Let’s talk about some of your basic biological functions. They’re often not pretty or pleasant, but it’s kind of an accepted fact of life that we all have them. Like breathing, I just assume they happen, and so I’m perplexed when I encounter comments like, “People in fiction never have to go to the bathroom!” There’s even a “Nobody Poops” TV Tropes entry for it.
My response to that sort of complaint is usually a Scooby-Doo style “Ruurghh?” Are some people really so literal-minded that they need to be shown characters peeing for the sole purpose of establishing that they do indeed pee? Pictures or didn’t happen?
Of course people in fiction go to the bathroom (well, there are always exceptions to be made in fantasy and SF scenarios). But unless there’s something significant about it, I just assume the characters take care of their business off stage. Is a bowel movement going to tell me something interesting or revealing about a character or the setting? Is it going to advance the plot in some way? No? Then I don’t need to hear about it. Get on with the story.
Now, there are times when depicting things like urination and defecation actually do serve the story. The first example I thought of is Margo Lanagan’s “A Thousand Flowers” from the anthology Zombies vs. Unicorns. The story opens thusly:
I walked away from the fire, in among the trees. I was looking for somewhere to relieve myself of all the ale I’d drunk, and I had told myself—goodness knows why—in my drunkenness that I must piss where there were no flowers.
We then get several paragraphs of the poor sot trying to find a flowerless patch of earth before he’s finally able to relieve himself. Why does this work for me? Partly because it’s funny, but mostly because it tells me a lot about the character and what he values. No matter how drunk he is, no matter how badly he needs to pee, he respects this beautiful part of nature so much that he will go ridiculously out of his way not to sully it. Also, his search for an appropriate spot to pee also advances the plot as it leads to him stumbling upon an unconscious girl who appears to have been assaulted—a crime he is then falsely accused of when a bunch of soldiers show up.
Or, for an example from a different media, one of my favorite scenes in Battlestar Galactica is the conversation Baltar and Gaeta have in the bathroom in the episode “Six Degrees of Separation.” Unfortunately, I couldn’t find a video clip of the scene, but here’s a picture that sadly cannot convey just how awesome the foot acting in this scene is:
Baltar: “So how’s it going over there?”
Baltar: “In the lab, that is. I’m talking about the photograph.”
In addition to being hilarious, their conversation is relevant to the plot, and it’s a great character moment—Baltar is so desperate for information about the photograph Gaeta is enhancing (a photo that could condemn or absolve Baltar of a crime) that he follows him into the bathroom, where the poor guy becomes a captive and highly uncomfortable audience. And Gaeta is so determined to get out of this awkward conversation that he races from the bathroom as soon as he’s able, leading to Baltar’s hilarious, “Wait, you didn’t wash your hands!”
So yes, if it serves the story, I’m all for portrayals of characters answering the call of nature. But if someone actually needs to see characters peeing and pooping in order to accept that those characters do in fact have such bodily needs, I have to question their priorities as a reader. Really, if you just like depictions of people vacating their bowels and bladders, I’m sure there’s a place on the internet that can hook you up.