The Fat Bird – an atypical protagonist

Fat BirdI needed a strong central female character for Singled Out; a woman in her early to mid-forties, perceptive, bold and shrewd. When it came to physical appearance and with one eye on Hollywood (see how optimistic I can be!) I could have gone for an Angelina Jolie, a Julia Roberts or a Gillian Anderson type – lithe, slender, unsettlingly striking.

But I’ve gone for a fat bird. Yes, my protagonist – early to mid-forties, perceptive, bold and shrewd – is unapologetically overweight.

But let’s be clear, this isn’t your stereotypical one-dimensional fat bird. You know the cliché; the friendless, clumsy lump, drifting round in a cloud of body odour, stuck in a dull job and spending her evenings in front of the TV stuffing her face with donuts and chocolate whilst fantasising about an imaginary boyfriend. If she’s in a novel or a TV series, she’s the one that’ll get murdered, her corpse lying undiscovered in a secluded attic flat for months until her bodily fluids seep through the floorboards and attract attention. Or she’s the deranged axe wielding perpetrator, desperate for affection and driven to heinous crimes by her loveless, empty life. So far, I’m afraid, so very predictable.

That’s not my girl. Not even a little bit.

In the great tradition of novice writers I’m writing what I know – at least in part – because I’m overweight too. I’m a lifelong yo-yo dieter who has spun into middle-age at the wrong end of the string. Depending on your perspective, I’m fat, plump, obese, tubby, lardy, big, broad-beamed, heavy, chubby, chunky, stout, podgy, ample, fleshy, well-rounded, plus-size, large, buxom, curvaceous, womanly, cuddly, curvy, rubenesque, bountiful, abundant, voluptuous and any number of other flattering and not-so flattering descriptors.

Apparently, novice writers are wont to base a main character on themselves. But I’m sorry to disappoint you; whilst I wouldn’t mind being my female protagonist, and whilst she and I share one or two other characteristics, I’m really not her. I understand the physicality and the occasional self-confidence issues of someone who carries extra pounds and I thought it would add a non-stereotypical dimension to my character – and that’s more or less where it ends. I’d love to have her boldness, and her hair, come to that. But she has frailties and failings that…  Well, that would be telling, wouldn’t it? Anyway, they are frailties and failings I like to think I don’t possess. I have others, but that’s not what we’re here to talk about.

When it comes to my abundant, warm yet troubled female lead, I’ve played it deliberately vague on the question of size. That’s because what’s fat to one, is curvaceous to another, what’s blubbery and revolting to one is alluring and magnificent to another. My readers get little – actually nothing – in the way of specifics. No height-to-weight ratio, no Body Mass Index, no speak-your-weight scales, no dress size – nothing… um… concrete.

Aspects of her physicality reveal themselves here and there but the biggest (sorry) clues the reader will get are from the other characters, who respond to her according to their own perspectives, prejudices – and desires. She could be a size 16 or a size 26 for all the reader knows, and I imagine each reader will see her differently.

As to how I see her – I’m not telling. If you encounter this woman within the pages of my debut novel, you’ll need to imagine her yourself; and the persona you conjure up will be informed by your own perceptions and preconceptions, alongside all the other clues to her character, spirit and style.

I just hope I’ve done a good job of bringing her to life.

18 thoughts on “The Fat Bird – an atypical protagonist

    1. Thanks! I’m still pressing ahead with agent submissions, with fingers and toes firmly crossed. But if all else fails, I will self-publish in due course.

  1. Jools, what a clever and unique idea to give your protagonist a physical trait we all recognize, without the specifics. It adds a whole new dimension (ahem) to knowing the character. When will those agents get off their duffs so we can learn more?

    1. Oh, Perry, I love you! 🙂 I think I’m going to print out your comment and attach it to each of my submissions!

  2. I think your protagonist sounds fabulous. I’m a believer of less is more and veered away from any physical description of my main characters because I wanted readers to make up their own mind based on their behaviour and unrestricted by race, build or looks, but using description as a way of countering stereotypes (and appealing to a large and growing demographic – no pun intended) is a fantastic idea. Tell those agents to hurry up!

    1. She is fabulous in many ways, yes. And I hope the reader will root for her. In my early writing I got a lot of positive feedback on her physicality, so it stuck!

      Agents… ah, agents… another rejection today. 😦 I may need to learn more about this self-publishing thing from you, Dylan.

          1. Only do it if you’re sure. It’s not a panacea, for every advantage there are disadvantages too. I don’t regret it myself but that is because it suits my needs, but realistically the only way to sell a lot of books this way is to write a lot of books.
            If your dream is to become traditionally published, don’t give up with the submissions. If, however, you are happy to have minimal sales but the knowledge that someone, somewhere got to read and enjoy your work, then I’d be honoured to help.

          2. You read me well, Dylan. It was a moment – that moment, when you see you’ve received an email from an agent. It’s like that envelope from the Premium Bonds… It arrives and for a minute, you toy with the idea that you’ve won the jackpot. And then you open it and you’re back to reality. For now, I’m pressing on – I still have a few agents I want to approach, along with a couple of networking opportunities coming up in April. I’m thinking, maybe the far side of the summer, maybe then I might think about other options. It was just a moment this morning – not helped by the grizzle of toothache. I do hope in the meantime that you blog once or twice more about your self-publishing experience, how you’re marketing (if you’re marketing) and so on. I guess that’s the big challenge with self-publishing – if you don’t bust a gut marketing yourself, nobody else will do it for you.

  3. I loath stereotypes of all kinds – even the apparent “positive” stereotypes really grate on me for the lazy writing that they present us as readers / viewers.

    I too have a female protagonist in my book currently being look at by publishers. One character describes her as “fat” but another upon meeting her for the first time smirks because though he acknowledges that she is overweight, calling her “fat” is stretching it a bit. Based on the women I know personally, and knowing their body sizes, I imagine my character to be size 14 or 16 and about 5’4″ tall.

    1. It’s all about personal perception. If you’re a supermodel, then size 2 is ‘fat’! But you touch on just the point I’m making – that each character, and each reader, will make their own assumptions. My character’s size (whatever it is) is not significant to the story (other than to be a non-stereotype), except to flesh-out (sorry) that side of her which is indulgent and hedonistic. But it’s also interesting to watch how other characters come to regard her, and that’s perhaps the more telling aspect of her physicality.

  4. Much more fun to have characters that break the hero/heroine molds. I love the way your ‘fat bird’ keeps moving from pillar to pillar (lust, loathing, fun, scary) depending on the eyes of the beholder. She’s also made me realise quite what a scroat I am in the getting dressed department… Must do better!

  5. I love your super-sized protagonist. She is a celebration of beauty and indulgence, breaking the stereotype that to attain the former, one must deny the latter. Her size makes me warm to her because it creates interest and is a refreshing change from skinny main characters. And you ‘write what you know’ to add those little touches that really bring her to life.

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