say the wrong thing, but I never stutter. My female character is equally inarticulate. My male protag, however, is a stoic. Must do something about that.

  5. I'm trying to remember to any of the books I've read lately and how the characters responded in a frightening situation. I know how I would respond and although I wouldn't stutter, I would be inarticulate. I probably wouldn't faint - maybe become paralyzed?

  6. Eileen: Glad you got away in one piece. I've stopped riding my bike outdoors because of loose dogs.

    VR: Oh, yeah, anxiety and fatigue will do it for me; if I'm really tired or stressed, my brain goes aphasic and I rearrange letters (my speech impediments become meech imspediments).

    I think a stoic and a stumbler sound like a fascinating couple. ;-)

    Stephanie:Yes! Fear inspires a range of physical responses and losing the ability to speak or move is far more believable—and interesting—than a stutter.

  7. Good point! It's so easy to slip into common reactions. They're almost like short hand, a simple way to make sure everyone gets what you're saying.

  8. Sherrie: True, but I think the stories that go beyond the common are the ones we remember.

  9. It sounds like you ran across this stutterer in a book you're reading. It's interesting how much more we notice these things, isn't it?

    You know the writer hasn't taken the time to really get behind the character's persona. You've got to get under your character's skin, which takes spending a lot of time with imaginary people until they become 'real'.

    And people wonder why writers are so strange?

    Hey, I have a bloggerly type award for you over at the Guardian Cats. Come and get it. :)

  10. Rahma: Exactly! It takes time to write beyond cliche and stereotype, but the rewards are always worth it.
    Oooh, an award! ;-)


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