Writing Fat Characters

This is a lot funnier if you know YA cover trends.
This is what your headless YA heroine could look like.

I’ve been reading and writing for as long as I can remember, and I’ve been significantly overweight for just as long. I have always been the fat kid, and you can bet that caused some baggage. I had trouble fitting in desks. The idea of going on an airplane terrified me simply because of the seat size. I could never find cute clothes in my style that also fit. I got teased. For most of my life, I’ve heard over and over again that most of America is overweight – so where were they? Why was I the only one in almost all of my classes?

What’s a ten or thirteen or seventeen-year-old bookworm to do but escape into books? Books, after all, are a refuge. They take you into other worlds where anything is possible. You could captain a pirate ship, defeat dark wizards, fly, and, of course, get the fairy tale romance.

Unless, of course, you were fat. If you’re fat, you’re the ugly friend. You’re the villain. You try too hard, and people pity you. You’re jealous of all the “pretty” girls. You’re the sassy best friend with a brain full of quips and no character depth. You don’t get the guy unless he’s also been presented as equally undesirable, and then you’re a loser couple to laugh at.

And let’s not forget the guys. Fat guys are the lazy, sloppy stoner friends and the nerdy virgins that the protagonist has to put up with and will maybe teach them something or other about acceptance. Also, again, the villain (though recently, conventionally attractive villains have been more popular so of course they’re all toned muscle).

I love young adult fiction more than anything else. For the most part, the body type of a character doesn’t bother me. I don’t really pay attention. But when you’re a fat girl and every protagonist is slim, it gets to you. You start to get the message that you don’t count and don’t deserve to have adventures and happy endings. You start to think that your life won’t really begin unless you get skinny.

If an author does try to give other body types a try, they’re tall, skinny, and awkward. The default is for all the guys all have defined abs and arm muscle and their bodies are all hard and the girls are all soft and it’s totally not euphemistic at all. When a fat girl does show up, they usually mean that they’re a few pounds overweight, or they fall into the aforementioned categories.

But wait, you might say. There are YA books with fat protagonists! Why are you complaining?

Look at those books. They’re all about how horrible it is to be fat, and how the protagonist has to diet and get thin. Eventually there’s some theme of acceptance, but they usually still end up skinny in the end. Don’t get me wrong, bullying due to weight and eating disorders are very real problems and should be addressed. But there are other sides to being fat. It’s entirely possible to be fat and happy with yourself. With the society we live in, it can be really hard, but it’s a thing that does happen. I’m really fat and I spent most of my life dealing with self-esteem issues. I still do. But I’ve also learned that I’m fucking beautiful and not just “on the inside”. I’m not a skinny girl trying to get out of a fat body. I’m me, and I’m just as worthy of respect and being treated with decency as anyone else.

I want to see a fat girl in YA fall in love, and not have it be hopeless. I want to see her get kissed, but not out of pity or a cruel prank. I want to see her have amazing sex (and trust me, I’ll be talking about sex in YA later). I want the same for fat guys, too! I want to see a fat couple that isn’t the subject of pity. “Awww, at least they have each other!” They’re people, and I want to know the trials and tribulations of their relationship and fuck yeah I want them to have amazing sex. I want a fat girl to end up with the hot guy or the average guy or the fat guy. I want her to end up with someone that truly loves her and not despite her fat.

(For more on the sort of things fat girls deal with in the dating world especially if you’re wanting to write a fat girl but don’t have first-hand experience, you should really check out this post.)

I want to see a fat girl go on an adventure. I want her to go to Faerie and be just as tempted by fairy food as anyone else and not think about the calories. I want her to ride dragons and steal magical artifacts and seduce a pirate captain (I really like pirates, can you tell?). I want a fat guy to get into a sword fight over a lady’s honor and win. I want him to defend a castle, or be the best mage in the land.

More than anything, I want to have fat protagonists in YA and have them be treated as more than their fat. I want it to be a fact of their character – they are fat – and then that’s it. Their entire lives don’t revolve around them being fat. It doesn’t run their life and it certainly doesn’t ruin their life. Can we just have that? Please?

Of course, being a writer, I can’t expect to just put this plea out into the universe and not do anything about it. I try to have a lot of body diversity in my stories, because I think it’s important, and my preference is to not make a big deal out of it, because I think normalization is also important.

I’ve struggled, though. I’ve been afraid that people will see me writing fat characters, see that I’m fat, and go, “Ohh, that’s why the girl’s fat. Self-insertion/wish fulfillment/etc.” Being fat does lend me towards being really passionate about having more positive fat characters, especially in YA since it’s what I want to write, but it’s not about wish fulfillment. Still, I always feel the need to defend myself and I hate that.

I want to get to a point where I don’t feel awkward or ashamed at all of the fact that I’m writing a fat protagonist. I want to celebrate the character just like I would any other, and give him/her just as much attention and love and care. I want to think more about her personality and her emotions than about the fact that she takes up a little more room in the world.

I spent a long time going out of my way to never say the word “fat” or to never talk about eating a lot of food because it was like, “Oh no, they’ll all notice I’m fat!” I hated being that way. Now it doesn’t bother me at all. I can suggest that I shouldn’t be one of the people in the crowded backseat because I’m bigger and not feel ashamed. I can talk about how pizza is a godsend and not feel like everyone thinks I’m a pig. I want to write characters that can do the same, that don’t feel like they have to somehow hide their bulk. This includes not necessarily using euphemisms like “curvy”. What’s wrong with the word “fat”? What about chubby or plump? (Plump is my favorite because it has all sorts of beautiful connotations to do with really good fruit and fertility and things.)

Being fat does have an every day impact. A lot of fat girls I know deal with chafing thighs. It can be hard to fit through narrow spaces when you have a large belly. There are plenty of small, practical details that could go into the story of a fat character just like they do for anyone else. And yeah, being fat, especially in a society like ours, can absolutely have an impact on your worldview. There are loads of things that impact your worldview but don’t take over your life, though.

What about the issue of health and fitness? I know you’re thinking it. How can a fat character go on an adventure if they’re out of shape and can’t run from the bad guys?

Here’s the thing. Being fat doesn’t mean being unhealthy, and being skinny doesn’t mean being healthy. That’s the same for whether or not you’re in shape. There are fat people who can easily run a mile, and skinny people who struggle to run a block. The default for most YA protagonists seems to be “in shape”, even if they never work out or do anything to keep their bodies fit. You can certainly write a fat character who struggles with the running aspect. You can write a skinny character who does, too. Just know that you can also write a fat character who’s in shape. That is something that exists. For more on fat health, totally check out this blog, which also links to even more resources on the topic.

I want to give fat teenage girls someone to look up to. I want them to see that, oh, this girl is fat like me and she’s still having an amazing adventure. She has confidence, but also struggles with the sort of things that I do. She has depth. She is fat, but she is more than that. There’s no point in ignoring the fat of a character, it just shouldn’t be the only thing that they are. They’re also people.

Here’s the part where I ask for your opinions. What do you think about this? I’d love to get a dialogue going on this. And if you have any book suggestions that involve fat characters presented in a positive or human way, please share them! I’ve been pretty critical here and it would be great to have some positivity. I’d also like to do a post in the future for Tuesday Reads about good YA with fat protagonists.

38 thoughts on “Writing Fat Characters

  1. X-posted from Facebook. I think part of the problem is, even if you want to address it, how can you do it without offending anyone? Is there a difference between fat and chubby/plump? How big is the difference between fifteen pounds overweight and fifty, considering that neither is present in most fiction? (On the note of chubby, The Fairy Rebel by Lynne Reid Banks has a chubby girl who is kidnapped by fairies.) How do you describe the heroine in such a way that it’s clear that, hey, this girl is fat, without saying something offensive? (I think that there’s some sort of magic related to being fat by Robin Hobbs… maybe the Soldier Son books? I can’t remember.) And then of course this all links back to what is ideal in our culture, and how most books invariably show the ideal and nothing else. And I think “fat” is a trigger word for some people, in ways. YA heroines, middle school if not the upper years, are always dark, boyish, and skinny, never blonde, voluptuous, or anything else. I would love to write on the subject, but how do you address it? I probably have more thoughts now, but only have twenty minutes before work and should probably get ready for that and will respond more later. 🙂

    1. I kind of wonder if that couldn’t be helped by normalizing it in books, though. If you were a teenager and read books about a character described as fat but not vilified for it and they were a strong, well-written character, could that possibly help your view of the word ‘fat’ in real life, too? Or is that too optimistic?

      If you don’t want to use the word fat – which is understandable, because it can be a triggering word – I think that perhaps using chubby/voluptuous/plump/etc. could help. Or actually describe how they carry their fat. Talk about large stomachs/large thighs/fatty upper arms, etc. If it’s just love handles, say so. If it’s more like a large belly, say so. In my own writing, I generally prefer not to take too long on describing my character’s appearance so I’ve taken to being pretty straightforward about it.

  2. Large bodies, fat, plump…well, I believe society determines the desirability of heaviness…for example, in early Hawaiian society, fat was beautiful and encouraged…in Nazi Germany, (not a nice example, but a true one) being skinny was too much like the camp inmates and German women were encouraged to put on the pounds….so many alien movies and books out where heroes and heroines may not resemble humans at all, but the reader can fall in love with one bases on their integrity and actions in the story line…all this leads me to think that looks are secondary to empathy for aliens and human alike.

  3. Hi, I really enjoyed this article because this is a real struggle for me. I am fat, and I like to write. But I feel as if I am at a lost of what to do with fat/bigger characters. I don’t want their storyline to become something that is forced, or something that seems too much like a self-insertion/wish fulfillment deal.
    For example, I’m writing something having to do with a chubby girl who finds out about the faerie world. I want to do her justice by showing her in a positive light, but I don’t want it to be something ridiculous (i.e. getting a hot boyfriend, or something of that sort), which seems prevalent in most YA novels today.
    I think this story may be in the backburner for now, but what I really wanted to say here was that I really could relate to your issues writing a fat protagonist (:
    (sorry I got so sidetracked!)

    1. Hi! Thank your comment. I definitely get what you mean about wanting to show fat characters in a positive light but not wanting it to be ridiculous. I get what writers are trying to do when they give the hot guy to the fat girl, but sometimes it seems condescending, and it also completely ignores the fact that guys have body issues, too.

      I don’t know your story beyond what you’ve said, but I can tell you what I’ve been trying out. Aside from the fat issue, I’ve gotten a little tired of how every YA protagonist has to find their true love. I love romance but I also want a chance to just see a character discover themselves and have their own life. Plus, female protagonists rarely have female friends before the start of the book, and when they do, those friends often betray them. So I’ve combined that with my desire to write positive fat characters.

      Unfortunately, this can also potentially come off as “oh well she’s fat so of course she doesn’t find love”. In that case, I prefer to just let it happen and not make it the main part of her story, just like her fat’s not the main part.

      Okay I am totally also getting sidetracked! But those are some tactics I take in my writing sometimes. I just really love giving characters the chance to grow and find themselves and their strength.

  4. One book series that I have been reading ‘recently’ is the Lightbringer trilogy from Brent Weeks. The series is interesting in a lot of ways; what initially drew me to it is its traditional fantasy elements mixed and blended with really unique things, such as the in-world use of light as magic.

    The main character, Kip, suffers from many ‘stereotypical’ handicaps, and defies the image of the typical fantasy hero. A fat, black, orphaned bastard (whose father is the most powerful political and religious figure in the world) whose mother is at the very least strongly hinted at being either a prostitute or a slut. And, granted, in the first book Kip is kind of a whiny bitch. But, that’s why character development is important.

    Kip is an empowering figure. He’s constantly second-guessing himself, but eventually he learns to trust his instincts. He trains hard and makes it through the grueling competition to join the crazy elite magic spec ops team known as the Blackguards. He quickly learns to outsmart his opponents, because frankly, even though he is getting stronger, he just isn’t as lean, fast, or powerful as they are. He’s resilient, though, and he doesn’t let it bring him down. Well, maybe he does a bit. But then he uses that to motivate himself further.

    I never really thought about the importance of a primary protagonist being fat, I simply appreciated the level of detail that helped me understand the character’s plight (and as one that was always picked last in gym, I understand it well; hell, I don’t even have magic to fall back on!). I suppose that’s why I’m not an author or literary analyst. But, once I thought about it, I realized that this might actually be the only book I’ve ever read with a fat hero. Or even a fat character that made me go “Yeah! You’re a badass!” Kip is a very unique and well-developed character, in a genre populated almost entirely with bearded wizards, elven archers, and women in chainmail bikinis. And, in a series that has garnered massive amounts of praise, no less. I think that is a good sign for the fat heroes of the future.

    Now, pardon me while I go roll up a really badass fat and heroic D&D character.

  5. 1) You should totally come to Wiscon. Suggest this as a program topic, actually, even if you can’t come.

    2) Robin Hobb’s Soldier Son trilogy was mentioned above; I didn’t finish it, but I did like that the narrator’s size affects how he’s treated in the military and among civilians, but is also a source of great power. I just hated his passivity way, way more.

    3) Have you read Jennifer Crusie?

    4) I struggle with including character descriptions. I hate them and I do them poorly. One thing I noticed among things back when I did describe people is that I have a tendency to write very, very skinny heroines, often seriously underweight, usually due to magic. They aren’t presented as beautiful, but as problematic. I was near underweight for years– not by BMI but by my ability to handle stressors like heat– and that seems to be my way of including different body types. It sucks to realize that all I can do is demonize the one I know.

    5) No, seriously, Wiscon.

  6. Good food for thought here… definitely something to keep in mind when I start my next story, whichever it will be. In my current one, my characters often have to go hungry, so there isn’t really a way any of them could be fat. I’m afraid the only fat character I’ve ever written was one MC’s girlfriend – who just happens to be one of my favourite characters to write.

  7. I’m ALL for it! I was a book worm too as a teen and always wondered how anyone will be able to lift me or swing me on their white horse with knight armor and all LOL!
    The few pieces I’ve written was not of the “normal” view. I made it so that anyone can slide in to the conscience of the character without a physical limit.
    It’s so brain draining as I haven’t truly read an author that writes in that form and wish I had the extra brain cells and time to keep writing…

  8. I totally agree with this post. I remember being a young adult and writing a letter to my favorite author Madeleine L’Engle that pointed out that the only fat people in her books were always the bad guys. I never sent the letter though, because I was still very ashamed of being the fat kid. I was wondering if you’ve read “Eleanor and Park” yet? Eleanor is clearly a fat character who experiences the things you mention.

    1. Yes! At the time I wrote this, I hadn’t read E&P or even heard, yet, that it had a fat protagonist. I do love how her weight is handled, and it’s a great book. We could use more of that, and more books that push it even farther, have bigger protagonists (it’s hard to know exactly how big Rainbow Rowell pictured Eleanor, but I’m prone to assuming they always mean smaller than me, and I want someone who has trouble physically fitting in the world – who has to squeeze into booths at restaurants, who dreads classes with the desks that have attached chairs and not enough room).

  9. My difficulty with writing fat, multifaceted characters is how do you make it clear they are fat without drawing so much attention to it that it becomes their main characteristic? Do you just mention it and move on?

    1. I think there are pros and cons to drawing a lot of attention to it and to just mentioning it and moving on. I can tell you the choices that I tend to make as a writer, but ultimately, I think you do what feels right for that character and that story.

      The main character in the novel I’m writing doesn’t struggle with her weight in that she wants to lose weight or even that she hates her body or has poor self-esteem. But she does interact with the world in different ways than a lot of people because she is fat – like she never knows for sure if she’s going to be able to comfortably sit in a booth at a restaurant. Some places she’s fine. Others, the table is going to dig into her stomach and be awkward and uncomfortable. This situation doesn’t make her think, “There’s something wrong with me.” It makes her think, “There’s something wrong with this world.”

      That said, the emphasis of the story still isn’t on her weight – those are just moments that happen, because I don’t want the reader to forget she’s fat. I don’t want that to be erased or glossed over. I want it to be front and center. I want to say: This character is super fat, and she’s a badass, and you’re going to love her.

      But I also have short stories where I mention a character’s weight like you’d mention a hair color – it’s just part of their description, and barely comes up again.

  10. Great post. This is something I often think about, being a writer, a bookworm and a fat lady. In the current story I’m writing (a fanfic) one of the original characters is a fat girl, and she’s awesome. She falls in love, uses magic, fights demons, all the stuff that protagonists usually get to do (well my protagonists anyway).

    I’ve made a new rule for myself that all my stories will have a fat character. In describing her I’m trying to strike a balance between making it clear that she is fat, but not focusing on it as her fatness is not the subject of the story, she’s a magical superhero who just happens to be fat. So I do stuff like describing her outfits, and mentioning a hair clip she’s wearing that says “Fat babe”, or having the character herself comment on her fatness (in a straightforward positive way).

    My story is on AO3 if you’re interested: http://archiveofourown.org/works/1041848

    The Australian author Kerry Greenwood who wrote the Miss Fisher mystery series also writes another mystery series in which the main character is a fat lady. It’s a positive portrayal. The first book is called Earthly Delights.

  11. I have a YA book tip: Witch Week, by Diana Wynne Jones. One of the hero students in the book is Nan Pilgrim, described as chubby and fat and represented in a really positive way. She is witty, imaginative, creative, saves the day, is liked by the boy protagonist and is admired and flirted with by the very attractive Chrestomanci. Suitable for children from age 10-12 onward I’d say.

  12. May be a little off topic (fat characters in general, not just YA fiction), but my Favorite Author of All Time is Margaret Atwood… I started out w/”Lady Oracle” & worked my way forward & back from there. Now it’s been over 35 yrs, but I only recently realized after another re-reading, that MA really DOESN’T write fat characters sympathetically or realistically. Joan Foster loses 100 lbs w/almost magic-potion or science-fiction ease (all she had to do was develop the right mindset, you see), then I realized there were literally no other sympathetic fat characters in MA’s universe… Bummer!
    (Gotta write my own I guess – thanks for the link Bek)

  13. Thanks for a really interesting post!!!! I am myself overweight and am guilty of writing skinny characters in YA fiction …
    However, there are a few books with overweight characters in the YA genre, like previously discussed. Eleanor in Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell. She falls in love, she is a strong minded teenager and decides what is best for herself. I love her! I could connect with that character on many levels regarding the fat shaming, I’m sad to admit … But it’s a great novel!

  14. Reblogged this on I bokhörnan, med partitur och manus and commented:
    Why are we “fat shaming” our fictional characters? Is the demand of being skinny and successful really so strong that we shy away from writing fat characters that are not just the bullied supporting character? Is there really not a market for the fat (but not always the funny) character that can find love, that in turn is not hopeless?
    Is the power of our fat shaming society so strong that it seeps into the imagination of our writers??

  15. Very interesting and I have thought about the same thing. Many heroines in books are petite, slender and attractive (often without understanding it). I would like to see books were the main character is normal or overweight. And still kicks ass!

  16. Personally I am over weight but make my characters have problematic weights that are only justified sometimes. For example, it makes since for the girl who loves junk food but fights crime to be chubby but it doesn’t make since for the girl who only eats junk food to be less than 100 lbs but I’ve written both. I found this because I made a large character and it made me realize that I can’t think of any examples in published work or my own. I write characters who are the way I want to be- thin. I would say that people should shy away from saying fat, it is a common insult and personally I tend to use it against myself.

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  18. Hi,
    Thanks for your blog post it was very interesting.
    I’m writing a story right now with an overweight main character. The main focus of the story is a fun world saving adventure, but I wanted to make it as inclusive as the world I see around me. I include characters of different races, weights, gender identities and sexualities.
    Personally I’m too skinny and trying to gain weight (I’m tired of feeling weak and shaky if I’m too busy to eat for a few hours). I found your blog while doing research on how to write a fat character effectively. I don’t intend to do alot of direct description of my MCs looks but have it all come out of other people’s reactions to her and natural moments.
    I am still debating on having my character loose weight due to coming near starvation in captivity, but if I do I will portray it in a negative light of her not feeling right and I will have her gain her weight back.

  19. I think you’d like the YA book, “Elizabeth’s Midnight,” by Aaron Michael Ritchey. It features an overweight heroine , who does not lose weight by the end of the book–it’s just part of her character. The important part is it’s an absolutely fabulous read and the heroine goes on a fantastic adventure…

  20. I think the problem is really publishers; not writers so much.

    I’ve written an 86-Chapter Skyrim fanfiction (“The Unchosen One”) about a tall, fat woman who saves the world, and I could do the same in a non-fanfiction way. It would never get published, though. The fact is, not a lot of writers actually see publication, even if their writing is phenomenal, because publishers don’t want to take risks. It’s why I prefer to look online for my fiction nowadays.

    P.S.: I’ll let you know if I produce anything else in this vein in the future. I do have some plans for a story about the personal scribe of Cleopatra, which I think might make for an interesting story.

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