Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Characters of Size

I am a voracious reader. At times, I read four novels a week. Fantasy is always my first choice, and science fiction runs a close second, though I am a sucker for any well-written romance as well. I love paranormal romance (duh, right?), and historical, and I also love good spy books, and mysteries, and books packed with action, and stories with tormented characters. And warriors. Woo howdy.

One of the things that I love about all of these books is that they allow me to think about things I hadn’t thought of before, and think those things through. They allow me to venture into wilds I wouldn’t, or literally could not, dare, and then share the excitement, and the characters’ adventures.

They let me feel. In fact, they make me.

Sociologists will tell you that you can’t suspend emotion, and that means that when you watch TV, or read a book, you can't stop yourself from feeling emotions appropriate to the stimuli. Well, if you identify with the subject, that is. (Psst: that means that if I identify with the character, and get into the book, I'm going to feel everything she does.)

“I get you. I do. But, oh; romance is so trite!” I hear you saying, and you’re right. Or at least it sure can be. Formulaic is the technical term, and when you can predict every twist of the plot, any story has crossed the line into tiresome, and you're not likely to identify with anyone or anything within those pages.

In fact, one aspect of that triteness is precisely what I want to point out, and hope to convince other writers to cross off their formulas when they’re plotting out that next book.

Body size. Of women, in particular, but this applies to men as well.

So -- what does your main character look like?

If your main character is a size 3, with legs for miles, and a face so traditionally beautiful that every man she meets falls instantly in . . . er . . . “love” with her, she isn’t me. And do you know what? That means that I am instantly turned off. Distanced from her.

I can’t feel her, and in fact, I don’t want to.

I see you shaking your head. “Well, isn’t that the same as wanting to travel to exotic locales, and schmoose with royalty, and blah, blah, blah?”

No. It isn’t. I want to live vicariously through the character. I. Me. I want to do what she does, and to feel her. I want to bask in the sun on her face when she drives her Maserati, or have to catch my breath when her lover kisses her mouth.

And I can’t when she isn’t me.

Size fourteen is the average size that American women wear, and thirty percent of clothing sales go to the plus-sized women’s clothing market. (See, e.g., this). That means that most of us, the very, very vast majority, in fact, are not size 6. Or 8. Or 10 or even 12.

Here’s something else: I am sick and tired of manufactured, false, impossible (and ridiculous!) beauty ideals, ideas designed and propagated by perfume makers and clothing manufacturers and advertisers and a host of other corporate folks designed quite precisely to make women feel badly about not being what is physically impossible for them to be, and who will therefore buy more products that will presumably help make them feel less so. (See, e.g., About Face.)

But I digress (and trust me, I could go to town on this). Today, what I want writers of the various genres :I: read to understand is this: I am sick and tired of stick-figure heroines. They’re too pervasive, and too something I cannot, and frankly don’t want to, be, and even if I did, no matter how hard I try, I can’t make myself like (as in "alike" and as in "appreciate") them. And so while I might read a book once, once I discover who’s in there, if she is someone who isn't like me, I promise I won’t read it again.

If you’re biting your nails, desperately thinking up reasons why It Isn’t Going To Work, I will say, in the spirit of honesty, that not everyone will like it. That is true. But hey – that’s the case no matter what, and since most women aren’t physical caricatures, I’m betting that you’ll reach a far greater market segment by casting women whom readers can imagine themselves as cast in the starring roles.

Take my books, for example. All contain a normal-sized woman. One who has to wriggle to fit in airplane seats. And she meets an amazing man who falls in love with her. Oh – and she frees slaves and saves a country. 

And I have gotten nothing but accolades for casting her. And heartfelt thanks.

Want your books talked about, shared, and kept to be read again and again, and passed to daughters to read while Mom looks on with a hidden smile? 

Well, this might just be something to think about.


  1. Agreed that I'm tired of seeing the same caricature promoted as 'this is what you should look like. This is how men/your partner/your peers etc want you to look.' Not that I take any notice personally because I know it's unrealistic in the extreme. As long as I can chase after my kids without collapsing in heaving exhaustion, I'm happy with myself but I do worry how my daughter will view herself in the future.
    I based my main female character on me, or at least the 'me' who created her at age 18, because I 'know' that image; what she can do, what she feels/felt. But perhaps I've type-cast my others a little too much, not spent enough time visualizing them, and I will try to make a point of that in the future. Thanks Lauri.

  2. At the end of the day, I think people need to be as honest as you have been here. I cannot typecast my female characters into something that I'm not, and the same goes for everyone else (in my view).

    So I guess a good question would be: are all women who write size 8 and perfect (from a 'human' POV)?

  3. I just want some diversity. That's my point, I guess. I don't want to have to fight feeling bad when I read a book, and I don't want women with fewer tools made to feel badly about themselves either. Instead, I want characters with whom I can identify.
    Thanks, both of you, for the comments!

  4. (And I would posit that "perfect" is in the eye of the beholder. I, personally, think curvy [read: double-digit dress sizes] women are da bomb.)

  5. I couldn't have said it better. How can we learn to expand our personal beauty ideals when we have no other role models/characters than those who meet media standards of beauty? I like nothing better than a shero with a big enough body to encompass all her personality and smarts. :)