Welcome to another Expanded Universe column where I feature essays from authors and editors of fiction, poetry, and non-fiction, as well as from established readers and reviewers. My guest today is Sarah Hollowell. Sarah is definitely not several raccoons in a trenchcoat. Her poetry (not about raccoons) has been in Apex Magazine and her essays (also not about raccoons) have been featured on The Butter and The Gloss. You can follow her on Twitter @sarahhollowell.
Hey, it’s my friend Chester the Corgi! How you doing?
I’m good I’m good I’m great I just got back from walks and now I’m gonna work on my novel!
Oh yeah, Magic Space Girl! It’s a young adult novel, right?
Yeah! When my human is gone I read her books and she loves YA and I thought she’d love it if I wrote YA so I’m writing this YA and it’s about a girl named Kimberly who finds out she’s a space witch but the space witches are dying so she has to travel to another galaxy to save them!
That’s a really awesome idea and I can’t wait to read it! I’ve noticed something, though–you keep describing Kimberly as things like slender and slim.
Yeah! But I think I might change it to “skinny with long limbs she’s never gotten used to” and then in later books – this totally has trilogy potential – she’ll be confident and then I can use slender!
Because she’s skinny.
Yes, but why?
Well that’s…that’s what they look like. Right? My human has a lot of books and I’ve read almost all of them and that’s what the girls look like!
Why not make her fat?
I don’t think girls in scifi or fantasy books are usually fat.
But you could use this opportunity to break the mold. Make Kimberly fat.
I don’t know…there’s a lot of running across strange planets and you don’t really see fat people in space I mean there aren’t plus-size spacesuits right?
Plenty of fat girls can run, Chester! Isn’t your human kind of fat?
Yes yes yes that’s true! She’s really soft and really good for snuggles.
And you guys go running together on your walks.
She likes to run yeah but sometimes I just stop and stare at her and she says “Chester why are you just staring at me” and then “Chester come on it’s cold” and “Chester please do your business”
The point is, she’s fat, but she likes to run. And there are plenty of skinny girls who don’t like to run. Kimberly is skinny right now, but she never ran before finding out she was a space witch! Why is it that she can run across a strange planet, but fat Kimberly couldn’t? Also, remember, Chester, it’s your world. You’re making it up! You can have plus-size spacesuits in your made-up world.
Yeah yeah okay I think that makes sense. But…what’s wrong with having a skinny protagonist?
There’s nothing wrong with it, not really, it’s just…Here. Let’s do this. Imagine that you’re a fat teenage girl.
I’m a dog.
Okay but you’ve had to put yourself in the shoes of a skinny teenage girl to write your novel. So just make her fat instead.
Yeah, you’re right. Okay. Okay. Let’s go.
You’re a fat teenage girl, and you love YA. You especially love scifi and fantasy. Space? Hell yeah. Magic schools? Hell yeah. Magic schools in space? Sign you up. And everyone says dystopias are out of style, but you still can’t get enough. Got it?
So you read all these books, as many as you can, and it becomes difficult not to notice a pattern. You realize all the girls in all the books are just different kinds of skinny. You can’t for the life of you find a girl that looks like you. Books are supposed to help us dream and dream big but you’re starting to feel like you’re just too big to dream. You’ve read a couple books where fat girls get to be loved in the real world, and that’s wonderful, but fat girls don’t get whisked away into alternate worlds and told they’re a long lost princess. Fat girls don’t get to see the magical underside of New York City. Fat girls don’t save planets.
I guess… I guess it would be really hard to see that over and over. It would start to feel like the books you love so much don’t really care about you and then how could you wag at all???
It does get hard to wag. But skinny girls are told over and over again that they can have all those adventures, especially if they’re also straight, cisgender, and white. They have thousands of books. Shouldn’t fat girls get some, too?
You’re right. But what can I do? I’m just one corgi with a dream of having the next bestselling YA trilogy turned into a multimillion dollar film franchise.
You can make Kimberly fat. Think of what Magic Space Girl could mean to fat teenage girls everywhere, who just want to really believe that they, too, could be one of the last of the space witches.
But how do I do it right? I don’t want to try to write a fat character and then have her end up doing more harm than good. I don’t want my human to be sad with what I write.
Good boy, Chester! That’s a really good question! You’re such a good dog, yes you are!
It’s important when writing someone different from you to be respectful and accurate, because bad representation can do real harm, especially when there’s not that much representation out there in the first place.
Since you aren’t, in fact, a fat teenage girl, there’s a lot you can get wrong, maybe without even knowing it. Here’s what you do: Research. Read up on what it’s like to be fat. Get on your human’s laptop and check out some fat activists. See what they have to say about fat oppression, fat positivity, and fat representation. You’ll learn a lot just from reading what we’re saying about our lives in the real world.
Read about what fat people want to see in our fictional representation – and what we’re sick of seeing. Find out what we’ve liked, and why we liked it. Find out what we’ve hated, and why. Fat people aren’t a monolith, we’ll have differing opinions, but there’s definitely some stuff we commonly agree on. Make sure to check out the Size Acceptance in YA blog, which has loads of great resources!
That’s a lot of work…
It is, but trust me, it’s worth it if your book can let even one fat girl out there know she isn’t being forgotten.
Okay. I’m in. I’m going to make Kimberly fat. I’m going to do the research and I’m going to do it right and my human is going to love it and she’ll give me treats and–
Hell yeah, Chester. Now, let’s talk about intersectionality…
Readers, what kind of character representations do you want to see more of in your SFF/YA? One lucky commenter will win a book from our Stacks.