Bodily Functions

When do characters go to the bathroom?

The advice of many editors and authors would be never, at least not on the page.  Fiction is about telling stories, and while going to the bathroom is a part of life, it is not a part that’s relevant to the story you’re trying to tell.

Unless it is.

In the case of The Green Mile by Stephen King, a urinary tract infection is actually a crucial plot point particularly with regard to how it is healed.

In The Right Stuff a considerable amount of time is devoted to the question of whether or not Alan Shepard can pee in his suit while he’s waiting on the launch pad (this is actually one of the tamer bodily function examples from this book, trust me).

I had a similar situation arise in revision last night. My character is in a fighter craft for 30+ hours. That’s a long time to not use the bathroom.

But does it add to my narrative to mention it? Maybe not. I think the main question in whether or not characters burp, fart or go to the bathroom is what the purpose is in revealing that moment.

In the case of my character it was a little about realism, and a little about humanizing him in a tough situation. Later on in the book he drinks a beer, burps, and tosses the broken bottle down on the deck. This would seem completely unnecessary (and this is revision so it might not stick around for long), but on the other hand that broken beer bottle becomes one of his guide posts to reality. And he did drink the beer rather quickly, wouldn’t he belch?

Maybe this a guy thing. Maybe it’s even a generational thing. One of my Dad’s comments about reading my draft was about the fact my characters go to the bathroom. It actually doesn’t happen as often as this post suggests, but obviously the few mentions were memorable.

What do you think? When does talking about bodily functions add to the story? Examples?

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “Bodily Functions

  1. This is quite an interesting topic, actually. (I know — who would have thought that bathroom habits would be interesting?)

    I think the examples youv’e used are great. If I was stuck in a cockpit/room for 30 hours, the question of how I was going to pee would definitely be at the forefront of my mind. Ignoring that question (especially if the containment was unexpected) is silly. On the other hand, I don’t want to hear about what the character does every time s/he goes to the bathroom.

    I’ve also found that in books where characters actually go to the bathroom, it’s often only because the bathroom is going to be where something bad happens: Doo de doo… Haven’t been to the bathroom in the last 48 hours this story has been taking place, but suddenly I feel the need to go. Oh! I’ve just been attacked by a vampire! How shocking that something would happen here, the only place where I would be separated from my brave, strong, male companion!

    I don’t think that actually answered any questions…

    • Ben Trube

      Thanks, as I’ve gone on in revising I have noticed a couple of unnecessary uses which I have cut, but as set up for a dramatic encounter is a great usage. You’re right that it’s one of the few places were mixed gender groups would separate, and is even a classic of people wandering off by themselves. One does wonder in a real dangerous situation whether people would go to the trouble of privacy, or go as close to the group as possible.

  2. Recently I read the Crown of Stars series by Kate Elliott. I remember several times when her characters “went to the privy”. It often explained the timing of meeting up with someone later (they wouldn’t have met if the little detour hadn’t happened) or allowed for an over heard private conversation on the way. It wasn’t over used, but definitely was used to get a feel for the lifestyle.

    • Ben Trube

      The over-heard conversation is a classic of the privy genre, someone with their knees tucked up listening to secrets that would not otherwise be revealed. I might be wrong about this, but my perception is this kind of scene (the over-heard conversation) happens more in women’s restrooms than men’s. Is that the case in the Crown of Stars or in other things you’ve read?

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