no one poops in fantasy

So, like I do every year, I’ve been rereading Diana Wynne Jones The Tough Guide to Fantasyland (if you have not read it, go and do amazon’s free sample, you won’t be disapointed) and, as usual, feeling deeply ashamed of myself. Aside from my usual crimes of color coding (what… bad guys like wearing black… right?) and footwear that not only never wears out, but never smells and never gets waterlogged until plot appropriate. And, as always happens when I’m ruminating on things I got wrong, I always come back to what I see as my worse crime as a writer, which is something both simpler and far more sinister than impossibly convenient footwear.

My characters, simply put, are not human. Over the course of 2 books, I have fed my primary cast of 4 healthy adults the following:

  • a sandwich
  • a handful of fruit tarts
  • one scrawny rabbit
  • a loaf of bread
  • a bottle of wine, which no one got the chance to drink
  • a bowl of stew

Forget final confrontations, my characters will die of starvation before they even reach the climatic battle. Also, as the title would suggest, I haven’t had so much as a mention of a restroom, out house, or latrine pit in almost 150,000 words. Realistic characters eat and sweat and poop just like people, right? I’m a bad writer, a hack, woe woe!

Then I stop woeing and think. How many people – scratch that, how would I like to read a fantasy where people eat regular meals and use the restroom… on screen, so to speak? Sounds like a weird mix of gross and boring. I mean, there’s still no excuse for not feeding my characters a little more realistically, but no one reads fantasy novels looking for a real life SIM. They read them for magic, larger than life characters, and engrossing world building.

This is the lesson I relearn with every novel. In the end, I’m not writing a realistic novel, I’m writing a fantastical novel. While details like stones in shoes and a love of fresh bread help make characters real, there’s such a thing as TMI, even in novels. We know people have biological needs, but we’re reading the book to see how the hero’s going to get out of this mess, not to see what he’s having for dinner.

In the end, the dragon is way more exciting, right?

4 Responses to “no one poops in fantasy”

  1. July 19, 2009 at 7:42 pm

    Thanks for the laugh! I do think about that when I’m writing, but ignore the impulse.

  2. July 19, 2009 at 8:57 pm

    I recall, back in the 1970s, reading a novel called PARSIFAL (I think…by Richard somethingorother), which was an attempt to fuse fantasy with full-on literary. The ONE scene I remember from the entire book was the one where a giant takes an enormous dump in a bucket. This is described in careful detail over a couple of pages.

    I’ve never forgotten it. It comes back to me at the oddest moments, a literary flashback. Apparently this one scene left me with prose PTSD, and it certainly makes up, single-handedly, for any lack of excretory function in fantasy literature as a whole.

  3. July 19, 2009 at 9:21 pm

    George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire certainly pictures people eating, vomiting and defecating. A powerful man is even shot with a cross bow while pooping in “A Feast for Crows.”

  4. July 20, 2009 at 8:17 am

    I also seem to vaguely recall that Bation has to use the toilet in The NeverEnding Story, and when he comes back to the attic, he actually stops and wonders at how no one ever uses toilets in books.

    Hmmm… I wonder if there are actually ten fantasy novels ever published in which people use the toilet.

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