It was twenty years ago or so—seems insane to imagine it was that long ago—that I happened to be watching an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation with my mother. I’m a full-on Trekkie, an utterly unashamed fan of all things Trek (except Voyager, really, and the new movie, but don’t get me started) and I always have been—at least since I was two. I’ve already posted about how I don’t remember my first exposure to Star Trek. I’ve just been a fan as long as I can remember.

Anyway, my mother is not a Trekkie, and in general pretty much just dismissed Star Trek as a goofy show for nerdy kids, like me. She wasn’t against it or anything—very little was actually “banned” from our house—but she never once went out of her way to watch it. I have no recollection of the circumstances that led up to her sitting there watching some random ST:TNG episode with me, but I’ll never forget this comment she made, which I think she meant as some kind of criticism. I don’t recall her exact words, either, but it went something like this:

“Everybody on this show is always so busy with such important stuff—saving the universe, doing science experiments. Doesn’t anyone ever go to the bathroom? They never just go to the bathroom.”

Kirk and Spock, struck by the Deneb Dribbles, Race to the Bathroom

Without much thinking, I responded that, sure, the Enterprise crew probably did go to the bathroom, but they’re only showing us less than an hour (accounting for commercials) of activity that stretches over at least a day or two, sometimes much longer, so they only have time to show us the significant, exciting, universe-saving, scientifically groundbreaking stuff. It’s sort of assumed that the characters occasionally go to the bathroom, but no one wants to waste one of those precious minutes on that when there’s a star about to go super nova.

I think we kind of laughed it off, though she continued to maintain that the fact that Captain Picard never excused himself to take a leak somehow made the show “unrealistic.”

In The Guide to Writing Fantasy & Science Fiction I’ll tell you how much I hate that word, “unrealistic,” and pontificate on the difference between realism and plausibility. This is at the heart of the question as to why we never saw any of the Star Trek characters in the toilet, though it certainly would be “realistic” that even in the far-flung future people will still have to poop.

The quest for “realism” is a not-uncommon trap for SF and fantasy authors, and has been the downfall of many. Once you introduce a dragon, or warp drive, to your story, “realistic” has gone right out the window. Truman Capote wrote “realistic” books, as did Ernest Hemingway and Nelson Algren, and good for them—all three are authors I admire. But in no way is there any requirement that SF or fantasy be “realistic.” That’s not what the audience is looking for. Though some “hard” SF endeavors for a stronger sense of realism, with authors like Greg Bear and Isaac Asimov doing painstaking research into the cutting edge of science and engineering to imbue their SF tales with some degree of scientific accuracy. But still, there has to be some imagined technology, some leap from what is possible to what might be possible, or it isn’t science fiction at all.

Fantasy throws that right out the window, with no apologies whatsoever. How does the Wicked Witch fly around on a broomstick? Magic. End of discussion.

But having your SF and fantasy characters go to the bathroom might actually make them more plausible—believable within the fully imagined context of your created world/future. And plausibility is absolutely essential, even to the wildest flights of fancy. Plausibility comes out of internal consistency. If the Wicked Witch can fly on her broomstick in Chapter 1, she can do it again in Chapter 2. If you make it clear that she can only go about 100 miles an hour, then it will be implausible a few chapters later when she breaks the sound barrier. Both are inherently “unrealistic,” but fantasy and SF readers want “unrealistic,” while at the same time demanding “plausible.”

That might now make it seem as though I’m advising you to inject at least one scene per novel in which the hero excuses himself to go to the bathroom—or does any in a long list of mundane things that people do (scratch his forehead, sneeze, or fart) that don’t necessarily have anything to do with the action at hand.

But I’m not. I’m really, really not.

It turns out that my off-the-cuff response to my mother was dead-on.

The real reason that Captain Picard never seemed to have to pee is it doesn’t matter that on the way to Ceti Alpha Five (or whatever) he took a potty break, it matters that the Enterprise is on its way at Warp Factor 9 to Ceti Alpha Five to defeat the Romulan spies and protect the Federation colony there from certain destruction. In the less-than-an-hour we have with the Enterprise crew each week, we only want the highlights, and the entire audience (with the exception of my mother, I guess) is willing to stipulate that somewhere in there they went to the bathroom, shaved, took a shower, brushed their teeth, had breakfast, and so on.

For the record, a plan of the Enterprise-D bridge, including Picard's "HEAD."

As you’re writing, in your vain effort to be “realistic,” you may find yourself concentrating on small details. Small details aren’t inherently bad, but insignificant details are. What makes a detail insignificant? The answer to that is easy: It doesn’t move the story forward. Even in a long-form novel in which you have lots, lots more elbow room to tell your story than any TV scriptwriter enjoys, know that your readership has come to you for entertainment and enlightenment, not slavish adherence to biological functions and the mundane logistics of day-to-day life. It may tell us something about a character and the situation he’s in that he scratches his forehead—he’s been infected by Denebian Itch Virus, or he’s nervous about having to talk to the princess—and if that’s true, tell us he scratched his forehead. If he’s just doing that to “seem more realistic,” readers will either attach undue significance to the action—and be confused later when it turns out the character doesn’t have Denebian Itch Virus—or will grow bored at having to sit through the hero’s grocery shopping, or be grossed out by vivid descriptions of his bowel movements.

If you make us watch that, he better shit aliens.

—Philip Athans


About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Writing Monsters. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, (https://fantasyhandbook.wordpress.com/) is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
This entry was posted in Publishing Business, Science Fiction & Fantasy Novels, Writing Science Fiction & Fantasy and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.


  1. octoberrose says:

    I have to say that most “realistic” fiction I read doesn’t involve characters going to the bathroom either.

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  4. Sean Durity says:

    Great title on this one!

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