Bodily Functions? I Got Nuthin’

Um, just so you know: this isn’t the start of a stand-up routine in which I trot out jokes I would have giggled over when I was in fifth grade. (And yes, I probably would laugh about them now. I won’t blame you for running from this post in disgust.) You see, the other day, I was in the middle of writing an email message to a friend when I came to the sudden realization that none of the characters in my current novel has eaten anything—not so much as a crust of bread. Trust me—they are not like me in that respect. One of the first questions out of my mouth whenever I talk to one of my sisters-in-law or my parents is, “What are you going to eat for dinner?”

My characters also are not dieting nor are they anorexic, robots, anorexic robots (hmm—that would make an interesting sci-fi novel), or vampires living on a liquid diet. So what gives? Picture me shrugging. Ironically, I love the scenes in the Harry Potter books and movies where the students gather in the great hall at Hogwarts Castle to tuck into a feast. I love all mention of food in The Lord of the Rings (um, except what orcs, Gollum, and Shelob eat). One of my favorite films is Babette’s Feast, which is all about food! Yet I have trouble writing scenes where characters eat or deal with other bodily functions—unlike two books in my possession.

babettes-feast-pouel-kern-dvd-cover-art

In The Naming, the first book of the Pellinor series for young adults by Alison Croggon, Maerad (the main character) undertakes a harrowing journey. I love those! They’re so . . . harrowing. Anyway, the author doesn’t shy away from a discussion of Maerad’s menstrual cramps. Croggon boldly goes where I have yet to go. In Shadowfell, a young adult fantasy novel by Juliet Marillier that I’m reading now, a hot guy actually helps the main character to answer nature’s call when she’s too weak from an illness to head to the privy on her own. While I’m not sure if the guy is the love interest (I’m guessing he will be, though he’s a mystery right now), nothing says “Be mine” like a hero who helps the heroine use a chamber pot.

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Part of my reticence is the fact that I have a difficult time working these “natural” moments into the narrative . . . uh . . . naturally. Silly me. I worry too much about how such moments will advance the plot. Okay. I hear you. Do they actually have to serve that purpose? But if every scene needs to count, I have to wonder.

Okay. Okay. Eating and answering nature’s call are both important (well, maybe flatulence isn’t). I totally get that. Maybe I can have one of my point-of-view characters overhear an important conversation while retreating behind a conveniently placed bush to um “see a man about a horse.”

No good, you say? Well, any advice for me? How do you work eating and other bodily functions in your narrative in a way that doesn’t seem forced?

Tiffin_River_at_Goll_Woods_State_Nature_Preserve_in_Ohio

When your characters are out in nature, will they answer the call?

Book covers from Goodreads. Woods and river photo from Wikipedia.

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40 thoughts on “Bodily Functions? I Got Nuthin’

  1. Good topic. I wrote a screenplay once where a Lord arrives at the castle and sits down to dinner with his hosts. During the feast, their long-running feud is discussed using meat and vegetables to represent various Lords, Knights and other enemies. It worked very well. Would you like to see it?

  2. I use eating scenes for character discussions that move plots or subplots along. I think I’ve hinted at answering the call of nature, but it’s something I’m leaving in the ‘they just do it’ category.

    • I’m going to have to do something along these lines. The book seems unnatural without at least one eating scene. I don’t know why eating is the last thing I think of when I write.

      • Eating is typically not a major plot point, so it gets overlooked unless a character is starving or getting poisoned. I pay more attention to it now since a side effect of one of my main character’s powers is that he/she gets hungry if used too often. At one point, it got bad enough that the character ate an entire dining room table that was made of ice.

      • Oh that sounds awesome!!! And you’ve worked in the consequences of magic. That’s so cool. You know your characters well. This reminds me that I need to really consider my characters’ physical states a lot more than I’ve been doing.

      • Another thing is to put food and drink into cultures. I have a barbarian who comes from a culture where advice is given only over alcohol. Treating new friends to a meal is another good one. I’m realizing how often my characters eat and drink now.

    • Well, I need to throw a tea break in or something. I have to laugh though, because in my previous novel, the same thing happened. After 80 pages, no food had been ingested. In this book after 200 pages, no one is eating!

  3. I agree with Charles and Jill. When characters are talking with each other, they’re in a certain place at a certain time, and they’re probably doing something else. Cooking or eating a meal is a common time for such conversations to happen. As far as the elimination functions, they tend to be less “details of setting” and more things that have to move the story forward. Thus, your character might be in the woods and overhear something.

    • Good point. I need to add a cooking scene. I have plenty of scenes where someone gets hurt or killed. You’d think I’d be able to work in someone eating a piece of fruit.

  4. It’s the Watering Hole, silly! What kind of bugs me is that in every fantasy novel (perhaps I exaggerate), they’re always eating bread and cheese. I mean I get the bread, travels well I suppose, but why is it ALWAYS bread and cheese? Not that I don’t love me some bread and cheese, but surely people eat something else.

  5. Good questions, Linda. I don’t have problems with eating scenes–like the others who have commented, I use those for conversations or to further the plot. I find the inclusion of the call of nature a bit more awkward–but sometimes it seems necessary. I guess it depends on how glaring the absence might be, right?

    • Well, I wonder about the absence too. Will readers wonder, “Why has no one found a convenient bush??” I think this is why I haven’t worked in a food scene. Because once you eat, you have to go!

  6. I write a lot about food, maybe because writing gives me the snackies. It’s often a setting for me, a natural gathering of the characters. It can be a backdrop or show a character trait or add to the worldbuilding. Think of Harry eating chocolate after encountering the dementors or the LOTR movie scene with Sam discussing ‘taters’. This can be worked in a natural breaks in the action or even to heighten the action if the characters have to eat on the run or are interrupted or their food has gone bad… And how many family fights have started at the dinner table? Lots of places and reasons to work in food. I’m sure can find a spot to work it in.

    • I should have just copied your response when I responded to Shelby’s comment. You brought up great points. I loved your food scenes. And I’m glad you brought up the chocolate. I loved that aspect.

      What’s funny is that I have a family dinner scene. But no one eats!!! Ugh! I don’t know why I keep doing that!!

  7. I have the opposite problem – my characters always seem to be eating and/or thinking about food! As many of the other commenters have said, I use food as a scene setting technique: a heart-to-heart over dinner between best friends; a birthday party in Greece with lots of food and dancing; a medieval banquet before battle in my kids’ time travel novel. It also helps that I love eating and writing about food! 🙂

    • Okay. I’m going to have to bite the bullet and devote an entire scene to a lavish meal where people actually eat, instead of looking at the food and then getting all angsty. You’ve inspired me, Kate. But now I need some potato chips for more inspiration.

  8. Like others, I’ve erred on the side of too much eating in my scenes. In my fourth semester at VCFA, my advisor remarked: “They’re eating again? But they haven’t done anything!” In the two examples you raised, it sounded like those situations illuminated an aspect of character. The reader learns about the character by how she deals with menstrual cramps during a long journey and the reader also learns about that male character by the way that he helps the girl. Ideally scenes will illuminate character AND move the plot forward, but do you think that maybe sometimes character illumination is enough?

    • I think that’s why I have trouble with these scenes. In the menstrual cramps scene, the main character didn’t know what was happening to her. Apparently no one told her that women menstruate. The hero freaked out, thinking she was dying. I recall reading somewhere that the author wanted the journey to seem more realistic, which is why she mentioned the monthly cycle. Hmm. That just gave me an idea. Someone in my novel is gravely ill, so I might have to work in some bodily functions. Eewww though. Not looking forward to it. But it needs to be done.

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