Sunday, October 9, 2011

Reality Check: How Much is Too Much in Epic Fantasy?

My post last month led to a fantastic discussion of a variety of things, including the concept of realism in fantasy.  Commenters brought up many excellent points, including the idea that maybe it doesn’t matter if a girl can’t really heft that big sword; isn’t it nice to suspend a little disbelief now and then and believe it could happen?

My answer?  It depends on the talent of the writer and the sensibilities of the reader.  One of the things I LOVE about Tolkien is that, as a medievalist myself, he pushes all of my scholarly buttons.  I enjoy seeing the seeds of our own culture in Middle Earth.  But I also love that he’s taken those seeds and grown totally unique flowers.  One of the things that turned me off about Steven Erikson’s Malazan Empire series is his unrelentingly realistic depictions of torture and violence.  While I understand that he’s not reinventing the wheel here—historically, human beings have developed a marked appreciation for the varied ways to harm one another—but the image of hundreds of crucified children will never burn out of my brain.  That was more realism than I could handle.  Another reader’s mileage may vary.  Regardless, both authors do a bang-up job of making their fantasies realistic to the reader, whether they’re historically accurate or even probable—and that’s good craft.

Sometimes it’s not the big things, but the little details that intrude too much into the story.  One of the things I liked about Elizabeth Moon’s Deed of Paksenarrion was that whenever the army stopped moving, one of the first things the soldiers did was dig the poop-trenches.  I found this to be an excellent small detail that made a lot of sense and said a great deal about the organization of the army, its priorities, and the pecking order (because that definitely wasn’t a job handled by the highest-ranking members).    However, I quickly put down another fantasy novel because the main character was constantly menstruating and passing out.  It was messy and gross and really took me out of the story.  Unless it’s important to the story in some way, I just don’t need to read about certain aspects of reality.

Most importantly, characters should be as realistic as possible in the context of their own world.  I will only judge a fictional character by modern standards if the writer hasn’t done a good enough job of convincing me that his/ her world is “real.”  And characters need to connect with the reader in a human way, regardless of profession or social status.  Whether I’m writing or reading about a princess or a servant, I need to care about the character in order to feel engaged with the story.  Everything else is just window dressing.

Ultimately, the question of how much reality is too much all comes down to craft.  If I want to drop a couple of female ninjas riding pink hippos into a pseudo-medieval setting, I can—presuming I can get the reader to buy that this is totally plausible in my world.  The worldbuilding doesn’t have to be historically accurate for readers to buy in; the real trick is selling the world so well that the reader doesn’t even question whether or not something could or could not happen.

Kim Vandervort 


Karin Rita Gastreich said...

Good morning, Kim!

Great post. I bet this is a topic we'll come back to repeatedly, from different angles.

I've been thinking about this same topic this week, but in the context of literary fiction and commercial fiction. I was reviewing the work of a friend who writes in these genres, and had to tell her there were aspects of a scene she crafted that simply weren't believable.

I found myself wondering later, whether somewhere deep inside she was thinking as she read my critique, "Yeah, but Karin, you have DRAGONS in your stories! What's up with that?"

I think for me as a reader (and an author), it is the psychological underpinnings of the characters that make a story believable (or not). And, as you point out, those psychological underpinnings need to be well-grounded in a well-crafted world. As long as those two things are in order (and that's not an easy thing to achieve), I can suspend my belief on many other elements of the story. And enjoy suspending that belief, besides.

Really good stuff here, Kim! Now I have more to think about....

Terri-Lynne said...

This immediately brought to mind, for me, a nature show I saw on the MAKING of a nature show. The camera-people get all these glorious shots of animals in the wild, fantastic close-ups of plant life, sweeping vistas; but behind the camera is a person who has to keep perfectly still and quiet while covered in thousands of stinging insects, standing in muck that may or may not have bloodsucking critters in it. THAT is the reality we, as viewers, don't want or need in context. We know it's there. Of course we do, and yet...

And that's the thing--we all know the realities of bugs and pooping and menstruating. In a way, showing such things in our novels is like showing our readers every time someone breathes, or sneezes. As with all things, if it's important to show your character take a breath, well, do so! But if not, isn't it simply implied?

As far as menstruating goes, here's the thing--in extreme situations, a woman will stop menstruating. Stress can and does effect hormones that work a woman's reproductive cycle. So if your warrior woman is in the middle of a stressful war, she could stop ovulating/menstruating (something I actually utilize in ATNL.)
Anyway--this is certainly going to generate a lot more thought from this curious oyster over the course of the week. Hmmm...

Venator said...

Actually the question of hefting a sword itself touches on realism. Bar a few late examples of two-handed swords designed for beating down pikes or ceremonial duties, most swords, even those designed to be used two-handed at times weren't very heavy. Curiously, sometimes weaker characters are described as too puny to wield a sword and yet fire bows with gay abandon although using a bow requires much greater strength.

But really any story relies on the reader's credulity not being stretched to breaking point. Obviously some people will have no trouble with a character who can scarcely pick up a sword in one chapter sending an arrow through a foot of oak in another (or indeed drawing the bow in the first place). Equally some people may have grave difficulty in believing something less far-fetched than, say, Audie Murphy's WWII exploits.

But no story pushes the bounds too far. whilst some creatures may be exempt from some of the laws of physics, and while magic may (possibly - sometimes there are sort of pseudo-quantum explanations) defy the laws of physics also, they must be specific and logical exceptions unless one writes Pratchett-like farce. As regards the majority of creatures and folk in the postulated world, every fantasy ever written subscribes to the physical norms and historical cultural norms (because in general fantasy societies are either straight plunderings, plunderings with a little twist, or amalgamations of historical cultures) of our world.

But the more these norms are stretched by individual characters or creatures in a novel, and (especially) the wider the stretching, the harder it is going to be to convince a reader.

Pullman gave everyone on his counter-earth an animal familiar or daemon. It worked because although everyone had one (a wide stretch), they were normal creatures and the setting was basically very familiar (sure there was the odd twist but it was essentially early C20 earth with a veneer of strangeness). He didn't give everyone a familiar, have fantastical creatures as familiars and create a brand new culture (or cultures) because, despite his undoubted skill, it would have been just too much.

In a way, I think historical fiction has the same sorts of problems except there it is how much realism to insert. I cannot conceive a fantasy setting where heterosexual men would address each other as 'my dear' without (the wrong sort) of shattering impact on the reader. Yet in the late C18/early C19 it was common for male friends to address eac other as 'my dear'. Most historical authors writing in the period have shied from that, despite the added realism. Equally those dealing with societies where there are intrinsically distasteful elements (eg: Carthaginian baby sacrifice, Spartan institutional pederasty, Celtic/Mexican human sacrifice, the casual anti-semitism and racism of polite society in pre WWII Europe and America) tend to gloss over them heroes or heroines are concerned (or omit them entirely). Most people like their heroines and heroes to be only complex to a degree.

J. Kathleen Cheney said...

Venator said:
Yet in the late C18/early C19 it was common for male friends to address eac other as 'my dear'. Most historical authors writing in the period have shied from that, despite the added realism.

This brought to mind a Poe story I read a couple of years ago, where the two guys in question just go to sleep in the same bed. I recall thinking that it probably wouldn't have raised an eyebrow in Poe's day....but now...

Anonymous said...

There's that old expression about the devil being in the details. Some good immersive fiction gives you all sorts of minutiae, tasty tidbits of another world, another time to process and make a world feel lived it. I read Jack Whyte's "The Skystone" after I had bought the first three books in the Camulod Chronicles. I really liked the details of the Roman army, you could almost smell the cookfires of the Roman camp. But after a while, every time the characters stopped, I had to read about how they set up camp, built a stockade fence, yadda yadda yadda, I was regretting my purchase.

Details are important, but once we have our world established, like good spices, they should be used appropriately or risk overpowering the recipe.


Terri-Lynne said...

Venator--YES! I really irks me when they apparently-too-weak-swordsman is an otherwise brilliant archer. His/Her aim maybe spot on, but, as one who has drawn many-a-bow (and taught many others to as well) I can attest to the fact that if you can't lift a sword, you can't draw a bow that's going to send an arrow any distance, with any real force behind it.

Terri-Lynne said...

Clint--exactly! Once it's established, PLEASE let it go a bit! I'm currently reading a book in which the author reminds us over and over and over again just how smart one of her characters is. WE GOT IT!!! Yeesh! Same thing with the more tangible details. Establish it, then move on, and don't bring it back unless it's forwarding the plot.

Over on my LJ, I recalled George Martin's "shit joke" to a commenter. It was masterfully done. You never saw it coming! But when it came time to punch that line, he punched it. Perfectly. Ah, the mark of true genius!
(If you've read through book 4 and don't know what I'm talking about, I'll tell you off-line; and haven't gotten to book 4, nevermind!)

Anonymous said...

Re: Venator's comments, I think you are firing on all eight. Though when I read Pullman's book(s), I couldn't help but think of all the animal dander and/or poop which must be all over the place. It almost took me out of the story, since a world where everyone has an animal, which no one else can touch, there would probably be significant differences between their world and ours, even right down to things as simple as how buildings were designed. You are essentially doubling the "population" of the world and taking up space with all these animals.

Anyway, absolutely on the bow. They dig up English and Welsh archers from the 1200-1400's all the time and their physiology was strikingly different from other soldiers, due to upper body strength.

With the "My Dear" stuff, we still see an oddity left over from this time in every letter we write. If you stop and think about it, why would you address an editor, potential employer, or anyone else you didn't know with "Dear" anything? It's just weird.


Kim Vandervort said...

Great comments already! :)

Terri-Lynne: great point about the nature filmmakers! That leads me to another point I wanted to talk about, but wasn't able to fit in since my posts already run long. There aren't enough bugs and disease in fantasy. All that camping outside and nobody gets sick? Bitten by mosquitos? And good lord-- the SPIDERS!! Ack! I'm experimenting with some of this in my writing, but I think it's important to consider the challenges of the outdoor elements, particularly since historically, many battles were won and lost simply because influenza and dysentery got the better of the army. That kind of reality can be VERY important to the story, and might even become a driving factor in creating additional conflict. How can your questing party save the world if they've got the runs?

In terms of menstruation, I cannot count how many times I am asked what my female characters do when they're out in the forest and it's "that time of the month." First of all, if I were queen of the universe (which I AM when I write), why menstruate at all? As far as I'm concerned, there shall be no periods and limitless supplies of chocolate strawberries.

However, as Venator points out, the fantasy does need to have some grounding in reality to be believable. Ken Scholes mentions on his blog that he was knocked by critics for his King Rudolfo always drinking chilled wine. His response? King Rudolfo doesn't care how it gets chilled. Maybe the lackeys have to stand downstream in the icy water for an hour, he just wants his wine the way he likes it. Thus, if Rudolfo doesn't need it explained to him, the reader shouldn't need it explained to him/ her, either.

I'm not totally sure I buy this explanation, however, as the chilled wine really took me out of the story. And I think that's the essence of it: if it takes the reader out of the story or is "too weird" for the reader to accept, the writer loses the reader.

Anonymous said...


Totally with you on the GRRM. The first time he delivered that joke, I was like "oh snap!" The one that didn't fly so well for me was the "floppy ears" joke. I could only picture Ralphie from "A Christmas Story" in that abomination his aunt sent. Pulled me right out of the story.

Terri-Lynne said... I have Ralphie's pink bunny abomination on the brain. Hahahahahahahaa!!!!

Terri-Lynne said...

Kim--I do two things with bugs in ATNL that "experiment" with bringing such mundane and pesty but all too real things. One is plague, brought on by drought and...yeah, I'll leave it there. :)

And, I just thought of it, but just having your character scratch at a bug bite now and again introduces that little bit of reality without whomping the reader over the head. Hmmm...

Anonymous said...

What a great post, and what thoughtful additional comments!

I like any amount of realistic detail that makes the world and the story come alive more. Minor details dropped in help give a sense of what's ordinary in the world, and I love that. I love hearing that the starchy collar is too constricting and makes the character itch, or that they have to walk on a board over the ditches by the side of the road for the snow runoff, or whatever. But the details all have to enhance, or at least not trip up, the story. If they bog the story down or throw too many readers out of the story, then they're too much. (Of course there'll be differences of opinion on whether this is happening or not, but you aim to please your target audience.)

Venator said...

On Pullman's books, I wonder if the daemons were in fact natural in the sense of needing to eat and excrete. I can't recollect whether they ate.

On the chilled wine, I think that's a failure of perspective. if how the wine is chilled never enters the king's mind, ideally it would never enter a readers (as they're reading, it's cheating for a critic to cry foul if something strikes him only after finishing the story rather than while reading it. If later reflection comes up with a question not explicitly answered in a story, then one must ask whether the technology available could provide a solution before crying foul. After all, Saladin could drink iced sherbet in a Syrian summer).

I agree with disease not featuring enough, Alexander and Caesar spent a deal of time being ill at various stages in their lives. But then neither do accidents. I yearn for a book where the hero (or heroine) drowns crossing a river halfway through, like barbarossa on his way to the Third Crusade... (actually Patrick o'Brian did that in his historical novels, killing off a main character in a carraige accident). But in general there's not enough falling down stairs drunk, or choking on lampreys or similar (though Conan did once run straight into a wall in the dark, knocking himself out, resulting in his capture).

On the whole, I think accident and disease are shied from because they might bog a story down (in the same way that you don't need the details of latrine digging more than once).

Amanda said...

Great post! I was just wondering some of things myself last week.

What gets me where sword women are concerned is musculature - they have it.

Anyone who swings a sword for a living is going to develop the appropriate muscles, just like the archers. Yet sword women, for the most part, are depicted as lean and svelte while the men have big honking muscles and scared up hands from swinging their blade. Granted, women won't develop as large as men do, but they will be bulkier than "lean and svelte."

Another thing that isn't addressed much is the reality food. Most writers present saddle bags of holding. Do you know the quantity of food it actually takes to support an adult on a forced march or doing heavy exercise for a week? Way more than they can pack in a saddle bag.

I have to give Lois Bujold this, see does good realism. I just finished reading The Sharing Knife series and she addresses many of these concerns, especially the food issue (book 4) very well.

Karin Gastreich said...

Wow -- There's already so much here, I will just have to take it piece by piece:

TERRI -- "but behind the camera is a person who has to keep perfectly still and quiet while covered in thousands of stinging insects, standing in muck that may or may not have bloodsucking critters in it."

Yes, that is my life as a field biologist, which allows me to address to some extent KIM's follow-up comment:

"There aren't enough bugs and disease in fantasy. All that camping outside and nobody gets sick? Bitten by mosquitos? And good lord-- the SPIDERS!!"

I'm not so sure about that. As someone who's lived the life of a field biologist, I can say you stop noticing all those "icky" things after a while. So, I think it reflects the reality of the characters who are out camping that the mosquitoes & mud are irrelevant, even if they would be shocking for the average reader.

Also, diseases are not so much a problem in the wilderness, especially in temperate zone wilderness that often characterize fantasy. Where you get illness is around people in conditions that are less than hygenic, and characterized by a lack of access to clean water. Towns, cities, campgrounds for armies. But camping in the woods with mud and mosquitoes won't necessarily get you sick.

Also, on menstruating in the wild -- I happen to know exactly what the Magas do. They use soft moss, which is abundantly available, clean and incredibly absorbent. Nor do Magas ever see menstruation as a burden, problem or weakness. They would never wish menstruation away, as they consider it a sign of their womanhood, and therefore another expression of their power. Of course, I never go into this particular detail in the novels (though I may now...), but I do have it clear in my head as part of the backstory.

Terri-Lynne said...

Amanda--very true. No one seems to inject the fact that campaigns would have scores of hunters, well, depending upon the size of the campaign. Characters have to live off the land, and if they can't, they die.

Terri-Lynne said...

Karin--re your Magas and menstruation. Killer detail, woman! And you know, that comes across without you actually STATING it. I wouldn't imagine Eolyn lamenting getting her period. I'm thinking of this, I'm realizing that getting one's period becoming a hassle probably coincides with better forms of birth control. When a sexually active woman got her period, it was a BLESSING! Well, if she didn't want a baby. Now, with our reliable methods of birth control, we often dread the "monthly nuisance" because it can and sometimes does interfer.

Hmmm...just a small thought in a larger issue.

Terri-Lynne said...

Asakiyume--Exactly. And I think that's where historical fiction always gets me. I know most readers of hf love those details more that other genre readers, but everyone has a point of "too much is too much!"

Kim Vandervort said...

Karin- your comment is PRECISELY why I am not a field biologist! Or a camper. Or a hiker, or... yeah. All that stuff.

It makes a lot of sense, however, that people wouldn't notice the bugs and possibly wouldn't even become ill if they're used to the outdoors. Which is also why Ki'leah does, in Song, notice everything.

However, I DO think that one good bout of diarrhea or round of the flu could really bog a questing party down and make things that much more stressful. Definitely something I'm going to play with.

Karin Rita Gastreich said...

Venator & Wendigo --

"On Pullman's books, I wonder if the daemons were in fact natural in the sense of needing to eat and excrete. I can't recollect whether they ate."

This was my impression, actually. I didn't have any issues with the physical needs of the daemons because they didn't seem to have physical needs. I interpreted the 'daemon' as a physical manifestation of the character's spirit -- a part of the character's soul, rather than a biological in the physical world.

"It worked because although everyone had one (a wide stretch), they were normal creatures and the setting was basically very familiar"

I think it also worked because, as Pullman argued, essentially we ALL have daemons, even in our world -- it's just that we can't see our daemons, though they do exist.

Asakiyume -- I really enjoyed your comment; very you. I can totally see you being the kind of reader who appreciates the little details, given how well you turn small details into pure poetry yourself. ;)

Karin Rita Gastreich said...

Amanda & Kathleen -- interesting comments, both. I've got nothing to add here, except thanks for stopping by & participating!

Kim -- Yes, I think you did a great job with Ki'Leah's sensibilities in Song. I had Eolyn kind of go through the opposite process -- in her first encounter with a real city, she is overwhelmed by the dirtiness of it all, the rancid smells, and so forth.

Mosquitoes are always slightly annoying, but what are you gonna do? And the mud -- really, it just doesn't matter. Even getting wet. The worst part about getting wet is going from 'dry' to 'wet'. But once the rain has soaked you through, it actually feels good. Unless you're in the highlands, and freezing. Then it sucks.

It would be interesting to see more disease, and I think Venator had an excellent point about accidents, too. (One good slip on a rock in the rain...) But I still say disease will be less common in the wilderness, not more common. Human diseases require human hosts, and human hosts require human settlements, somewhere nearby.

Venator said...

Even the most disciplined oof ancient/medieval armies essentially being insanitary mobile towns though, and more insanitary if they remain still for more than a day or two, disease should really, as historically, be the main killer (in fact it's still a major source of casualties, or at least unfitness for combat, today). Tolkien was pretty sensible in confining his armies to short, fast campaigns in LotR, not enough time for attrition through ill-health. Martin has begun to address it in his latest book. But desertion and straggling should also substantially diminish numbers over a longer period and especially if long distances are being covered.

Mind you, at Agincourt, most of the English army were suffering from hunger and pretty severe fatigue, having not eaten for some days of constant forced marching in unpleasant weather, and were also afflicted with diarrhoea. The typical ancient/medieval warrior was considerably tougher when it came to such discomforts that the more cosseted soldiers of today. And that's generally true, not just for the military - standards of living being much poorer, discomfort was more easily borne.

Karin Rita Gastreich said...

" I'm thinking of this, I'm realizing that getting one's period becoming a hassle probably coincides with better forms of birth control."

You might have a point, but I'm not so sure.

Another thing I don't see nearly as much of as I would expect in fantasy: emmenagogues, such as the 'moon tea' in GRRM's Westeros. There is ample evidence that emmenagogues were widely available across multiple cultures and continents before the onset of western medicine, and long long before the invention of the pill. Birth control is not a recent invention; though it was a forgotten one for more than a few generations.

So I don't think the view of menstruation as a "hassle" is necessarily linked to the invention of birth control.

I have some pretty strong ideas, actually, about why menstruation is viewed as "messy" and a "hassle", but if I get into that here, we'll derail again. Maybe I'll come back to this topic in a later post.

You might take a look at the book "Blood, Bread and Roses". Kind of an alternate history of menstruation. It's been years and years since I read it, so I don't know if I'd view it in quite the same way I did back when I was in grad school. But the authors argue that menstrual cycles had a transformative effect on human history. I think they also put forward some ideas as to why menstruation eventually came to be a subject of disdain.

Karin Rita Gastreich said...

oops -- Forgot to mention Terri in that last comment. Terri -- The one on menstruation, that's for you! ;)

Karin Rita Gastreich said...

Hey Venator --

"Even the most disciplined oof ancient/medieval armies essentially being insanitary mobile towns though, and more insanitary if they remain still for more than a day or two, disease should really, as historically, be the main killer"

Yes, I agree. I think I put armies on the list earlier as an example of unsanitary conditions that can lead to (rampant) disease.

I don't consider someone following an army as being 'in the wilderness'. When I talk about the likelihood of disease attacking people in the wilderness, I'm thinking more in terms of small groups on expeditions far away from human settlements, as was the case in Kim's "Song and the Sorceress".

Armies, of course, are a different matter altogether.

Kim Vandervort said...

Yay, Terri! It's your OWN PERSONAL comment on menstruation! ;)

I have other thoughts on that, so I'll save them up for your future post, Karin.

In one of her series, Tamora Pierce has the character wear an amulet to keep her from becoming pregnant. I thought that was an awesome idea, but it wouldn't necessarily work in a world where magic doesn't exist.

There are hints in Northern Queen to this, but infertility rears its ugly head in the third book in the series. Which means that I will also be touching on the idea of pregnancy and birth control, which is a topic I do find very interesting, especially since it does have such an interesting history pre-modern medicine.

Anonymous said...

The interesting thing about armies, or heck, even small bands, that you seldom hear about in HF is how much damage people do to their environment. Not only the latrines, but the amount of garbage people leave behind when on the march. And the deforestation/trampling they do to the places they go.

One interesting element of the menstrual cycle in HF would be the effect it would have on animals. The knight's trusty charger, wild animals, or even scary monsters living in the wild would be some neat details to have on this. Many animistic cultures have specific rules to this in regards to bad medicine, rituals, and such. It might be a neat trick to use on what result a girl masquerading as a boy would have on some cranky old wizard's spells in a traveling group setting.

Gives me some ideas it does...

Terri-Lynne said...

Karin--hmmm, yes. I do see your point. There were cultures that celebrated menstruation, and those that reviled it. Birth control became ta boo with the rise of certain religions--go forth and multiply! But again, this is a European phenomenon, not a worldwide one. It's too big a discussion for one small blog! It could seriously go on decades.

I have my characters practice a form of birth control, even abortion. The herbs and the knowledge has been around for longer than the written word. As you said, it became taboo at some point, and that's what gums up the works.

Terri-Lynne said...

Clint...a VERY interesting notion, indeed. Hmmm...very. Karin--don't you sort of touch on this in Eolyn? It seems almost built in, as it evolves into with the whole male vs. female magic system.

Karin Rita Gastreich said...

I just wanted to say -- this is a perfect time for everyone to be reminding me what it takes to move an army, as I will soon be moving two armies again, very soon, in High Maga.

[sigh] Why must it ALWAYS come to war?

"I have other thoughts on that, so I'll save them up for your future post, Karin."

uhoh. Pressure's on now. Well, I will try not to disappoint, Kim. ;)

I like both of Clint's observations. The first one -- the ecological impact of war -- is certainly something Magas and Mages are sensitive to. In fact, in book 2, even the wicked witch gets upset at her general because the army is cutting down so many trees while clearing a road. Trees are considered a source of power, so cutting them down is not trivial for a practitioner, whether 'good' or 'evil'.

Of course, complaints to this effect invariably fall on deaf ears. Those who command the armies -- even the army of the wicked witch -- consider such concerns at best mildly amusing, and simply continue doing as they please with the landscape.

Clint's suggestion that menstruation could "mess up" magic and affect the behavior of animals in interesting ways in High Fantasy is a fun one -- it'd be interesting to see it explored.

In Eolyn's world, the Magas honor menstruation as an important sign of womanhood, but I can't really see it acting in the way Clint suggests.

Now, this is the first time I've considered this possibility, so I can't quite pinpoint why it wouldn't work off hand, just that it doesn't seem to fit in the logic of their system of magic.

At most, menstruation in Eolyn's world might be considered potentially as disruptive as love, desire, music, or other forms of Primitive Magic. But there's an important difference here: Menstruation is predictable, a regular and expected occurence. Love, desire, artistic inspiration and so forth are not.

Well, something else to think about. I'd love to see where Clint takes the idea...

Mark Nelson/ Pevanapoet1 said...

I've hesitated to comment on this one mostly because I don't have any strong opinions. The scatological element has its place, I think, but not at the expence of a story's pace or truth. Revewing the fiction I have loved over the years, I just don't recall that element being very important. Lots of bathing, the occasional urination, but no one ever took a walk behind a tree to leave something for the bears to talk about later.

Folks ask why, and I think a partial answer might be people just do not want or need that sort of information. We are talking about a function about which humans trend toward the decorous. Folks spend time and money rendering the bathroom a place of beauty--probably because we don't want to consider what goes on in there!
Too much realism can get a little embarrassing. :) And so we tend to leave it out of our stories. Let's face it: "Sam, put Frodo down carefully before stepping behind a rock to relieve his bowels. When he finished, despite feeling weaker, he returned, took up his beloved master and continued the climb..." just doesn't resonate very well!

I used to hate it when Jordan would lapse into clothing description in his WOT books. Tragically overdone details. Ack.

In the end I think we must make out people as real as they need to be to function realistically in the worlds in which we place them. CJ Cherryh does a gerat job with this in her novels that deal with the clash of human and alien cultures.

I don't think there is a hard and fast rule here. Perhaps each situation is unique. Ultimately, our goal is story as a form of true expression no matter how much we stretch it.

Mark Nelson/ Pevanapoet1 said...

oops, sorry about the spelling gafs...contacts not in yet!

Terri-Lynne said...

Mark--strangely, I didn't get noticication of your first post, only the second about spelling. Strange. It'll show up in a week or so. Dang interwebz.

You cracked me up with the Sam thing. I think you're absolutely right. I do appreciate a nod to the mundane now and again in a novel, just because, for me, it's grounding. No matter what great events take place in the world, everyone poops! Yeah, not such a big fan of THAT in a story, but sometimes, used well, it enhances. I bet Pratchett does marvelous things with poop, I just haven't come across it yet. And, in my comment to Clint (wendingomountain) up there someplace, George Martin gets a four book joke out of it. Now THAT is genius!

Pongo Pygmaues said...

But where scatology has cultural significance (like for the Romans, excretion - like bathing - was a communal activity with shared sponges) it's worth mentioning as while mundaane detail tends to be pointless, unusual details are often worth recording. Also informative details (like the digging of latrine trenches) may convince a reader that the writer knows what they are talking about so when something unlikely (like a repeating bolt-thrower) or imaginary (like a walking siege tower) is introduced they're more ready to accept it.

There's a difference too between 'too much detail' like crucifying children, say, that puts some readers off (but perhaps attracts others) and 'too much detail' where the detail is actually just something every (or almost every) reader will regard as tedious.

The sort of story also has an influence on what details are useful. Tolkien, for instance, wrote in a way where to include gritty or grim detail would have been counterporductive. On the other hand, some people's stories require characters to be strangled with their own entrails (I must check if that's actually possible, perhaps being fed one's own entrails would be both nastier and more likely). The difference in focus means an attack of dysentry may be mentioned in broad terms in one sort of book but laboured over in detail in another.

But in general I think 'routine' things only need mentioned if they have an immediate bearing on the plot, or cast light on the culture or if they provide a little 'light relief', or combinations. plotting treason may be interesting. plotting treason whilst suffering from diarrhoea in a communal toilet could well be ascene that would stick in a reader's memory for some time.

Karin Rita Gastreich said...

Mark --

"I don't think there is a hard and fast rule here. Perhaps each situation is unique. Ultimately, our goal is story as a form of true expression no matter how much we stretch it."

Well said, as usual. I do think that biological functions are biological functions, and they will not change much from one story to the next, unless (as you mention) you're dealing with different species.

(What we really need is a fantasy/sci fi story with a dung beetle-like creature as the protagonist; in which case the search for dung, and all the wonderful things that can be done with it once it's found, would be a central theme of the story...)

Pongo --

"On the other hand, some people's stories require characters to be strangled with their own entrails (I must check if that's actually possible, perhaps being fed one's own entrails would be both nastier and more likely)."

So, is this what I have to look forward to in your next novel? Already I'm feeling queazy...

I agree with you whole heartedly on this:

"'routine' things only need mentioned if they have an immediate bearing on the plot, or cast light on the culture or if they provide a little 'light relief', or combinations."

Now that I think of it, I had a king die of dysentery in Eolyn's world, though we didn't see that happen in book 1. We will see it, though, if I ever get around to writing the prequel.