How Realistic Should Books Be?

CharlieMERKELEons and eons ago I read a post about how we *need* more bodily functions in books- now my first instinct was (naturally) “EWW”, quickly followed by “you need to read more books”. Let’s dispense with that myth right away, because bodily functions come up in books way more than you think, the most obvious example being its use in the satiric tradition. Everyone and their mother- from Horace to cartoonists in Charlie Hebdo- have used this technique at some point. Sorry to those writers who think this is the road to uniqueness, but this is nothing “new” or “EDGY” 😉

beautiful broken thingsYet this is just symptomatic of a wider issue. Because more and more I’m seeing books and art trying to replicate the most mundane parts of human existence. As I mentioned in my review of Beautiful Broken Things, there were far *too many* references to texting and social media squeezed in. Apart from being extremely dull, it served *no purpose* in the book. Which brings me to my first rule of thumb…

game of thrones bookFOR THE LOVE OF ALL THAT IS HOLY (and unholy) don’t do this if you don’t have a reason. I’m never one to entirely close off any avenues when it comes to art- and this subject is no different. Thus WHEN IT SERVES A PURPOSE it is perfectly reasonable to include it. I mean, we can all think of how much grittier the death of a certain somebody is in Game of Thrones when they are dispatched whilst on the toilet. That shock factor killed it for me.

deenieIt’s therefore apparent that this can be a feature in some books, but authors really ought to know their genre. As I’ve already mentioned crude jokes easily fit into comedic subject matter, yet I do think this can be expanded out into other areas. Personally, when I was a teen I was very grateful for books by Judy Blume for educating me and normalising a lot of things I didn’t understand at the time.

the recruit cherubHOWEVER this should be used sparingly- and I mean SPARINGLY. It is way too easy for this trope to be overused- for instance, while it was funny the first time a major spy operation in the Cherub series was interrupted by someone’s inability to control their bladder, this quickly got overused and became an *insert we need a bit more drama* crutch for the plot. Not good.

my-bed-tracey-emin-011Gross gimmicks and the like should never be the sole focus of any piece of art. To my mind this merely debases the medium. It’s no secret at this stage that I am disparaging of some forms of modern art (#notall). I never argue that it’s not art- that would be as pointless as the art itself- only that it is poor versions of art. For art, good art, can be appreciated on multiple levels, whereas something like Tracy Emin’s bed is designed to shock and repulse you, which really takes little effort to achieve and has no depth of meaning.

judeOn the other end of the spectrum, one can take a look at the horrors of a book like Jude the Obscure. Many people would argue this also has shocking moments (don’t worry, no spoilers) but every single shock is woven into the story for a good reason. It is supposed to make you feel the plight of the poor, the constant injustices, the impossibility of bettering oneself. Yes, it is a book designed to make you feel shell-shocked, though not without just cause. No one could say this could be read on one level alone.

0787_07Still, as any fantasy lover knows, there are *plenty* of books which avoid any hint of the real world altogether and that is a-okay with me. Not all books are designed to be realistic and the ones that are don’t always need to scream its realism at us. Sometimes what we need from books is a touch of idealism. The Alexei Karamazov’s of the book world inspire us to be better; Michaelangelo’s Pieta’s lift us up out of our murky human existence to something resembling the divine. Art should be truer than the real world. Reducing it down to the basic necessities of life- and yes, weirdly enough, facebook and the like has become a part of that- gives us nothing as readers. Frankly, I know how to send/receive a text and most of us know how our body works- we don’t need reminding of these things all the time. Publishers, authors, readers take note- this is not a burning issue (if it is for you, please see a doctor).

Well, that was a subject I never thought I’d cover. I feel a little dirty now. What do you think? How real should books be? Let me know in the comments!

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68 thoughts on “How Realistic Should Books Be?

  1. The Past Due Book Review says:

    I agree that there has to be a reason more than the sake of shock value or just including it just to include it; I think that goes for violence and graphic content as well.

    I read a book that had an elderly character who wanted to be seen by people, so he volunteered to be a nude model and when he was changing he accidentally pooped a little in his underwear while bending over. Now, I think the reason this was included was because it shows how he reacted to the situation (he wads up the underwear and throws it away in a waste bin outside the building), but also that it is a reality that we sometimes have difficulty controlling some of our bodily functions as we age. It makes him more endearing as a character and the reader almost pities him and his embarrassment. I think this is a situation in which it is central to his character so it is appropriate to be included. It also isn’t gratuitous, as you said above, and used sparingly.

    This was really thought provoking; thanks for sharing!

    Liked by 2 people

    • theorangutanlibrarian says:

      Yes that’s very true- it can definitely be applied to graphic/violent content too.

      Yes that’s very fair, and I do think that these things can have a place and can be used to humanise people, so that was an excellent example. Thanks for sharing! And thanks very much 😀

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Naty says:

    This is brilliant. I’ve never stopped to consider the subject a lot, but I agree woth what you say – there’s no point in adding gross details if it’s not part of the plot or generally serves no specific purpose. I do suppose it depends on the writer’s style, but generally seems unnecessary to me.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Mr and Mrs NW says:

    Interesting topic! I’d never really thought about this. I guess some of these rules sort of apply to any mundane or everyday aspect of human lives. Like if your main character was stopping to do the grocery shopping or put out the laundry every 5 minutes it would be hard to have good flow. But all of these things used well and sparingly can add to the plot or humanise a character.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Nel says:

    I feel like if it’s going to be a little realistic then at least be accurate. I hate realism that’s just way over the the top and littered with flowery language to try and make it seem interesting especially when everything is coincidental. On the other hand, I also hate fantasy that’s not fantastical enough. If I’m gonna have dragons in Cleveland in 2018, it better be super fantastic. Not Mary walking her dragon down the street on a leash and everyone considers that a normal occurrence.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Dani @ Perspective of a Writer says:

    Orangutan!! hahhahaahahaaa! *cries* I LOVED this post! I’ve actually been thinking about realism a lot lately and wondered about doing a discussion on it too…

    I really liked your point that it should SERVE A PURPOSE. I totally agree with this sentiment… we aren’t trying to replicate the world so much as present a view of it. (There would be WAY too much info need to totally replicate it…) I also hazard to suggest that what is included should arise naturally from the characters and world itself. Don’t try to force the realism (but do try to be accurate) and it will come across to the reader way better!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Sophie Li says:

    Hello! I love that you chose to write about this topic- it is definitely something to think about! I agree that the mundane (and gross) details of life should be left out unless it is needed to tell the story. For example, if the story is about a person with a terminal illness who needs assistance to use the bathroom and do other things that are easy for other people, then this detail may be reasonable to include, since it helps us understand his struggle. However I think the author should be tasteful about how much detail is included!
    Great post 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Kirstie Ellen says:

    Aw man this is an argument I’ve had with myself many times before and talked myself in circles. I feel like it must depend on the book your reading as to whether a lack of mundane activities is bothersome or not. I think I quite like things like that included if it’s slowing down the pace for a bit or to give the character some time for self reflection. Great post!

    Liked by 2 people

  8. Krysta says:

    I don’t like “realism” that ends up just being an excuse to be crude. As you say, if there’s a reason that’s one thing. Otherwise, I’m sure we can be realistic and tasteful. Like if you wanted to have one scene where a girl is having a tough day because she has terrible cramps but has to take a standardized test or do a competition while in agony, that would be realistic–but you would just have to write a sentence noting she had terrible cramps. You don’t have to go on and on about anything in explicit detail. We can have nods to real life that could still fit into something like the standard YA, for instance.

    I also think you’re right that we don’t need to be repetitive about it. If you say once or twice that the girl has cramps, the readers can assume that this is something that recurs for the character. But, just as we don’t go about screaming in agony every month as we go about our lives, the character needn’t bring it up six times in the same story. Readers will still understand this is a part of her life, just as they probably assume she is brushing her teeth every morning, even if it is only mentioned once in a scene where she’s fighting her sister for the bathroom.

    Liked by 1 person

    • theorangutanlibrarian says:

      Yes totally agree with you there! And yes, I definitely get that- it’s really about having a balanced approach. And I get that for sure- I think that these little nods to reality can definitely serve to make things seem realistic, without the need to go overboard (I once had an author come into school, where they explained if they had to set something abroad, they’d pick out a detail here and there that were different to capture that, but didn’t try to describe everything)

      hahaha so true!! And like you said, we don’t go around screaming in agony every month (and also most times I get cramps it’s not a very significant point and doesn’t have a big impact- so it’s only worth mentioning if it’s like in your example where they have a test or something). hahaha yes!

      Like

  9. littlebookynook says:

    It’s funny because I was watching an episode of the first season of Game of Thrones, and one of the characters is in bed for a month (comatose maybe??), anyway, I was thinking “does he go to the toilet while he is comatose?”. It’s such a weird thing to think, but when you read books where someone is locked in a dungeon…you know things aren’t going to be all that pleasant in there. And when they eventually get rescued and they are given a big bear hug I think “but wouldn’t they really smell?”. So, I think sometimes realism is good because for me even in fantasy there should be that element of “oh yeah that’s what would happen”, otherwise we don’t need to know the nitty gritty of bathroom visits, texting, social media, brushing hair etc.

    Awesome post!!

    Liked by 1 person

    • theorangutanlibrarian says:

      hahaha omg- yes that makes a lot of sense- I’m sure I’ve read the occasional book where someone’s remarked on that, but yes, I agree that’s a logical thing to think if they just get a hug after. So yes, you’re one hundred percent right, hints are useful here and there, but I agree that we don’t need the nitty gritty all the time. Thank you!!

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Briana says:

    I think the interesting thing about writing is that you often have to be slightly unrealistic to write a book that sounds realistic. If I read a book that was literal about the way some people talk, with all the “likes” and “ums,” I’d probably find it annoying or think it was overdoing it to the point of stereotype. Or both. But some people DO say “like” every third word. You just can’t actually write that. People will think just a few “likes” sound more realistic.

    Liked by 1 person

    • theorangutanlibrarian says:

      hehe yes, funnily enough, I learnt that when I had to do transcripts for a job once- turns out that when they say they want you to write everything down, they don’t mean every “like” and “um” 😉 And yes I agree! You’re totally right!!

      Like

      • Briana says:

        Oh, that’s funny! I actually briefly worked on a journal that did interviews with authors. I had nothing to do with actually conducting them, but the editor did talk a lot about editing what the writer actually said so it sounded good and logical in print. It was definitely not about writing precisely what they had said in the interview!

        Liked by 1 person

          • Briana says:

            Yeah, it explained a lot to me about how people can just sound so polished and wise when they give interviews. I think I spent a lot of my childhood and even teens thinking that these people were just incredibly well-spoken, and maybe that just *happens* when you’re a famous author/politician/etc., but then it turned out that they hadn’t said that great-sounding stuff off-the-cuff at all. :p

            Liked by 1 person

            • theorangutanlibrarian says:

              hehehe yes! Or how a lot of people end up sounding the same, cos they have someone writing the quote for them (and I’ve done that too- someone remarked that when I did it a lot of people said the same things, but really, how many ways are there to say “thank you”? Especially with a deadline 😉 ) hahaha so true!

              Like

  11. Angelica (TheBookCoverGirls) says:

    I absolutely loved this! When certain books do these things to me it just looks like they are trying to hard. Every part of the book, however small, needs to be relevant to the plot. If not, I don’t see the point in adding it. We don’t need people having to use the bathroom every few chapters in order to realize that they are human and therefore pee. Novels, even fantasy ones, need to be grounded in reality, on what humans can, can’t, and need to do. And after that’s been established, we can happily move on. UNLESS, of course, someone peeing or showering is relevant to their development or overall plot.Then by all means, write that bathroom scene!

    Still, gotta admit, I always ask myself in books and movies, “doesn’t anyone ever get the need to go to the bathroom while all of this is happening?” or “I wonder how bad they smell since they’ve at this for days with no shower”. Sometimes it’s best not to wonder.

    Liked by 2 people

    • theorangutanlibrarian says:

      Thank you so much!! I definitely agree with you!! hahahaha so true!! I do think that people can go a bit overboard trying to prove people are in fact human, so they include totally unnecessary details which just come across as boring. I mean, I suppose it’s the difference between Bella Swan needing her “human moments” in the Twilight books (I didn’t like those but I could see why they were there) and the totally unnecessary scenes where she does something like laundry. Brilliantly put! hahahaha yes!

      That’s true! LOL! hahahaha

      Liked by 1 person

  12. LizScanlon says:

    Another good post, Magician blogger! 🙂
    I can agree with what you’ve said.. I read a book where teenage boys were messing about, doing you know, adventure stuff and naturally, the male toilet humor kind of fit.. especially because it was hilarious 😀
    What I don’t like… for example, I am having a major issue lately with most of the books I read including a whole ton of puking.. like- I know it’s a bodily function and all but jaysus, do we need to envisualize the grossness all the freaking time? Totally puts me off, personally..

    Liked by 1 person

    • theorangutanlibrarian says:

      hehe aww thank you!! 😀
      hehehe yes, I definitely get that. And I think that when it comes to humour, this just really fits in general 😉
      But yes, I definitely get what you mean- I definitely *don’t* need to read that- and not in graphic detail, cos, well “eww” (and I might be eating! authors should have a care! 😉 )

      Like

  13. raistlin0903 says:

    Well I guess it depends. I’m not one (usually) to really be turned off from very graphic descriptions. But then again I’m also not really looking forward to a full description on what someone is doing on a toilet lol 😂😂 That said, it all comes down to if it serves a function to the story or not. Great post about an interesting topic 😀

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Sophie @ Blame Chocolate says:

    I very much agree with everything you said! Not that I mind “realistic” things showing up in books on occasion… Like that one time Sarah J. Maas mentioned her main character’s period (in Throne of Glass). I really liked that! It served a purpose and it made sense. It was not simply thrown in for shock value or because the author had decided to be “edgy”.
    But everything has a time and place, and authors need to learn how to use those to their advantage.
    I certainly do not *need* these mundane/realistic things in my reading repertoire. If I want, I can just go read a contemporary. But I’m a fantasy fan, and quite frankly, mundane/realistic things can very easily bore me. Especially when there are too many of them. It’s nice when they are there for a reason, and they give the book a more relatable quality. But they’re not indispensable.
    I remember we talked about this in my previous review Dream Me, and when I came across this post I was like “YEAH, TELL ‘EM!!!” Hahaha but really, I was super excited about it!
    Another awesome discussion ^^ ❤

    Liked by 1 person

    • theorangutanlibrarian says:

      Thank you so much!! So glad you agree!! And yes I totally get that- I had so many examples of that sort of thing, but couldn’t include them all (so just went with Judy Blume) but it also came up in books by Tamora Pierce and in the Pellinor series. It wasn’t overdone, so it was good to include it, just to give a touch of realism.
      And yes, I completely agree!! Everything does have a time and place and yes I really like your point about it giving a certain amount of relatability! But it doesn’t need to be there all the time.
      hahaha yes!!! Thank you so so much!!! ❤

      Liked by 1 person

  15. Robert Davies says:

    Fantastic post – thanks for sharing! Love reading your blog. Agree completely re: Emin’s bed.

    I don’t particularly require realism in any books I read – insofar as I don’t want to read about every excruciating detail of a character’s life and or their bodily functions. I sometimes feel the same about sex scenes in books. I read a historical novel recently where the narrative was presented to us in the form of a woman’s diary, and the vast majority of times where sex was inserted (snigger) into the story, it had no bearing on the plot or any other kind of development. It was just present, for no real reason. Unnecessary scenes like this really bring me out of the immersion.

    I think all I want from the books I read is for the narrative to be representative of, and faithful to the book’s world.

    Liked by 1 person

    • theorangutanlibrarian says:

      Thank you so much! And I’m glad you agree!

      Yes I one hundred percent agree with you- there are of course books with sex as a main plot point (sniggers, but it’s true, there’s no use denying it) so obviously it serves a purpose (sniggers again- I have no level of maturity) I definitely agree with you though.

      Like

  16. Jackie B @ Death by Tsundoku says:

    Pft. You shouldn’t feel dirty. You’re right on point. Literature is art, and art should mimic life. But with purpose and intent. Shock value wears quickly. In my opinion, it wears more quickly in text than it does through images and sound. A character or their world isn’t fully-fleshed out unless they take a bath or go to the bathroom or have a period or a runny nose or something. They need bodily functions to prove they aren’t a Barbie! But it needs to be common and well-placed. I don’t need to read about your runny nose every 5 pages. For sure.

    Liked by 1 person

  17. Lashaan (Bookidote) says:

    Ahhh fantastic post you got here! I honestly never thought I’d ever read about such a thing while blogging, ever. 😛 Purpose is definitely the main criteria here. There’s a reason why a bunch of stories don’t talk about the character’s needing to piss or brush their teeth…

    Liked by 1 person

  18. Nicola @ Thoughts on Fantasy says:

    Great post!! Such an interesting topic. I often hear complaints about characters in fantasy books never needing to ‘relieve themselves’ and to be honest, at first I agreed and thought, yes that’s implausible! But after a while I realised most of the time it’s just not relevant to the story and doesn’t fit the style – as you pointed out. Certainly those characters do answer the call of nature ‘off stage’, and there are times when it’s relevant to mention it, but do we really need to hear about it every time? Oh and I totally agree with you about that GoT assassination – that was so unique and shocking, and it really added a different dynamic to the scene!

    Liked by 1 person

  19. theorangutanlibrarian says:

    Thank you so much! Yeah I’ve seen that criticism a lot, but to be frank never agree with it. Yeah exactly- I always assume that they’re going off stage and doing normal human things, so I don’t really worry about it tbh. And also, I can always think of several examples where it does get mentioned (and because it’s rare, I rarely mind it) hehehe I know right!!

    Like

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