Lynne Murray says:
I recently got some feedback in an online writers’ workshop that gave me a little further insight into a subject that’s interested me for years–how fat people are shown in fiction.
The feedback was directed at a character in my vampire novel. The reader said that “she seems to think of herself as really fat, yet she gets attention from men, so it’s a little confusing. Is she really all that fat or does she just have a self-esteem problem and think she’s fat?” In other words, no really fat woman could get that kind of male attention! Yikes!
This was particularly interesting because I also have a fat male vampire in the book who is totally catnip to the ladies and the same critiquer loved the character and had no trouble accepting that he was so magnetically attractive. Maybe it was his vampiric powers.
I can’t praise enough the helpfulness of this woman’s critique of my book. All of her reactions were thoughtful, insightful and kind. Her suggestions about what she wanted to see more of made me realize that the characters in this book could continue for at least another two books.
Judging by an offhand comment about how long she’s been married, I’m guessing my critiquer is probably the 60-something age group, as I am, and grew up in the 1950s when the double-standard was in full flower. I’d also bet that she is totally unfamiliar with the concept of size acceptance. This made her comments particularly useful to me. I don’t want to limit my readers to those who share my views.
Storytelling is about entertainment. Sometimes you can illuminate ideas in the process, but a story is like joke. Either it works or it doesn’t. If it needs explanation, it didn’t work.
So my next task is to directly address the issue in the novel of the character being undeniably fat and undeniably attractive. It’s an interesting narrative problem.
When I dealt with creating an attractive woman of size in the early 1990s in my Josephine Fuller mystery series, I chose to have the Josephine admit to being “over 200 pounds” early in the books. This let the reader know that the character is undeniably fat, rather than just overanxiously obsessing about being an average weight. It was a trade-off, some readers were shocked and intrigued, some lost interest immediately.
John A. Miller, at Orloff Press, who took a chance in publishing Larger Than Death, had never heard of size acceptance, but he liked the book and the protagonist (he declared that she was “sassy”). I think he was surprised at how much dialog he had to engage in when he went out to sell the book to stores. He would describe the heroine and often he’d find that people assumed that a large female character with attitude would be a lesbian. Then, because a bookseller needs to know what audience might buy a book, John would explain that the Josephine had boyfriends who admired her size and spirit. We settled on the mantra, “A sleuth of size who doesn’t apologize” and that seemed to help.
That’s probably what I will do with big, beautiful woman in my vampire book. She needs to tell the reader directly that yes, she’s large. Some people may be surprised that she has a great sex life, but that’s because those people are too hypnotized by the mass media to look around and see that fat people do indeed quite often have great sex lives.
The character will probably come up with something better than that once I sit down and give her free rein to talk–my fictional characters are much more eloquent than I am!
By the way, I’d highly recommend the critters online workshop if you have science fiction, fantasy or horror fiction and need feedback. It’s run by Dr. Andrew Burt, former vice-president of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, and it consists of a few thousand writers and readers trading free critiques. The price of admission is to crit other people’s work. They have a special section to request “dedicated readers” who will take on reading and responding to an entire novel. After doing a critique on a novel for another critter, I see why they use the word “dedicated.” It can be quite rewarding, but it does take a lot of time and energy!