See that word, standing tall in the title like a lightning rod for feminist anger everywhere? That word is “fat.” And in the kind of world I’d like to live in – one where people saw my triathlon-completing, still-chubby wife and shout, “You go, girl!” – “fat” would be as neutral a descriptive term as “tall” or “bearded.”
But it isn’t. And partially as a result of the word “fat” getting weaponized as it is, you don’t see that many chunky women as heroes in books. Which I thought was a shame – I go to conventions, and I know a lot of really kick-ass fat women who are totally comfortable with their bodies, are whip-smart conversationalists, and have developed an active disdain for what you think because they’re happy. There’s a certain flavor of well-worn cockiness that only comes from having decided, against all of society’s expectations, that you are so goddamned pretty that people should feel happy to meet you. I wanted that in my book Flex.
Hence: Valentine DiGriz, hero of both Flex and the now-dropping sequel The Flux. Fat woman. Caustically sarcastic. Holder of many dubious kinks that complicate her love life. Ace videogame player – in fact, so ace that she’s turned her obsession with videogames into full-on magic, and can channel the power of Grand Theft Auto to go on hyper-violent cross-city rampages.
And an incredibly difficult character to write. Because every time I mentioned that she was overweight, I wound up punching someone metaphorically in the face.
It didn’t matter what word I used to try to describe her: “chubby” hurt a lot of beta readers. “Plump” also furrowed up a ton of bad memories for people. “Portly” made her sound like a goddamned sofa, and “rotund” didn’t cut it for a woman who had curves like Valentine. The problem was that because, in this society, merely calling someone fat becomes an insult, even describing Valentine as “fifty pounds overweight” made some women readers go, “Fifty pounds by whose standards?”
Yet I had to punch people in the face. Because I remembered the lesson of Rue all too well from The Hunger Games. Rue, if you’ll recall, was Katniss’s friend, who was explicitly described as having “dark brown” skin – but there’s a weird problem with our culture. If you don’t explicitly talk about how people vary from the “usual” person, then people tend to shift their perception of that person towards being thin, white, and hetero. And because Suzanne Collins didn’t go out of her way to bring up Rue’s African-American descent enough times, people quietly erased that fact from their memories until she became a small white girl. (Which later caused a so-hilarious-you-might-cry Twitter protest when an African-American girl was cast as Rue, and people said, “You can’t cast a black girl as Rue!”)
I guess I could have mentioned Valentine’s weight once, and let the dumber readers quietly replace her with a pretty thin girl – but given that I thought Valentine’s weight was important both in terms of representation and who she came to be, I decided I was going to bring it up enough that it would be impossible to mentally Photoshop her into someone more model-like. (That’s Valentine on the cover of The Flux, and it may be the only time in Urban Fantasy covers that Photoshop has been used to add pounds to a model.) So every time I write a ‘Mancer novel, I shim in moments where I remind people that yes, Valentine has just gotten off that zinger, and saved the day with judicious usage of MMORPG cool-down timers, and she is also chunky.
Which requires a lot more beta-readers. I have to keep going through and either putting more “Don’t forget Valentine’s physical look” moments in, or taking them out if they start to feel too punchy. The goal is to do it just often enough that you can’t forget who she is without feeling like I’m stabbing you in the throat with her look.
That’s turned out to be a net positive for the series, though. Valentine is by far the most popular character in the series, and a lot of her fandom is from women. They like seeing someone who’s fat and not represented as someone who has to change. No, Valentine’s happy the way she is, and she has a lot of other hobbies and interests aside from “being fat” that make her – well, I was gonna say “a role model,” but I think what people also respond to is seeing a woman who’s distinctly not out to be anyone’s role model. She has bad taste in men, which she is the first to admit, choosing slender pretty-boys based on her love of kink over actual compatibility. She’s slovenly. She swears too much, especially in front of Paul’s eight-year-old daughter, where she will cheerfully describe how “ovipositor impregnation” works to his kid without blinking.
But she’s also fiercely loyal, fearless, and ferocious. Her loyalties are stretched to the breaking point in The Flux, when she’s asked to sacrifice her personal happiness in order to help the family’s stability, and things… Do not go well.
Yet even with all of that, some people still miss the point that Valentine is a positive entity in the books. One review that stuck in my craw said Flex was filled with clichés, including – and I quote – “the fat unattractive friend.” Look, buddy, the novel explicitly states that Valentine is beautiful, and the number of paramours she’s courting backs that up. If he read that as “unattractive,” that’s because he’s a biased puddle of poo who saw the word “fat” and immediately shut out any evidence to the contrary. And I, sadly, cannot help that.
There are three lead characters in my book The Flux. One of them is fat. She’s got a lot of other qualities to her, just like Paul is technically an amputee and his daughter Aliyah is technically a burn victim, but there is far more to her than that one descriptor.
In fact, pretty much the whole point of Flex and The Flux is that people are more than the biggest thing people happen to notice when they first look at you. Frankly, that’s a lesson I’m happy to teach.
Ferrett Steinmetz is a graduate of both the Clarion Writers’ Workshop and Viable Paradise, and has been nominated for the Nebula Award, for which he remains stoked. Ferrett has a moderately popular blog, The Watchtower of Destruction, wherein he talks about bad puns, relationships, politics, videogames, and more bad puns. He’s written four computer books, including the still-popular-after-two-years Wicked Cool PHP. He lives in Cleveland with his wife, who he couldn’t imagine living without.