Writing Fat Characters

It’s a safe bet that, at any given time, I’m in the middle of two or three or more books: work reading, research reading, pleasure reading. My pleasure read — which I’m otherwise enjoying* — just pushed one of my buttons when it comes to characterization.

The setup:

The main character (male) attends a meeting with a bunch of women he’s never met before. One of them – one – is described as plump. She is, of course, eating as she is introduced.

Several times throughout the rest of the scene, this character gets up to provide refreshments to the roomful of people. The scene does not take place in her house, so she is not the hostess. Although everyone else in the scene partakes of the food, only the plump woman is ever mentioned individually as eating. In fact, whenever she speaks, she talks with her mouth full. She sprays crumbs. All but one of her speaking lines in the chapter have an eating action associated with them, most of them unflattering.

The only other character who gets an eating-related action is the other male character present. He snags a bowl of popcorn and eats a handful. Difference being, we’ve had a couple books’ worth of characterization on this guy. Him taking the popcorn is more action than description. All it says about him, really, is he’s into the story being told. The moment is the prose equivalent of /popcorn.

The plump woman has been around for six pages. The only thing we know about her is she likes to eat, and never seems to stop. That’s it. That’s her characterization: fat. Likes to eat (see: fat.)

The author has several other scenes in the series that take place over the course of a meal, many shared with other female characters the narrator has described as beautiful. In those scenes, the food gets the kind of good, detailed description that can make readers hungry. To the author’s credit, the women eat as heartily as the men, and don’t seem to be ashamed at enjoying it.

But how the beautiful women eat isn’t really described. We know they eat the food. We know sometimes they ask for seconds. These women don’t talk with their mouths full, or slurp their coffee, or do any of the things that are associated with messy eating. Like with Popcorn Guy above, eating is an action the character does, not a statement about who the character is.

Now. Do I think the author intended to point and laugh at the fat character? No. There’s no reason for the reader to dislike this character, and simply by being in the group she’s in, she has to be pretty formidable. My guess is, to the author, those descriptions added details to the scene, made it feel more real. It’s a thing we do as writers, recording our characters’ quirks. It’s entirely possible that the author doesn’t view the talking with her mouth full or the crumb-spraying as negative descriptors.

But intent isn’t magic. It pulled me right out of the story, and every time that character’s dialogue tag or action came up, I cringed.

Here’s why.

I have a post that’s still only in head-draft form about my own anxieties when it comes to eating in social situations. It’s personal stuff, and I don’t know if I’ll ever get around to writing it, but one of the worries I want to unpack is this: I’m not a small girl. When I eat around people I don’t know, I am afraid of being judged: what I’m eating, how I’m eating it. So when a writer shows a fat character eating in an unflattering way, I see myself. And I think, Is that how people see me? Is the fact that I’m eating all they see, all they’ll take away from our interaction?

On one hand, fuck ’em if it is. That says more about them than me. On the other, it still stings. Coming across it over and over in stuff I read means I internalize the hell out of it.

Let’s hop over to Supernatural,** specifically two episodes from Season 9: “Rock and a Hard Place” and “The Purge.”

You don’t see many fat characters in Supernatural. There’s a running joke (go ahead and read that with air quotes) that the CW is the network for thin, pretty people, so whenever I see someone who doesn’t conform to that standard, I brace myself. Usually for good reason. In “Rock and a Hard Place,” the one fat person in the chastity support group Sam and Dean join is constantly slipping extra cookies into her purse at the end of the meetings. When we first meet overweight Sherriff Donna Hanscum in “The Purge,” she goes for the box of donuts. When she looks up, there’s powder on her face from the one she bites into. The implication: these fatties can’t stop eating. And they’re messy and gross.

Now, Dean Winchester does the same thing. Gets the same mess of powder all over him. But it doesn’t feel like we’re supposed to laugh at him. Dean’s not getting mocked for his weight. He loves his cheeseburgers and pie, but he’s never fat-shamed for it. I’m sure there’s a whole post in there comparing the brothers’ vastly different relationships to food, but even when Sam is disgusted by Dean’s eating habits, it’s couched in terms of “you’ll clog your arteries,” not “ugh, you’ll get fat.”

I’m so tired of it, cats ‘n’ kittens, and it’s everywhere. Got a fat lady character? Need to add description? Show her eating! BOOM. DONE. AMIRITE?

Come on, writers. We’re better than that. We conjure worlds full of creatures that don’t exist and make them feel real. We create cities readers know as well as their own hometowns. We make fans experience the gut punch of a favorite character’s death. We have all these other characters who step off the page with the descriptions lavished upon them. The way this one’s cloak drapes, how the other’s hands flutter as she speaks, His smirk. Her laugh. But the fat one? Eh. Put a piece of cake in their hands and call it a day.

Next time you’re writing someone about who isn’t conventionally thin, go back and reread. Are they eating every time they’re on-camera? Why? Is anyone else? If not, and there’s food present, why not? If that’s your main descriptor, how about getting rid of it? How about thinking up other things that character can do that aren’t related to her weight?

If you can’t fathom non-food things fat people might do a) this is me side-eyeing your abilities as a writer and b) maybe spend some time perusing Shakesville’s Fatsronauts 101 tag to learn some shit.

I want there to be more fat characters in fiction. But I want them to actually be characters, not caricatures. Write them as people.

Because that’s what we are.

*I really do want to stress that I’m enjoying the books otherwise. They’re a fun read. I’ve giggled on public transportation at some of the lines. A friend recommended them to me, and I have in turn recommended them to friends. I’m not calling out the specific book or author because this isn’t the first time I’ve come across this sort of characterization; just the most recent.
**Before you say it, I know. Supernatural has a whole fuckton of problems with its women. That’s another post.

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4 Responses to Writing Fat Characters

  1. Tori says:

    I think it’s sort of ironic that fat characters are so often portrayed as constantly eating/shoving food in their pockets, etc, when most fat people I know (myself included) are often the least likely to be eating loudly and messily (if at all) because we worry so much more about being seen that way. (Kudos and huzzah to those who don’t!)

    Like most stereotypes, I don’t think these come from a place of malice but a place of laziness, but it’s always disappointing and it pops me out of the story, too.

    I largely read and write YA, but I’d love to see more fat characters in genre fiction whose story arcs aren’t “accepting themselves as they are” (this is a great message! But it’s like coming out stories for LGBTQ teens; awesome they exist, but I still want to see the gay kid or fat kid or gay, fat kid beat up the monster) or “losing the weight to become awesome” (this story can die in a fire as far as I’m concerned).

    Thanks for this post!

  2. Leah says:

    Excellent post. This has been a pet peeve of mine forever, which is why I was so enamored with Gilmore Girl’s handling of the character Sookie. Yes, she was a chef and a lot of her onscreen appearances had to do with food, but usually food she was making for other people. She had plots not related to her work/food, and I can’t recall anyone ever trying to fat-shame her. The writers also avoided that disturbing trend of the the heavy character being the only one for whom their relationship with food is a character trait, since the two (thin) main characters are known and shown to be big eaters.

    Ditto everything Tori said about YA. Even reading descriptions of those weight-loss-equals-awesome stories makes me queasy.

  3. falconesse says:

    Thank you for your comments, Tori and Leah. YA is definitely one of the places I see it happen, and it kills me. I dread going back to some of the “summer makeover” type stories I read in junior high/high school and seeing how much of this was there for teen-me to internalize.

    Note to self: put Gilmore Girls on my to-watch list.

  4. Another viewpoint to add to yours. As a fat man, I get sick of the fact that whenever a male character is fat, he’s portrayed overwhelmingly in one of two ways: disgusting and/or evil, or stupid. Dale the Whale on the series Monk, who was so fat he was confined to a bed, always pictured shoveling food into his mouth, and a criminal mastermind. Fat Bastard from the Austin Powers films. Ned Beatty’s character in the original Superman (who even had the silly ‘fat man walking’ music associated with him whenever he was shown walking). Chunk in The Goonies. Vern in Stand By Me (which also features a story-within-the-story told by Wil Wheaton’s character about a fat boy who gets his revenge on the people who teased him (so, evil)). Any movie with John Candy. The computer programmer in Jurassic Park.

    It just goes on and on and on and on. Whenever a fat man shows up, he’s either stupid or evil, and always messy.

    Nero Wolfe may be an exception, but I’ve never read those. I couldn’t think of many from books off the top of my head.

    Sick of it, I am.

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