The Challenge of Writing Fat-Friendly Fiction

Lynne Murray says:

I have a new novel called Bride of the Living Dead coming out from Pearlsong Press. Although this is a romantic comedy rather than a mystery like my Josephine Fuller, Sleuth of Size series, it led me to once again examine all the issues about writing fat friendly fiction.

The main thing I have found is that, as a category, fat friendly fiction doesn’t exist. The reason for that is plain and simple–books centering on fat, self-accepting characters have not (yet!) generated the kind of sales that make mainstream publishers sit up and take notice.

If an author’s aim is to solely to get books into the hands of those who already want fat heroes and heroines, then it’s important to face the reality that such a target audience has not yet become even a small niche market. Sadly, it’s more like a few ledges at the back of a couple of established niches such as cozy mysteries, romance, and humor.

Even publishers who offer novels (usually chick lit or romance) specifically aimed at plus-sized readers often do so with books that feature self-bashing women on perpetual diets and novels where the fat heroine must lose weight to get the guy, win the job or fit into the dress.

Genuinely fat-positive novels do pop up from time to time, and reading them is a rare pleasure. Writing them is still a radical act.

Stereotypes about fat characters arise because authors keep giving them limited roles to play. We all know the roles and the plots: The evil fat mastermind, whose craving for power is only exceeded by his craving for food. The miserable fat slob who is the butt of everyone’s jokes. The out-of-control glutton whose appetites can only be controlled with tranquilizer darts. The fat friend of the hero/heroine who only exists as a sidekick. The miserable fat loser who diets, becomes thin and finds happiness. That’s pretty much it. Let me know if I’ve missed any.

[Note from Debbie: Here is a superb post on fat stereotypes, and Lynne gave me a great moment to link to it.]

There is no reason why fat characters can’t inhabit any sort of story and play any kind of part and there are some stories that can only be told about fat heroines and heroes. These plotlines popped up when I started writing this stuff in the early 1990s. Some examples of stories that never get told because they didn’t match into the above stereotypes: One family member gets off the diet bandwagon and must stand up to those who remain true believers. A fat, female evil mastermind whom no one suspects because fat women are so uniformly ignored. Fat friend of hero/heroine whose story is so much more interesting that we move over and follow it instead.

Getting rid of the illusion that an eager market already exists for fat fiction is important to writers (such as myself) who are going to write about fat-positive characters anyway, goddammit. I firmly believe that that there are many readers who might be interested in such stories who don’t even know it yet, but there has to be a compelling reason to pick up the book–the story.

If the goal is to reach a broader audience it becomes doubly important for writers to think carefully about what kind of fiction they are writing aside from the fat positive aspect.

One of the most useful pieces of advice I ever received on novel writing was from long-dead writer, Jack Woodford, whose 1943 book Why Write a Novel? offered reams of obsolete advice and a couple of gems, such as: “Write what you read.”

Or to be even more brutally honest, “Don’t waste your time trying to write the sort of thing you never read.” This happens amazingly often when writers, in our innocent arrogance, pick up something in a genre we don’t know at all, and proclaim, “This is crap, I could do better than this.” Possibly so, but you’ll have a much easier time of it if it’s something you enjoy reading to begin with. In other words if all you ever read is science fiction, you’re probably not going to succeed writing romances, and vice versa. This may sound obvious, but it’s surprising how many people waste years they could have saved if they followed Woodford’s advice.

For those of us who must dance on the edge of the cliff writing positive fat characters, it pays to know as much as possible about the sort of story they will be inhabiting and what other books in that genre can serve as inspiration.

I was reading 80% mysteries when I decided to write about a sleuth of size who doesn’t apologize. My role model in exploding stereotypes was the late, great Joseph Hansen. His 1970 detective novel Fade Out introduced Dave Brandstetter, a death claims investigator in a Los Angeles that Raymond Chandler would recognize. Surviving partner of a 20-year gay relationship, and as decent, capable and honorable as any detective who walked Chandler’s mean streets, Brandstetter is fully formed character. This article compares Hansen’s accomplishment to Michael Nava’s equally brilliant novels, but Hansen was the trailblazer.

In a wonderful essay in Dilys Winn’s collection Murder Ink (out of print but cheaply available used and well worth the purchase simply to read Hansen’s “Homosexuals: Universal Scapegoats” piece) Hansen describes how he set about to explode the stereotypes and what some reactions have been. He concludes:

I have changed a few hearts and minds.
When writers fall back on ugly stereotypes, they betray their trust and make an already tough life tougher still. Whether mysteries or not, honest novels allow us for an hour or two to escape the confines of our familiar selves and, in effect, become someone else. Rarely in life can we know a real human being as completely as we come to know good fictional characters. When a writer scrupulously models his characters on the way men and women really are, he opens to his readers the opportunity to widen and deepen their understanding of others and themselves, and this can only make the world a gentler place for us all.

Finding fat-positive fiction to read can be a challenge. At this point it’s essentially word of mouth. As I mentioned earlier, most books publishers don’t want to lose the dieting readers by emphasizing self-acceptance too loudly, so very often truly fat positive fiction comes from smaller presses, such as Pearlsong, which specializes in Health at Every Size literature. Other examples are Sue Ann Jaffarian’s Odelia Gray series from Midnight Ink and Andrew Fox’s work. Fox’s Fat White Vampire Blues and Bride of Fat White Vampire were from Ballantine, and his latest, Good Humor Man is from Tachyon Publications.

Readers get the word out that book X, Y, or Z has a size-positive character. Readers share information on Amazon’s “listmania,” and on blog sites such as

Dangerously Curvy Novels: Abundant Heroines, All About Romance: Plus-Sized Heroines , and Paperback Diva: Plus-Sized Heroines

My own experience listening to readers of the Josephine Fuller series has ranged from touching reactions when people enjoyed the books to people being puzzled or disbelieving that such things as fat acceptance can even exist.

One woman at a readers’ group told me my Josephine Fuller character was “conceited” because she imagined that several men in Larger Than Death found her attractive. Clearly this was impossible, so it must be an arrogant delusion on her part.

But my favorite reaction was from a woman who told me, “I disagree with the idea that it’s okay to be fat, but I enjoyed the story anyway.” It’s a start.

Some people are still learning that positive stories about fat characters can be fun. As a writer it’s my goal to write such stories, as a reader, I’m always on the prowl for more of them to read.

16 thoughts on “The Challenge of Writing Fat-Friendly Fiction

  1. This is actually an especially relevant entry to me right now. I’m writing my own novel (hopefully to be published) where the story is told from the point of view of an overweight woman. The thing is, there isn’t a focus on her weight, because it’s not plot relevant; admittedly, this story is a sort of horror/sci-fi story, but the reason I’m writing her this way (without the focus on her weight) is to portray fat people as normal; no special emphasis either way, and certainly not evil or slovenly. I’m hoping that I can get it published, at the very least to put out one more representation of a fat girl in an average capacity(In fact, she’s pretty much the only “normal” one, in a really abnormal situation).

  2. I wonder sometimes. Does fat-friendly fiction mean that the protagonist has to be fat? Does the book have to spend time on this subject? Or could it just be any kind of fiction in which fat people are not put down by the usual stereotypes?

  3. Lindsay B, good luck with the book! I think there is a connection between the issue you mention and the questions Nathreee brings up. On the one hand, Lindsay, you are facing the question of how to contradict stereotypes without getting on a soap box and having the issue of weight take over the book, or worse yet (from my point of view) catering to the ugly stereotypes we all know and despise. On the other hand, Nathreee poses the question (if I understand it correctly) of whether “fat friendly fiction” can be fiction that doesn’t center on fat characters, and yet also does not stereotype them.

    I’ve thought about both these issues a lot, and I’ve concluded that the body size of characters in fiction nowadays is a very loaded piece of information. There is an underlying assumption that “normal” heroines and heroes will be statistically abnormally thin. E.g. the average American woman is a size 14, but you can have a mystery Entitled “Size 12 is Not Fat” where the heroine despairs at being so huge.

    Don’t freak, I’m not on a soapbox here. I’m seriously considering whether every book an author writes with fat characters should tilt at this windmill. The clear answer is of course not–unless you want to engage the topic, there’s no reason you have to! The story and what you want to say as a storyteller should be your guide.

    However, if you do write about fat characters you cannot do so in a vacuum. Readers will form opinions and like or dislike characters based on the information you give them. The ways to dispense this information are bounded only by your own creativity.

    I feel a little shy about giving examples from my own work, but I think two comments I’ve received about my Josephine Fuller books are relevant. I had a rather petite woman tell me, “For the first time I got some idea what it would be like to be fat.” And another, average-sized woman friend (probably size 14–LOL!) said, “I never thought about what a fat woman might feel when meeting a super-sized woman.” We all live in a continuum of size and women in particular are constantly making judgments based on that. We don’t have to address it directly, but it is there.

    I believe it’s wise to think seriously about how to describe your characters and how they interact with other characters in the book and what the reader needs to know to connect with the characters and want to know how their problems get resolved.

    Also I’m most honored to have a post linked to Alas, a blog!

  4. Thank you for posting the links! I’ll follow them – I’m eager to find more because off the top of my head I couldn’t think of any fat, positive characters in books I’d read except for two rather gimmicky ones. I watched My Life in Ruins last week and noticed two fat lines: the main character thought she was overweight and her lover liked her curves (I seriously doubt she could be called fat); but more interesting was a minor member of the tour group who was definitely fat and yet in spite of being humourous… never became a figure of fun for that reason. In fact he was cheerful, active and outgoing and one of the more likeable characters. (This is not to say there weren’t all sorts of other problems in there).

  5. I have read the Josephine Fuller novels and wish the series had continued. It was nice to see a series where it was recognized that a large woman could have romance in her life. And be happy and well adjusted. And have great sex! We need to support the small presses that are courageous enough to publish material with positive fat main characters.

  6. What a great post! And the comments are equally intriguing. Thanks, Lynn, for including me in the ‘fat-friendly’ links. This issue is important to me as well. I write romance which is especially plagued with the tiny heroine. The truth is there are characters out there of all sizes and that may or may not influence the plot. But I do like to see a fictional world that reflects reality. I chose to write one of my novels with a plus-size heroine, but like most of us, she’s aware and sometimes insecure about her weight, but in general, accepting.

    I’d also like to recommend another author who portrays realistic diversity in her fiction. Suzanne Brockmann, http://www.suzannebrockmann.com/. Her heroes are to drool over, being super macho, ripped, modern warrior types, but many of them still don’t fit into the ‘ideal’ mold. There are the height-challenged, the balding, the homely, the too-old/too-young. The heroines also come in a variety of flavors.

  7. Thanks for the appreciation, Debbie T! Those were exactly my goals in writing the books (indeed in every book I write).

    The book business is a heart-breaker, and I think it might be an indicator of insanity in writers who keep trying to get our work out there. It’s also a labor of love for small presses, who keep a book in print long enough for it to find an audience–Orloff Press did that for Larger Than Death, the first Josephine Fuller book. But often wonderful small presses like Orloff don’t make enough profit to stay in business. I’m proud that they did well enough with LTD to attract a major publisher, St. Martin’s/Minotaur. But the big guys, in their own struggle to survive, decide what authors to keep based on sales figures. After 3 more books and unimpressive sales, it was out the door for Josephine Fuller and back to small presses for me!

    I totally agree–in order to see more fat-positive fiction, support small presses and books from any press with fat positive main characters!

  8. First, I want to thank Lynn for including my Odelia Grey novels in this blog. A lot of folks criticized the first book in my series, Too Big To Miss, as being too heavy (no pun intended) handed with the fat prejudice theme, but I felt it important to establish Odelia’s story, which included the humiliation and prejudice she suffered in being plus size. Many of her incidents came out of my personal life. The book started out with her rather cowered by it all, but ended with her triumphant in her new-found confidence. Subsequent books mention the size issue, but do not revolve around it because I don’t want readers to only see Odelia as fat – she is a fully realized character and we are fully-realized people. I am very happy to say that so far the series has been received very well by both reviewers and the reading public. And I receive lots of fan mail from people of all sizes. I’ve even received some pretty heated criticisims from plus size women. It’s all part of being a writer. But as Lynn points out, for now only the small to mid size presses are willing to take a chance on main protagonists of size (Odelia is a size 20). I am thrilled to say that Midnight Ink has contracted with me for 12 Odelia Grey novels in all. I’m currently working on #6. And Too Big To Miss has been option for TV. Change takes time, but it can happen.

    Keep writing and reading, folks!

  9. Hi there!

    I have just finished writing book 1 of the Big Girls Lovin’ trilogy. The heroine is shy and plus-sized, and it takes a lot for the man who loves her to convince her that she is beautiful – no losing weight there! I really wanted to write this series, and so this has been a huge accomplishment for me personally. I’ve always admired writers who can feature a plus-sized heroine, and do it well. I’m currently working on the next in the trilogy, and this heroine is not so shy!

    Thanks for a great blog. It’s awesome to see other writers thinking about the plus-sized hero/heroine.

  10. Hi Angela, thanks for checking in and letting us know about your books! For those of us who constantly look for plus-sized heroines and heroes this is great news. I’m off to check out your web page and blog. Write on!

  11. Thanks Lynne.

    Lori Foster also wrote a romance awhile ago featuring a plus-sized heroine – “Never Too Much”. I have a futuristic novella “Operation Seduction” which is based on the Australian Royal Flying Doctor’s Service, and this also features a plus-sized heroine.

    I wonder if we’ll see a resurgence of plus sized heroines?!

    Angela

  12. Thanks, Angela! I’m glad to hear about your book and Lori Foster’s–will go check them out!

    As for more plus sized heroines, I think getting the word out is crucial. There are many like ourselves who want to read stories with real-life-sized characters, because there’s no big PR machine promoting these books, it’s strictly word of mouth! So let’s keep letting people know what’s available!

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