Giving Birth to Characters that Resonate


Authors of screenplays, novels, and short stories all face the same challenge: to create characters that are realistic, sympathetic, and relevant. Their mission is to create characters that, as the title of this post suggests, resonate. You might not like their personalities or motivations or agree with how they act. Yet you feel that within these pages lies a real person that I want to know.

A number of people in fat acceptance are authors, artists, and others that create works of art with fat-positive themes. Activists of all stripes create artwork that is specifically designed to normalize and promote the subjects of their artwork. The purpose is to integrate subjects into the artistic fabric of society when those subjects had historically been excluded or ridiculed. Fatshion is a case in point. Other examples of activist storytelling include stories with feminist themes, gay rights themes, those that focus on a particular ethnic community, and evangelical Christian message movies. (Don’t get me started on the Christian subculture. Gone are the Victor Hugos and Dante Alighieris of the world, let’s just put it that way.)

Every story has a target audience, whether it is Irish Bostonians, teenagers, PhD-endowed liberals, or Protestant old men. There is a time and a place for activist storytelling and for focus on a select audience, especially a historically oppressed audience. Political cartoons, stories for children and teens, and other activist storytelling can boost morale, communicate important themes in an eye-catching way, and educate. They remain in your mind long after it, and the cause it was advocating, is gone. I did not live during the Civil Rights era, but that footage of young black children being blasted with fire hoses and being attacked by dogs resonates all the same.

I am bisexual and have not felt any great pressure to hide that fact, but many other gay/les/bi teens have felt that pressure. I had conservative Republican parents, too, who were surprisingly accepting, though not thrilled. I read the anthology “Am I Blue?” when I was 14 and I loved it. “Am I Blue?” is diverse, well-written, and focuses on gay teenagers learning about themselves, acceptance, and community. That burgeoning sense of who you are, the excitement,  the fear and the joy, is a universal adolescent experience. It is a universal experience regardless of age for anyone who has ever felt caged in a world that did not understand them. I highly recommend “Am I Blue?” and I want to, once again, emphasize that activist storytelling can be both highly accomplished and highly necessary. “Captain Tommy” is a children’s book about the inclusion of children with autism in school and social life. Another good read.

Nevertheless, activist storytelling cannot consume an entire body of literature and there is an unfortunate tendency for activist storytelling to be agenda-driven. As “Am I Blue?” demonstrates, not all such stories are agenda-driven, but the genre lends itself to that tendency. The main idea and plot are to, somehow, create positive role models and promote the (assumed) agenda of the targeted demographic. Agenda-driven stories may evoke a powerful emotional response but they do not make for good storytelling and in some cases, can hardly be called storytelling at all. It is more like a lecture or a rebuke.

In Notre Dame de Paris, or in Dante’s Divine Comedy, there are layers upon layers of depth. The power-hungry religious officials are not always the heroes of the story. Rather, they might very well end up in the lowest level of Hell when they die. Others are profoundly heroic, but riddled with doubts and sometime hideous faults. Yet in spite of that, their heroism shines. In evangelical Christian movies, however, the Christians are always the heroes of the story with few substantial flaws or temptations. Incidentally, Hugo and Dante are widely renowned classic novelists and Christian filmmakers are trapped in a cultural ghetto.

With heinous, fat-hating stories like “Maggie Goes on a Diet” or “I Get So Hungry,” we need explicitly fat-positive stories to escape in, and we need powerful examples for young children so bombarded with sizist cultural forces. Someday, and perhaps this has already happened, it would be nice to read a story in which a character was just fat and to not have the fat, or the loss of it, be the focus of the plot. An alternative are stories in which fat is incidental to the plot, but not the sole focus, and the messages will be interwoven into the story as opposed to parading around with a neon sign.

In the Fat-o-sphere, non-fiction accounts of weight loss surgery have started to fill that niche. Many of these stories come from people who are not fat accepting whatsoever, but they are brilliant illustrations of the humanity and suffering of fat people and the pervasiveness of culturally sanctioned hatred against them. This is enough to give many people, if not a reason to embrace FA, a reason to give themselves pause. What is it that I support ever day, tacitly or otherwise? Kinder, gentler, that’s-so-awful-but-you’re-still-pathologically-fat bigotry is still bigotry and it’s not real progress. If we can get people to ask that question, though, we have successfully challenged the conventional wisdom, in their minds, that fat people choose to be fat and that fat is culturally privileged(!) We have successfully encouraged them to see fat people as people. Or so I hope.

I am trying to write a book, as I mentioned a while back. The characters are Christian, but they are in a constant state of doubt and sin. They also have virtues that shine through when you least expect it, the most important one being holding onto faith (in a general sense, not specifically a religious or Christian sense.) My hope is that, despite the many explicit and implicit religious references, the struggles and souls of the characters will be universal. Generally, I would say a book worth reading should resonate far and wide.

How to make characters that resonate:

Self-love is not a given. Of course fat characters should be given the opportunity to love themselves and to act on that love in an unabashed way. Yet stories that ignore the awkwardness that comes with having a different body, as well as the near universal cultural burden borne by fat people, will not speak to the whole fat experience.

Neither are virtues. Just as fat people are not required to be virtuous eaters or exercisers, fat people don’t need to be virtuous in general. They can also be like most people, virtuous in many respects but with some notable vices. The trick here is to not make fat into the proxy of those vices. Thin characters should also have notable vices, possibly even those vices that only fat people are supposed to have.

Keep political and cultural references to a minimum or weave them in. Politics and culture provide necessary context for stories. It provides setting, character development, motivation and external conflict. Activist storytelling often is consumed by advancing the politcal or social agenda of the story as opposed to letting the story unfold as it will. A well-written, engaging story will communicate whatever messages you want to communicate without having to point them out. Also remember that not everything has to have an agenda. You can communicate profound insights about people and the world by showing your characters living their lives and finding their place in the world. (I almost wrong ‘Church’ there. Freudian slip?) I did not get a lecture when watching the Disney version of Notre Dame de Paris, but I got the message loud and clear-a loving God, confronting prejudices, and the nature of good and evil. As a child, I could see this. As a child, I knew that the real reason Frollo wanted Esmeralda dead (at least in the movie) was because he could not admit he lusted for her and blamed her and Satan for “witchcraft.” You need to know what you want to say and have faith enough in your story to say it. This means you need to avoid making your characters mouthpieces for your religious, cultural or political views and making them iconic images of the background from which they come.

Universality. Culture-specific messages can and do have a place in story-telling, but the overarching theme should be universal. Make the culture-specific themes subservient and intertwined with the universal message. In “Am I Blue?”, despite being a piece of activist storytelling, achieves this. The characters come from a wide range of backgrounds and intersections. Some of them might come from “gay culture,” but many do not and there is not one gay culture either. While the focus is on GLBT issues, the over-arching theme is love, acceptance, fear, and self-discovery. Even straight cis people have those concerns about who they really are or may have been teased for being GLBT. Sexuality intersects with culture if you are an immigrant to this country from some place where the sexual rules are different. Avoid having your story being a manual to joining this or that subculture. Portray the subculture, but focus on the humanity of your characters.

Many of my characters have weight and body image concerns, disabilities, or hail from a particular religion or culture. It is a challenge not to get consumed with the references and to not assume that everyone can identify what they mean. When you as a writer see your characters as people first living. and you have a clear image of who your characters are, the messages, as I said, will unveil themselves naturally.

You do not find out right away that one of my characters has a deformity, or that she is heavier than what is considered normal. You find out later, but that experience is part of who that character is. Lucia Angeli Kennsington has a facial deformity and is disabled due to birth trauma. She has a mental and communicative handicap and she lives her life as an outsider looking in. Her weight, disability, and appearance increase the sense of isolation and “other” that fuels the conflict in her character arc. Those issues are secondary to the isolation and sense of “other” but without those issues, the conflict would not materialize in the same way. The story does not revolve around, “I’m fat, disabled, and not conventionally attractive, and I’m learning to like it.” It happens along the way.

It’s rule numero uno in writing: Show, don’t tell.

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2 comments

  1. Rubyfruit · September 23, 2011

    This…makes sense. As a former Evangelical I know what you mean by how the Christians are always the heroes. It…bothered me, even when I was in that subculture, that the stories didn’t reflect what I knew about those around me. They were characters, but they didn’t resonate with me.

    Then again one of my ideas was to write the Rich Famous Person Drama-subgenre of YA with a fat person as the main character, who while having her pick of Rich Pretty Guys, is also trying to kick a smoking habit despite her love for clove cigarettes and the dudes in bands who smoke them, and her best friend since they met at an all-girls school in pre-kindergarten is in love with her. Because love triangles are fun…to write, anyway.

    I have dumb ideas like that sometimes.

    • joannadeadwinter · September 23, 2011

      I don’t think it’s dumb. Fiction doesn’t have to be Deep and Serious and Ground-Breaking. It can just be fun, and fun fiction has more to offer artistically and intellectually than you might think.

      It also doesn’t sound like you are trumpeting an agenda and sacrificing the story to serve that agenda. It sounds like the everyday life of a fat person kicking it.

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