Thursday, 6 August 2015

Help your overweight character leap off the page!

The definitive guide to writing about an overweight character without letting it take over your story.  We need to think about how they gained the weight, how it affects their day-to-day life, what they want to do about it (if anything), and more.  All the info and guidance you need to make them pop ... because they're human and individual, too!  No more cliches! // Something Delicious

( ^ I don't find the woman in this stock photo to be overweight.  I had an extremely difficult time finding an appropriate photo for this post and finally decided instead to go with the theme of leaping off the page.  Yet another example of how woman over a size 10 are under-represented ... *sigh*)

Sally is severely overweight and dresses in baggy clothes all year round, no matter the occasion.  She starts running and eating salads and chicken breasts for most of her meals, and loses the weight steadily, without pause.  When she gets to her goal weight she goes for a makeover at the hair salon and comes out a new woman.  Oh, and she gets the guy she's been lusting after the whole book, but he loved her all along, no matter how she looked.

That's a little heavyhanded, but the few times I have read about a character who's overweight (and they're few and far between, especially as a main character), they almost always fit that description with little to no variation.  It's not representative of what it's like to be overweight, to lose the weight, or how it feels when you actually get to your goal weight.  They may be a fictional character but they are still an individual, and they have an individual story.

I'm not trying to say you shouldn't write about overweight characters.  On the contrary, I'd love to see them more often in fiction, but not if they're all like what we saw above.

Let's break it down, shall we?  How do we keep an overweight character from being a total cliche?

Things to consider


How overweight they are


  • Are they carrying twenty extra pounds?  40?  50?  100?
  • Where do they carry their weight?  (Tummy, thighs, everywhere?)
  • Are they obese, overweight or somewhere in between, according to their BMI*
  • Can they climb a flight of stairs without pausing to catch their breath, or does every step hurt? **

* BMI is not foolproof, partly because it doesn't take into account muscle vs. fat
** Someone who's 30 pounds overweight can still be in better physical shape and have better stamina than someone who's within a healthy weight range

How they became overweight


How your character became overweight in the first place is going to have a lot to do with how they relate to it now, and how they go about losing it (if that's something they want and need to do).

  • Did they gain weight during puberty and never lose it?  (Full disclosure: this was what happened to me.  In spite of having healthy meals and my mum's support, it wasn't until I was in my early twenties that I got back to a healthier weight.)
  • Have they been stress eating to cope with other stuff going on in their life?
  • Do they still have their pregnancy weight one/two/'X' years post-pregnancy?
  • Have they been working or studying (hello freshman 15!) so much that they rely on fast food and microwave meals for sustenance?
  • Sometimes it's about environment: having family members who are overweight means you're more likely to be, as well.
  • It could also be a medical issue, like their thyroid. *
  • Depression can cause weight gain, often because the thought of being active and fuelling yourself with good food either doesn't enter your mind or feels like way too much effort. *

* These could be whole posts in and of themselves, so I won't go into them in great detail here.  If you think one or both of these factors might be behind your character's weight, research, research, research!

How they feel about it


Not everyone sees being overweight as something negative; it's just the way they are, and dammit, you'd better accept them and love them anyway!  There's a lot of controversy around this, people on one side citing the importance of positive body image and "it's their life, respect it," and people on the other side saying they're in denial about how unhealthy they are.  Kelly Clarkson is a very current example of this (for the record, I think she's gorgeous) and her insights about it in an interview on the Ellen Degeneres show are definitely worth watching:


It's definitely worth spending some time figuring out how your character feels about their weight. Do they embrace it?  Do they try and hide it?  Do they avoid seeing people they knew in high school because they don't want their old classmates to see how they've changed?

Do they feel healthy?  Do they want to lose weight?  When they think about losing weight, does part of them resist because they're used to it, because it feels comfortable?

How they dress


Contrary to what certain clothing lines and sitcoms would have you believe, not everyone who's overweight wants to dress in either (a) tracksuits or (b) super flashy glitzy clothes.  They are still people.  Individual people, with their own clothing preferences.  Keep this in mind when you think about your character's style.

Do they try to hide in dark, baggy clothes, or do they have the money to spend on tailored, designer clothes?

Do they have a distinct style (vintage, preppy, grunge, punk, a combination) or a casual, "don't notice me" style?

Do they take care with their appearance or throw on whatever fits?  Often the latter isn't because they don't care but because they're trying very hard not to care.

Do they wear shorts or skirts, or do they wear full-length pants even when it's warm out?

Can they find clothes at Value Village and clothing stores, or do they have to go to stores that specialize in clothes for those above certain sizes?  It doesn't take much.  I struggled to find clothes in size 16 and up, partly because there's just not that much available and, when it is, it gets snapped up pretty damn fast.  Some people learn to sew their own clothes because they're tired of only finding generic clothing, if they can find it at all.

Don't underestimate how disheartening this can be ... realizing that summer has rolled around again and you can't wear your old, worn-through swimsuit anymore and that you have to get a new one (or just not go swimming)?  Getting asked out for drinks with friends or out on a date has a whole new level of stress when you try to find an outfit that makes you feel good.  Or when there's a funeral and you realize you have nothing appropriate to wear, and on top of everything else you're going through you now have to spend hours going from store to store, finding something, anything.

The people around them


Unfortunately, it's not just strangers who tend to have an opinion.  The people with the most vitriolic comments might be the ones who see your character every day, either at home or at work.  They may mean well, or they could just be insensitive, or even have passive aggression down to an art form, but comments like these may not be uncommon:

"Have you tried going to the gym?"
"I hear [insert latest fad diet] works really well."
"People would be lining up to date you if you just put in a bit of effort."
"Are you pregnant?"

If your character has a romantic partner, hopefully they're supportive of your character, whether they choose to lose weight or not, but they can also try so hard to be helpful that your character ends up feeling slighted or disrespected or unattractive or undesirable.  Even family members and close friends may do this.  It doesn't mean necessarily mean they're bad people, just misguided.

It's also entirely possible that your character is surrounded by people who accept them for exactly who they are, who love them and see them as beautiful or handsome (along with all the important non-aesthetic traits), and that's realistic, too.  Even in a fictional world.

Losing weight


Keep in mind that not every story with an overweight character has to involve them slimming down. It's possible that they want to do it sometime but just not right now, because they have other priorities.  They may be happy just as they are or that just may not be the focus of the story, and it really doesn't need to be.  Gilmore Girls' Sookie, played by Melissa McCarthy, is a perfect example of this.  She was one of the heaviest of the female leads on the show, but the show never once mentioned this.  She was just a beautiful, kind, neurotic woman, who also happened to be a brilliant chef and a wonderful friend.  There didn't need to be anything about her weight and there wasn't.

But let's assume your character does want to lose weight.  What do we need to figure out?

  • Have they tried to lose weight before?  How did it go?  Are they now back to where they started or did they hold on to some of their progress?  Have they learned from what they did last time?  Was it a quick fix, like an unsustainable fad diet?  Did they obsessively exercise to the point of injury?
  • What are they motivated by?  Is there an event they want to lose weight for, like a reunion? Do they want to set a good example for their kids?  Have they had a health scare?  Is it just the right time?
  • How will they go about it?  Saying they'll "eat less, exercise more" isn't enough.  If there's an abundance of unhealthy food in their diet, they could make a jumpstart by cutting the sugary drinks and Starbucks snacks to a minimum.  (True story: I lost my first 15/20 pounds by doing this, without changing my exercise routine one bit.)  Think, too, about the kind of exercise they'll do.  Someone who's 100 pounds overweight and spends their days on the couch likely isn't going to be able to hike a mountain, or even a steep hill, every day from the get-go.
  • Not everyone likes to run (I have read too many fictional stories these days about people who lose weight by running.  It works for some people, yes, but not everyone!!) Maybe they start swimming (the water helps support them as well as providing resistance for extra calorie burn), or riding their bike, or even just walking places rather than taking the car all the time.  Some kind of weight training, either at the gym or at home, is another component they might add in.
  • Other things to consider: consulting their family doctor, a naturopath, a personal trainer; enlisting the support of their partner, a friend, a family member; using workout/food apps on their phone.

Mission accomplished


So your character has made good on their promise to themselves and lost the weight.  Your job isn't over!  Keep in mind things like:

  • Losing weight too fast, without a doctor's advice (this is why they have all the medical consultants for The Biggest Loser) is dangerous to their health and may also leave them with saggy skin
  • You can be skinny but not toned.  Depending how they lost the weight, they may be at their goal weight but still feel softer and less fit than they want to.  That's where the weight training and various sports come in.
  • Weight loss doesn't just show itself in loose clothes.  Women can lose cup sizes.  Your feet may go from needing a wide shoe to an average one.  Your face slims down, as do your fingers, wrists, ankles ...
  • Insecure people who were used to them being overweight may try and sabatoge their efforts or minimize their accomplishment because they subconsciously wanted the character to stay as they were.
  • Having lost the weight can be a truly nervewracking experience, especially if the weight was something of a comfort zone or protective shell.  It may take a while to be comfortable with what they see as extra attention.  Even congratulatory comments might be overwhelming. They might also thrive on all the attention!
  • What will they do, now they've lost the weight?  How will they eat?  What will their workout routine be?
  • Rings may need to be resized.  There might be sentimental pieces of clothing which no longer fit.

Check out these articles for a couple more perspectives on the end result of weight loss:

Things that happen when your weight loss becomes noticable
Goal weight: achieved! But what now?

Bonus Questions


  • Have strangers ever commented on their weight?  How did your character react?
  • Has someone close to them commented on their weight?
  • How has being overweight shaped them?  Are they less judgmental of people who struggle with their weight?  Are they leading a fitness class at the gym?  Are they more open with themselves and those around them?
  • What experiences have they had while overweight they might not have had otherwise? Maybe it encouraged them to try a new activity, and they made a new friend, or discovered a career or hobby they loved.


And in the end ...


Now we've thought through these different aspects of writing about an overweight character, let's see how it might all come together:

Sally slowly but surely gained weight all through her university years as she juggled a double major as well as a part-time job.  She tried to eat healthy but was often too tired at the end of the day to make dinner, let alone exercise, so she relied on cafeteria meals and the occasional yogurt.  Now a few years out of school, she desperately wants to accompany her friends on a summer biking trip, but she can barely make it up the stairs in her building without losing steam.  Her boyfriend surprised her with a secondhand bike and has promised to ride along with her, at her own pace, over the next few months.  They've also committed to checking out the local farmer's market on a regular basis so they can incorporate more fruits and veggies into their meals ...

See?  Better already!

If you have anything to add to this post, either from personal or professional experience, please let me know - I'll be adding to it over time to make it as comprehensive as possible.  If you'd prefer to stay anonymous, that's absolutely fine: you can email me or use the contact form here.  And if this post has helped you with your story, I'd love to hear how it turned out!

(Disclaimer: I am not a medical or fitness professional.  Everything in this post stems from personal experience or research I've done over time.)

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