Reality in Fiction : Eatin' and Poopin'

Morning all. Surprisingly sunny March morning here in NJ - the kind where birds are singing and the window is open and sunlight's hitting the blinds in a lovely yellow-y way and I'm extremely suspicious it's all just a trick and winter isn't done with us yet.

 But it's sunny for now, and I'm warm, and happy.

Wanted to talk a bit about reality in fiction, if that makes any sense. Specifically, children's books, and the importance of knowing what is believable and what is dull.

Hogwarts' bathrooms matter because of what
happens in them. Ahem.
The average day in real life contains plenty of exciting and fit-for-fiction things. It also contains plenty of filler - the bathrooms breaks, meals, staring idly into space, watching TV, etc. The important distinction when you're writing a character is that things that stick out should be included, but you can rely on a reader assuming certain things will happen anyway. Why don't characters in fiction ever have to stop to pee? Because unless it's relevant to the story - it means something, relates to something, will cause the chain of events to alter - it means nothing and is wasted time. It doesn't destroy the suspension of disbelief that in a book set over two months we're never told someone farts. We don't need to be told they yawn or blink or breath or scratch an itch, because if they're written well, then we get that they're human. Unnecessary action distracts from the focus, making a story drag, destroying pacing, and losing readers. If a scene leaves someone thinking 'why is this in here?' then there's a problem, right? So characters do a lot of things we're not told about, because we're happy letting those things sit in the background, where the can build atmosphere and depth in the book, but keep the focus on a darn good story.

Eating meals is a different kettle of fish, it seems. While waking up and looking in the mirror has become a trite way to start a book - again, because it doesn't really mean anything at this point - it seems that meals have something more to them, and to miss them out is to take something away from a kid's experience with a book. Think of Harry Potter and all that flippin' food. The Hobbit and LOTR make a big deal out of food and making sure it's being stored and eaten well. Hunger as a motivation is something we can all understand - it becomes a literary tool rather than a simple recounting of what a person did before they left the house.

In fact today The Guardian has a tongue in cheek article dissecting different literary breakfasts and what they might all mean. Good to see second breakfast gets a mention.

So why eating and no poopin'? Because we can say things with food, its preparation, characters preferences, what happens if the get it wrong, or get hungry - and, especially for children, hunger is a relatable, driving force behind a lot of things.

Not every meal has to come up, but ones that impact the plot and the characters would be silly to overlook.

So what else should character do and not do? Do kids care if we're never told that the shower or brush their teeth? I'd say no, right up to the point where it becomes a part of the story - where it's commented upon, or it leads to an argument, or the tooth fairy comes, or the shower monster attacks, etc.

Porpoise. Not purpose.
I suppose the line, when writing, is to ask yourself: is this special? If these were taken out by and editor, would anyone notice, or care? Would anything else change because of it? If no to all those things ... well then, maybe you should dump it.

There are some great children's books with fantastic toilet humour and no meals - don't get me wrong. But they're there for a reason. The writer could justify and defend those scenes. And that's the clincher : purpose.  Things with purpose stay in stories. Things without it - well, ask yourself., why would you read something with no purpose at all?


  1. Great post. I've read a few books that mentioin characters using the bathroom, and it throws me each time. I always wonder why the writer felt the need to mention it. We know our characters do those things. However, I have to admit I've caught myself wanting to show my character brushing her teeth and washing her face, but common sense beat those urges back. If I havnen't written my character well enough for the reader to know she has good hygiene then I have failed. :)

    Like the new blog layout by the way.

    1. Thanks - still trying to find the layout that's everything I want it to be.
      I think it depends on the book a lot. A YA book or NA book could get away with brushing teeth a lot more, because of association or monologue. Since I write for MG it would be, like you say, a way to throw readers only

  2. Now I want to write about the shower monster. I KNOW there's one out there. There's got to be a reason I always check behind the shower curtains. :D