To Pee or Not to Pee? How much mundane human activity must an author include for a character to be believable.
I will probably get myself banned from all future literary consideration by writing this, but James Joyce’s Ulysses did not blow my mind. I read the famed novel as an adult after it was named one of the best books of all time by a panel of experts at Harvard University. However, after I finished it–and I did finish it–what I remembered most was not my empathy for sensitive, cuckolded Leopold Bloom or the profoundness of his musings, but how often the main character had to urinate during the day. In truth, Leopold Bloom probably didn’t go to the bathroom any more than an average person does on a given afternoon. Really, I think he went twice (though the peeing in the dream sequence clouds it for me). And I get that part of the point of Ulysses is to paint a portrait of a man going about his day. But even being subjected to Bloom’s necessary bodily functions twice in the course of a 265,000 word novel gave the act a relevance that, for me, took away from the larger work (or, at least, distracted me enough that I forgot what point of existence I was supposed to be pontificating upon at the moment). When I write, I always remember Ulysses, its acclaim, and then wrestle with the question of my characters’ basic needs as human beings. Does my point-of-view protagonist need to relieve him or herself during the course of the book in order to be believable? Can I just let the reader assume that urination has happened off screen in the space between chapters? Can I gloss over the potty breaks — i.e. After I got dressed and ready– or do I need to bring my audience into the loo? These same questions can be posed with regard to eating, drinking, sleeping, masturbating, etc. (All of which Ulysses does during his day around Dublin, I might add). Do authors need to show and tell? If so, how often? Personally, I’ve drawn the line differently based on specific characters and my selected point-of-view. In my upcoming book, One Little Secret, one female protagonist bathes while her husband is shaving, another puts on her makeup and thinks about her marriage, and yet another spends much of the third act fighting exhaustion after having not slept the prior night. I included these details of washing, grooming, and sleeping not so much to make my characters realistic as to reveal something about their individual states of mind. The character in the bathroom scene is concerned that her husband finds other women more sexually enticing. As a result, the vulnerability of her nakedness juxtaposed with his grooming (perhaps for someone else) is something I wanted to show in order to reveal my character’s insecurities in an arena that would aggravate them. I included the makeup scene for a similar reason–it allowed an exploration of the character’s thoughts about a particular subject, as well as enabled her to cover something up, both literally and metaphorically. In the book that I am currently working on, I write a bit about sleeping and eating because my character is struggling with how to mourn someone and accomplishing these basic tasks show something about her state of mind. Still, I worry about whether I am doing too much or not enough. I don’t want anyone to read one of my books and feel disconnected from a character because they didn’t do any of the necessary human things. At the same time, I have a limited number of words. If I spend a few hundred of them on bathroom breaks, perhaps the reader will get bored. Worse, he or she might put down the book thinking about how they’d like to flush it in the toilet. So writer friends and readers, what is your opinion? Must writers include such details for realism’s sake or can we skip them?