Where is the dividing line between describing a character’s physical characteristics and stereotyping him or her? And should this be an issue for teen and young adult fiction?
Some children’s writers
have commented that they don’t go into their characters’ physical descriptions to
avoid saying fat, plump, skinny, thin etc, unless their book is addressing the
issue of eating disorders. This is because apparently many more kids today
suffer from eating disorders. That might well be true, I don’t know.
Perhaps I’m wrong, but
I don’t see the “fat/thin issue” as being an issue in teen/young adult
I’ve got an overweight
boy in my current WIP. He’s black and he’s being bullied. It’s not the central
theme of the book. I describe him as plump, but incidentally. Another character
in my WIP is very skinny. Neither of them suffer from eating disorders. It’s
just the way they are. Their weight is not an issue in the book and it’s not an
integral part of the story. The overweight character is not bullied because
he’s overweight. He’s not particularly lazy or greedy. The very skinny
character is not anorexic. I could take out the descriptions but I’m reluctant
to because they are relevant in our understanding of the characters and how we
see them. Also because I don’t think I’m reinforcing any stereotype or somehow causing
offense or upsetting younger more vulnerable readers.
When kids are under 10
they rarely notice things like the size and colour of their classmates – it’s almost
never how they define them. That awareness comes in at some point in middle
school and is definitely there by secondary school. Under 12s look for
different things in fiction because they’re still seeing the world in a very
different way. Yes, their outlook is far more innocent. By the time they reach
their teens, their awareness of the distinctions that so pre-occupy adults has increased,
and they are less innocent. So maybe as a writer for younger kids, the line
between describing a character and reinforcing a stereotype is closer.
One of the commentators
on the blog last week was a teen who said she quite liked reading about spotty
teens because she was a spotty teen. Reading about spotty characters didn’t
give her a complex about being spotty or make her feel that she was being
singled out as a stereotype. Reading about an overweight teen does not equal
lazy teen or bullied teen or greedy teen. A skinny teen does not equal anorexia
or bulimia or body image paranoid teen.
The world is populated
by all sorts of different people who are all sorts of different sizes and all
sorts of different colours. Describing a physical attribute is not the same as
pigeonholing that physical attribute with a way of being treated or viewed by
I guess stereotyping
people should be avoided, but not to the extent where writers become afraid of
describing how they look and who they are.