Guest & Contest: Pamela Sherwood

When Beauty Is The Beast: Writing The Disabled Heroine

Hello everyone, and thank you for hosting me today at Romancing the Book!

I’ve been asked about my decision to write a disabled main character–specifically, my heroine, Aurelia Newbold. So here are my thoughts on that, and on disabled characters in general.

Characters with disabilities can be found in any genre, and their personalities are as diverse as the challenges they face. They can be as angelic as Tiny Tim–holiday shout-out!–whose health is miraculously improved by a reformed Scrooge’s benevolence, or as diabolical as Shakespeare’s Richard III plotting revenge against the world in retaliation for his deformities. And some go on to be heroes, like one-handed ex-jockey Sid Halley or the incomparable Miles Vorkosigan, or at least beloved underdogs, like Tyrion Lannister.

Disabled or disfigured heroes tend to be more common than similarly afflicted heroines, especially in romance. Many love stories use the popular theme of Beauty and the Beast, and feature a beautiful, virtuous heroine who falls for a physically imperfect hero, often a scarred and/or crippled war veteran. As in the fairy tale, the heroine’s love rescues the hero from spiritual darkness and despair, and they develop a bond that transcends the physical.

When I first started Waltz with a Stranger, I wasn’t planning on having a disabled heroine. My original intent was to focus on a beautiful American heiress seeking to make a brilliant marriage to an English lord. I couldn’t have been more surprised when my untitled hero left the ballroom, wandered into the conservatory, and encountered the beauty’s scarred, crippled twin sister, dancing alone in the moonlight. But the story that opened up for me then seemed so much more interesting that the one I’d first imagined. So I went with it–and never looked back.

One challenge of writing the disabled heroine is establishing how she feels about herself and her condition. Too sunny and she defies credibility; too bitter and she risks forfeiting the readers’ sympathy. The circumstances under which the heroine sustains her handicap also make a difference. A character afflicted from birth may learn to compensate for her condition early, while a character more recently stricken might have a much harder time coming to terms with dramatic changes to her appearance and physical capabilities.

I didn’t make it easy for Aurelia. She sustained her injuries–a broken thigh that mended short and a visible scar on the left side of her face–in a horrific riding accident, for which she fully accepts the blame. Her first love jilts her, and his rejection has her convinced that no man will ever want her. And always before her is her beautiful twin, Amy, a constant reminder of how Aurelia herself used to look. In an era where beauty and vigor, along with breeding and fortune, were considered a woman’s greatest assets, she seems destined to remain a spinster, pitied but undesired.

Three years after the accident, Aurelia drifts through life, hiding in the background while Amy dazzles London society. While she tries to accept her limitations with patience and fortitude, she has her share of dark, even self-pitying moments. All that changes after kind-hearted James Trelawney tells her she need not be defined by her scars and then sweeps her into a secret waltz.

Their dance proves to be the catalyst for Aurelia taking up her life again, traveling abroad in search of healing and happiness.

The hard reality is that there were no easy fixes for Aurelia’s condition in the late Victorian period. No orthopedic and cosmetic surgeons who could magically cure her leg and erase her scars. She is limited to the treatments available at the time, which included special diets, exercise regimens, and mineral baths. As it is, she is fortunate that her family can afford to send her to a German spa like Bad Ems, and that she responds well to her doctor’s course of treatment.

All the same, Aurelia’s leg, while much improved, cannot be restored to its former state. And she will always carry the scars from that one reckless ride. It takes inner reserves of strength and determination to effect her transformation from timid mouse to strong, resilient woman. And even then she must fight continually against her own insecurities: that inner voice insinuating that her physical imperfections make her undesirable and that even James, for whom she nurtures a secret passion, must prefer beautiful, unscarred Amy to her.

This is a battle that can’t be won in a single day, but must be waged over and over until that taunting voice is silenced and hard-won confidence is restored. But every victory, however small, brings Aurelia closer not just to the person she was before the accident but the person she wants to be now: the queen, and not the little mouse!

So, who are your favorite disabled/challenged characters? And how do you feel about Beauty and the Beast as a romance theme?



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Pamela Sherwood grew up in a family of teachers and taught college-level literature and writing courses for several years before turning to writing full time. She holds a doctorate in English literature, specializing in the Romantic and Victorian periods, eras that continue to fascinate her and provide her with countless opportunities for virtual time travel. She lives in Southern California and is currently at work on her second novel.

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42 thoughts on “Guest & Contest: Pamela Sherwood

  1. Ora says:

    One of my favorite disabled characters is Syndham Butler from Simply Love by Mary Balogh. Beauty and the Beast is one of my favorite fairy tales and I love reading stories retelling it.

  2. Pamela Sherwood says:

    Ora, yes, Syd was a very memorable character. And if I remember correctly, Mary Balogh also wrote a romance with a deaf heroine, Silent Melody. Characters with disabilities are a rich vein for writers to mine! And Beauty and the Beast is a timeless theme.

  3. anne says:

    Beauty and the Beast represent so much in a story. What a great duo. I think that Cyrano is my favorite character.

  4. Pamela Sherwood says:

    anne, Beauty and the Beast has become my favorite fairy tale. Love Cyrano too, though I don’t know that I regard him as disabled or even disfigured, so much as “cosmetically challenged” or maybe “nasally enhanced.”

  5. Beckey says:

    I like stories with those type of stories personally cause of the struggle and how the herione/hero can over look and help the other out…

    Thanks for sharing the wonderful post…


    • Pamela Sherwood says:

      Beckey, I’ve found that in the best Beauty and the Beast stories the hero and heroine both grow and learn. She learns to look below the surface and value worth of character over physical beauty, while he learns that his outward appearance does not make him unworthy of love. Glad you enjoyed the post.

  6. Rita Wray says:

    I can’t remember the name of the book, the hero was blind. I think it was written by Kathleen Woodiwiss. It was a good book, I read it years ago.

    • Pamela Sherwood says:

      Rita, several authors have dealt with blind heroes–most recently, Gayle Callen. It’s an intriguing theme, especially in a historical romance, when treatment options were so limited.

  7. Jeanne Miro says:

    Hi Pamela –

    My favorite disabled/challenged character is actually from a movie and is Cole Holland in Mr. Holland’s Opus. I can still remember the scene when he used sign language to try to communicate with his father and thought about my own sons at the time who sometimes got frustrated when trying to explain a problem they were having.

    It reminded me that people, young or old, handicapped or not often have problems expressing what they want to say with or without a handicap and made me a most more caring person because of it.

    • Pamela Sherwood says:

      Jeanne, I’ll have to put that movie on my viewing list. I did see Children of a Lesser God several years ago, and was blown away by Marlee Matlin’s performance as angry, passionate, deaf-and-unwilling-even-to-try-speech Sarah. Whether speaking or signing, communication with others can be a minefield at times.

  8. Martha Lawson says:

    Catherine Anderson writes some of the best disabled heroines I have ever read. Annie’s Song has a deaf and mute heroine and is one of my all time favorite books! Your book sounds really good and I look forward to reading it. Putting on the wish list. Thanks for the chance to win.

    • Pamela Sherwood says:

      Martha, I’ve never read any of Catherine Anderson’s books, but I’ll be sure to check them out. I hope you enjoy Waltz with a Stranger when you get around to reading it.

  9. JoAnne says:

    I like Beauty and the Beast as a theme.

    Disabled characters I like are:
    Lara Stewart in Blind Love (Now and Forever #3) by Jean Joachim
    Jeb McKenna in Dakota Home by Debbie Macomber
    JoEmma in Sweet Talk by Dewanna Pace in the Be My Texas Valentine anthology

  10. Barbara Elness says:

    I like the Beauty and the Beast theme, it’s always interesting to see a character look beneath the flaws to the real person inside. I really liked Piers Yelverton from Eloisa James’ When Beauty Tamed the Beast and I loved both Christopher and Gillian in Lynn Kurland’s This is All I Ask.

    • Pamela Sherwood says:

      Barbara, I haven’t read the books you’ve named, but I heard that Piers was inspired by the character of Gregory House, which is interesting to imagine.

  11. Jenny says:

    One of my favorites is Eveline Armstrong from Never Seduce a Scot by Maya Banks. She was deaf due to an accident and I really enjoyed her story.

    I’m a big fan of Beauty and the Beast themes as well.

  12. Pamela Sherwood says:

    Jenny, I haven’t read anything by Maya Banks, so I’ll be sure to look for it. Deaf heroines seem to appear more frequently of late–beside Silent Melody, and Never Seduce a Scot, there is also Lily in Tessa Dare’s Three Nights with a Scoundrel.

    And historically, several prominent women were afflicted with deafness, yet managed to live full and satisfying lives. Alexandra, Princess of Wales, and Consuelo Vanderbilt, who married the Duke of Marlborough, were among them.

  13. erinf1 says:

    Thanks for sharing! This book sounds fantastic! I just read How to Romance a Rake by Manda Collins and the heroine had lost a foot. It was sweet and romantic 🙂

    • Pamela Sherwood says:

      erinfl, an amputee heroine? That’s definitely something that’s not seen everyday in historical romance! Must check it out.

  14. Karen H in NC says:

    I like the Beauty and the Beast them as well. I can’t recall names of favorite characters but I do recall titles of some books that dealt with ‘not-so-perfect’ heroes and heroines. I loved ‘Blind Fortune’ by Joanne Waugh and Michele Ann Young wrote a couple of stories about women who didn’t fit the normal mold of the slim, petite woman of the Regency. Two of her books I enjoyed were Pistols at Dawn and No Regrets.

    And Pamela, you are a new-to-me author. After reading about you and your book here today, your book is going on my books to buy list. Thanks for the giveaway.

    kareninnc at gmail dot com

    • Pamela Sherwood says:

      Karen H., I think readers can always identify with imperfect characters, whether the imperfection is a disability or simply a failure to conform to a physical standard of beauty. I hope you enjoy Waltz with a Stranger.

  15. June M. says:

    Delilah Marvelle has written some wonderfully imperfect characters, especially those in the Scandal series. SPOILER: There was a heroine who had lost a leg and her hero who was a cutter (which I have never read a book about a male cutter or a cutter in a historical before this book). END SPOILER.
    WALTZ WITH A STRANGER sounds great. Congrats on the release!
    manning_J2004 at yahoo dot com

    • Pamela Sherwood says:

      June M., it sounds like Marvelle’s characters have multiple issues, and I’ve encountered a cutter in a historical romance either. I’ll be sure to have a look. Thanks for the congrats!

  16. Julie Kornhausl says:

    Thank you for a great blog post on a topic that I really like. Lisa Kleypas has a book titled Seduce Me at Sunrise. Her heroine has recovered from (I think) Scarlet fever and she is headstrong in making the man she loves see her for the beautiful healthy woman she is now. I think it was also Lisa Kleypas in her book, Forever My Love, where the heroine was physically scarred. It was a very moving story. I literally want to run out and buy your book!
    I have always loved Beauty and the Beast. While I adore the Disney version, my favorite is the tv series that starred Linda Hamilton and Ron Perlman. I have all the seasons on DVD. I absolutely love it.

    I really look forward to reading your book!

    Thank you,
    Julie K

    • Pamela Sherwood says:

      Julie K., glad you enjoyed the blog post! I like Seduce Me at Sunrise too–I believe I read somewhere that Kleypas was inspired by the real-life romance between Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning. She was a near-invalid when they first met, but she made herself stronger and healthier so they could have a life together. I’ll have to check out Forever, My Love, as I haven’t read that one. Hope you enjoy Waltz with a Stranger, should you try it.

      Oh, I love the TV series of Beauty and the Beast. But I can’t watch the third season! Too sad for me.

  17. Maureen says:

    There is an historical romanc from many years ago called Annie’s Song by Catherine Anderson about a woman who the whole town thought was an idiot but it turned out she was deaf.

    • Pamela Sherwood says:

      Maureen, mistaking a deaf person for an idiot was sadly commonplace back then, I understand. In a Victorian mystery series I’ve read, the hero has a deaf son whose problem goes undiagnosed for years–the boy is thought to be an imbecile and putting him in an asylum in discussed, until the heroine discovers what’s really wrong with him. Another rec for Catherine Anderson–I’ll be sure to keep her in mind for future reading prospects.

  18. Linda Mc says:

    I’ve always loved Beauty and the Beast. I think it is a great theme. I’m currently reading a book called “Alaska Twilight” by Colleen Coble and the heroine has a prosthetic leg. She’s out there in the Alaskan wilderness and the fact that she has the prosethesis makes it all the more interesting. “Waltz With a Stranger” sounds very good…much success to you!

  19. Pamela Sherwood says:

    Linda Mc, pitting a disabled character against Nature, one of the most implacable of opponents, always makes for great drama. Thanks for the congrats!

  20. I think Aurelia in WALTZ WITH A STRANGER was my favorite character. Even though she was challenged with her leg she had the courage to keep going. BEAUTY AND THE BEAST is a perfect romance theme. Your heart would have to go out to both the Beauty and The Beast. Great choice.

  21. Nancy says:

    I’ve not encountered any fictional disabled heroines that I remember, although there are many in real life! I do like Beauty and the Beast type story lines!

  22. Pamela Sherwood says:

    Nancy, I think disabled heroines may be becoming more numerous of late in romance. And so far, everyone seems to like Beauty and the Beast storylines–maybe because they appeal to the best in human nature.

  23. pc says:

    I loved Sydham in Mary Balogh’s Simply Love and Ian in Jennifer Ashley’s The Madness of Lord Ian Mackenzie! Love does not discriminate and these stories show that the right person is the right person regardless and everyone is deserving of love…love is emotion and heart and the inner soul! And Beauty and the Beast themes show this.
    ivegotmail8889 (at) yahoo (dot)com

  24. Pamela Sherwood says:

    pc, I most certainly agree! Sydham and Ian are contrasting examples of disabled characters: one damaged on the outside, one challenged on the inside, but both find women who love and accept them as they are. We should all be as fortunate.

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