Weigh Your Characters Carefully

By Cheryl Owen Wilson

It’s a New Year and along with this New Year I’m certain either you, or someone you know, has made a vow to lose weight in 2016. You can’t pick up a magazine, turn on the TV or listen to the radio without being bombarded with advertisements promising a shiny new, lighter version of “you”. While I know the topic of weight affects men, since I’m a woman, and the mother of seven daughters, I’ll be addressing this issue from a female perspective alone. So please bear with me for a moment as I vent on a topic, which makes many women set up their New Year for failure, from day one. After I get down from by soapbox, I promise I’ll relate this back to the subject of writing.

Please note, I’m not talking about weight which is causing a person health issues. I’m a cheerleader for eating healthy and getting up off the couch and moving. In this age of information at our fingertips, we have easy access detailing how to live a daily, healthy lifestyle. I’m also quite aware of the flip side to this coin, that side being a person whom society considers too thin. I understand they too can have daily struggles as they try to gain weight.

What has me concerned is the airbrushed, C.G. (computer graphic) altered version of women we are continually shown we must achieve in order to be happy. Happy? In my humble opinion, happy should have nothing to do with an unrealistic number on a bathroom scale. Especially when the number you are told you should be at, for many women over a certain age, will mean they must spend the remainder of their years feeling hungry and deprived. Why, even Oprah has jumped on the weight loss treadmill once again. I’ve wondered over the years, while watching her up and down weight loss, would her career have taken off as it did, had the average American woman not been able to relate to her? What if she’d walked onto the stage from the beginning of her career in those size 10 jeans? Her current advertisement for a popular weight loss organization sounds good. “Let’s make 2016 the year of the best you.” It sounds very good, but is it still based on the number, on a scale?

Now that you have more of an understanding of my thoughts, let’s look at this from the perspective of writing. Think back to the book you are reading or the last book you finished. Do you know the weight of the main characters in the book? In a survey I did among friends, the answer was no. Upon further questioning, what we came up with was, unless the story is specifically about weight; either being severely overweight or severely underweight, the actual “numbers” were never seen on the written page of the book. I found it most fascinating that in a society so obsessed with “the number”, we could not find any in the books we read. We can find terms such as, svelte, willowy, six-pack abs (yes woman can have these too), big boned, chunky, and many more such words. My concern is the weight these words carry. They shape our idea, our view of what beauty looks like and we as writers perpetuate the myth that beauty equals perfection in looks, and the number on a scale. While I know there are certain genres, such as romance where this myth is more prevalent, we have all read in every other genre of fiction as well.

But what if I’m not writing about current day? What if I’m writing historical fiction? Well let’s look back in history to see what was considered beauty, in terms of weight, in our past. In the late 1400’s Botticelli’s paintings depicted quite voluptuous women, who had can you believe it—thighs! Then there were eras in our history when a person’s wealth was easily noted by their girth—a girth which would be considered fat in today’s society. The flappers of the roaring 20’s were quite svelte. Marilyn Monroe’s curvaceous figure in the ‘50’s was well documented, and finally we have Twiggy of the 70’s. I think her name says it all. So if I chose to write historical fiction I’d really have to pay attention to the weight of my characters in order to portray the era accurately.

This weighty subject has opened my eyes to how we as writers of current day fiction, might be playing into the hands of an unrealistic vision of beauty. Are we causing unnecessary distress in our readers as they see themselves in our characters? I’ve asked myself if I want to perpetuate this myth; the one fed to me, and my readers by popular media. For example, if my heroine has girth and is not svelte or willowy, will my readers love her just the same? Or do they want only a heroine planted in their minds by what they see and read, day in and day out? I personally have decided I don’t wish to provide future readers with an unrealistic ideal they may not be able to achieve. So in the future I’m going to strive to be aware of the weight of my characters and how my reader might see themselves in each and every one of them.

What are your thoughts on the weight of your characters?

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5 thoughts on “Weigh Your Characters Carefully

  1. Pingback: Weigh Your Characters Carefully | Mollie Hunt: Crazy Cat Lady Mysteries and more

  2. I am acutely aware of weight and description of women when I read. Sometimes “fatness” is equated with evil, it is refreshing to see a heavy protagonist. Think of Sherlock Holmes brother, Mycroft for example. And in movies I think of “Precious” a memorable movie about an overweight black girl and her struggles. One reason I like British films is they tend to use people that look like, well, people, including heavier women and men.

    • Cindy, on one of our first dates Jay took me to an Indie film (British) and I remember how blown away I was because the main character in the movie was a woman shaped like me and she was the love interest not the extremely thin woman who tried to come between them. Thanks for the reminder of that wonderful film wish I could remember its name now.

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