Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Why My Protagonist is Skinny

Figures. As writers, it has to come to our minds, doesn't it? One of the first things we develop is how the main characters look. And in particular, it seems that weight is a hot topic.

I wanted to briefly touch on a stereotype in fiction, especially romantic fiction that deals with a woman’s body type. The average woman’s weight in America, according to the CDC FastFacts page, is about 166 pounds. But I’d estimate the average heroine’s weight to be more like 110...if that, even. There have been lots of articles on this particular topic, but I would like to add my voice as a Fantasy writer who enjoys a good Regency Romance when not actually writing something.

I think we all know the stereotype I’m thinking about. Tall or short, the woman generally has a well-endowed bosom, trim waist, and narrow hips. There are variations, but it’s pretty safe to assume that the majority of heroines are not overweight, and certainly not “plus-size.” There are plenty of advocates out there calling for some sort of fiction revolution to better represent the average woman’s size, but that’s not actually my focus.

I wanted to tell you why I went with the norm.

My first character, Wynn, is petite. She’s short and slim, and I wanted to give her a soft, almost fragile feel. This is a quintessential example of the dainty damsel, and it’s not new. So if I and many other authors are fully aware of this, then why do we keep making our girls look like models?

Before I get to my answer, I remember reading an FAQ for a popular romance writer (I honestly can’t remember her name as it was years ago), and one of the questions has really stuck with me. The question was the same one I asked above: “Why are all your heroines skinny and gorgeous?” Her answer was that the heroes just saw the women that way, and she wasn’t necessarily describing their weight so much as the fact that the hero saw her as a living vision of Aphrodite.

Well that’s…nice, but I remember calling bullcrap, in my head. Maybe she meant it, but it felt like a cop out to me. And that’s why I’m going to be honest when I answer this question.

I did it because I don’t have the kahunas to do otherwise.

That, first and foremost, is why my main character is easily imagined as a model. In my experience, a pretty woman who fits “Hollywood image” is what readers really want. And I want readers to pick up my books. So I chose a standard slim woman so it would be easy for you, the reader, to imagine her in your mind.

There are other more practical reasons that Wynn is thin: She’s an orphan constantly on the run, her life is quite physically taxing, and she doesn’t get many home cooked, substantial meals. So it did make sense to have her be thinner, but I freely admit that I conformed to manikin character size because I assumed that’s what everyone would want.

As I have thought more about this topic, I do find myself wanting to give my next character some real curves. Whether or not I actually do it will depend entirely on the book and the character. As much as I’d love to stand up for real women (like myself), I don’t want to take readers out of the story with it, either. I like to write action/adventure books, and generally my main characters have to have some modicum of physical fitness or they’d never be able to save the day. I just imagine myself running up a mountain to escape the talons of a vicious, man-eating harpee, my baby belly jiggling, until I fall in an exhausted heap and eat Reese's Pieces until the harpee catches up with me. Not very attractive. Or heroic. And I'm an average woman's size more or less...but I'm no action heroine!

Still, it’s a thought to ponder. I want our society to appreciate the softer, pronounced curves of a real woman, of a confident woman who, like me, is kind of in love with chocolate. But as a writer I also want to please my readers.

 So what do you think? Would you like to see more curvy women in novels? Or do you prefer the smaller image? I’d love to hear of books you’ve read that “break the mold,” or your opinions on the subject!


  1. I must admit I don't tend to actually imagine any character as particularly thin, I just read a book where the characters were mostly ballet dancers and they still weren't overly thin in my head, just kind of normal looking. I think it all depends on how your head works though! And my head is strange, I'm the first to admit that!

    - Laura, reviewer at trips down imagination road

    1. Perception is a great point! Whether or not I make her how to be a certain way, many times a reader will envision what they want. Example: When I read the Twilight books I couldn't imagine Edward without black hair. I tried, but I just couldn't!

  2. One that comes to mind off the top of my head is _Libriomancer_ by Jim Hines. The female lead, Lena, is a martial arts badass, brown woman who also happens to be curvy, buxom, and plump.

    1. Interesting! I may have to check that out, actually. Sounds cool!

  3. In "The Gunslinger", one of the first people the rugged male protagonist comes across is not just a "curvaceous" woman, but a genuinely, hugely OBESE one! And, while the woman turns out to be a bad guy, the protagonist does end up in bed with her. It also went into some detail about what being in bed with her was like, rendering the whole thing a surreal, somewhat gross feeling.

    That book was published in 1970, and greatly surprised me. I appreciated it and was grossed out at the same time. I'm all for curves on a lady in fiction, but I don't know how far to go with that. Everyone has their own thing they like, and I think fiction that includes overweight women will *definitely* find an audience.

    For my fiction, I picture my characters in very specific ways. Usually beautiful and fit, but nowhere near alike. One is short and *not* buxom, but quick; one is *very* curvaceous, but this is due to using dark magic much of her life; yet another is reminiscent of LOTR's elves in her appearance.

    I think most women want to be skinnier or more buxom, so they make their characters that way. Or guys like that form, so they write about it. I don't see anything wrong with it, but seeing a heroine that was less-than-beautiful would be awesome. :D

    1. I *almost* read Gunslinger. Almost. Stephen King scares me, though.

      However, you make some really interesting observations! A main character who is ah...too unhealthy...would be more than just a challenge, and like I said above, I worry that it would take the reader out of the story too much.

      It sounds like your characters are pretty interesting, and I did try to add some diversity to characters who come later (in Inito specifically). But you are right when you say women usually want to be a certain way, and men tend to like that bosom-heavy, skinny waist girl. It's being able to break that mold in the *right way* that will make a difference.

  4. When I think of "petite" heroines, Laurell K. Hamilton's Anita Blake comes to mind. She's petite, but VERY athletic - that said, she's still pretty tiny. So she packs heat, and uses it a LOT. Hamilton comments on this occasionally, along the lines of having the character say things like, "well, you are big powerful vampires, I'm just a tiny little human, so, no, I'm not leaving my weapons at the door."

    I read your post and started thinking of the kind of hero I'd like to write about and about how a "girl like me" (I'm a solid size 14, but tall and curvy) could be a heroine. Definitely not by out-running anyone, or by out-hitting anyone. Maybe by a combination - one great hit and run-like-hell to the nearest safe haven. But more likely it'd be by out-braining someone, or out-personalitying someone (think Dorothy Parker). But I don't know how to write that. Out-running, out-gunning, and out-manning are all much easier.

  5. To be honest, I prefer women with curves. Often times the author is trying to describe some sort of mega hot or "perfect" vision of a woman, and for me it often falls flat because they are often depicted as skinny, vulnerable, need protecting..etc. Give me a Xena any day over that.

  6. I think this is a really interesting topic, and one I have never thought of before. I tend to imagine my characters average sized, not too skinny, but not particularly curvy either. However, I do not think it would make a great difference to the story, especially if weight has nothing to do with the theme. I would like to see more curvy characters thought.

  7. i feel that it all depends on the subject and how real you want to be. if you are going for fantasy, there's nothing wrong with adding some Aphrodite looks around....however, if you want to set your story in the real world i would prefer to see someone real, real characters with flaws and also with looks that will be totally base in reality.

    i personally feel that it is enough that we set a standard in regards to how a character should look or should be physically...i think that there's nothing wrong with some thickness or curves or some curvatures that are more akin to what a real woman should look. i feel that the difference is in how you want the story to unfold....characterization and the personality of the character is paramount in any story, and to be honest, usually is the reader who ultimately will set the "view" and possible "look" of the characters you create.

  8. The Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson does an excellent job of breaking out of that mould. Her heroine is truly heroic, but she is not a thin little woman.

    I say stay true to the character. If the situation is that there's no way this character could be obese, then goodness, don't try to make him or her that way! But sometimes, making characters have more weight can add to their character. Sometimes, it gives it a sense of relatability to people and real life. It's definitely a case by case basis.

  9. I recently read a doozie by an unpublished author. The story was fantastic but the descriptions of the heroine were bordering on pornographic. errrg. I was a little disappointed.

  10. I have a female protagonist who is bald and has tattoos on her head. She's forced to wear a wig because her antagonist employers think she has a "pretty face." I don't really describe her body in any way, but I guess she's athletic? Maybe something I need to think more about. I didn't really describe her as being a specific way, maybe because I'm writing from 1st person. I'm interested in this sort of discussion since I'm a male writing my first female protagonist.

  11. Your honesty is awesome. Writers need to sell to buy groceries and make rent, and as another author I say there's nothing wrong with that!

    I think fantasy novels are the best places to introduce serious issues, but it works better when those issues aren't the main focus. I try to slip in serious issues on the sly to get people thinking about them, but I don't make them the main focus of the story, because nobody buys fantasy to be preached to! I do address weight as a side topic in my story, but only because I barely describe my protagonist. She's got a couple of curves--something her male love interest appreciates, having dealt with the repercussions of too-low body fat (he's struggled with an unhealthy relationship with food himself, stills needs reminders to eat when he's stressed out, goes to therapy, and because of the magic his family has, the women can't maintain a high enough body fat percentage to be able to have kids.) But weight isn't the theme of the book--the hero is trying to save most of her family and everyone else in the American South from a bubble of magic, but at the risk of losing the only survivor (her twin) and her love interest. All those side issues take second seat to the adventure, so while readers get exposed to things that make them think, they're having fun the whole way.

  12. I agree that it made sense to write Wynn as you did, as well as why you went with "the norm" to sell books. I myself have thought at times that there is too much of the same "look" between characters in both books and movies. Literature period.
    My protagonist, Kota, as well as all my female characters aren't "skinny" but I guess you could call it healthy-skinny. They're lean and toned, they're strong. Kota lives in Colorado, hunting and hanging out with a group of guys. She's headstrong and competitive enough to keep up with the guys, which is also why she looks like she does. Haha but like me, she is lacking in the bosom department, but I did that on purpose. For me, I thought giving her that lesser feature especially made her a little more real in her appearance alone. But all in all, as long as it makes sense, I don't really have any problem with what the character looks like.

  13. This is a great topic for discussion, and I appreciate your honesty about why you made your character, Wynn, thin and attractive.
    I always picture my female characters as strong. It doesn't have to be both physical and mental, but their build still reflects that idea. Because of this, they're kinda built like a lot of women - not heavy, but no Barbies, either. I'd say 150-170, realistically. And for me, the story doesn't revolve around what they look like or how much they weigh, so the reader can create the finer details on their own. The point I want to get across is that they have builds suitable for their lifestyles - whether it's my female reaper (a warrior who kicks undead butt), or my female cop (who's got a huge chip on her shoulder and always feels like she needs to be as tough as the job necessitates).