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Monday, 2 January 2017

Where's the Toilet?

This is a shorter than usual post, and an odd title, but bear with me. Tell me, when you're in the middle of a grand adventure, trekking across an amazing and terrifying landscape, what's the thing you forget? The sword that is needed to destroy the possessed Archdeacon, a companion, or... Ah, yes. A break behind a bush because you haven't gone in months. This conceit of storytelling - that heroes on a major quest within fantasy of sci-fi universes don't actually need to go to the loo - is something everyone has struggled with from time to time, and has become something of a joke of the genre.

There are logical reasons why such events aren't put into the prose. First, there's the fact that a reader wants to get on with the story, so you don't really want a description of how your protagonist needed to duck behind a bush because... of business. You want more scenery, more action, more character, more story events, not a detour into the bog. Indeed, time constraints in a book, film, TV programme or video game is the biggest issue faced when you want to include this detail. You might also want to convey a character's inhuman nature by them not needing to avail themselves of such facilities.

However, there is also a good reason why it should be there. It humanises characters in a way so many other little tricks and approaches fail at. It could also be used to bring some much-needed levity into a darker narrative - it's remarkable seeing or reading about the local knight needing to undo parts of his armour to relieve himself. Not the kind of "toilet" humour to make you curl up in your seat, but the kind of gentle or even witty humour that the best comedy plays host to.

Now there is one major element that many might overlook both in writing and in reading; assuming that someone might take such necessary human bodily functions as a norm that doesn't need to happen in the least. But even the scope of such underground imaginings has limits. With notable exceptions that make me nod my head and say "they did that right", I don't see instances in science fiction or fantasy where the heroes have digestive upsets from something they've eaten, or the usual problems you might get from needing to drink from a river for example. Basic realities of such journeys or other similar circumstances that make up an interesting piece of many an explorer's take are often casually forgotten in books. Then there are scenes which take place in a domestic setting, where you would expect that - it's nowhere to be found, not even a mention or reminder or an instance being caught short.

On the whole, while such things may seem like unnecessary or gratuitous detail, they can be a great way of bringing a story down to earth. Yes, this person is the most powerful Mage/Star pilot/warrior/ect. in the story, but they had something that severely disagreed with them and had to be taken off duty due to a severe bout of diarrhea. This is mostly delegated to injury or some exotic/commonplace virus rather than this most common of human ailments. But they can also trip up a story, and therein lies the humour of this most frequent conscious or unconscious omission from fiction; can you imagine Frodo Baggins struggling to find somewhere to do his business in the middle of the Dead Marshes? Unless that bread stuff was more magical than we thought...

OH! I nearly forgot. Happy new year, to everyone!

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