Food. Water. Shelter. Bathrooms. There are a few basic things that we humans need in order to survive, and a few other things that might not be entirely necessary but that we’d definitely notice if they weren’t available.
Generally in contemporary books, these things are common and available and not an issue. But what about books set in the past? Dystopian books? Post-apocalyptic books? Books in which characters are stranded on an island or in the wilderness? These things do become a problem in those situations, and I don’t know about you, but I tend to notice if they’re just completely overlooked by the author.
That’s exactly what happened in a book I read recently, and since it fits perfectly with my Realism in Books series, let’s talk about it!
Food & Water
Food and water are literally our two most basic of needs. We die without them. These aren’t the kinds of things that can be ignored. If characters live in contemporary or comfortable times, I really don’t need to know about it every time they eat. I assume they’re eating their meals in between the parts that I’m privy to. But if food and water aren’t just a given wherever the characters are living, I still don’t need to read about every meal, but I need to at least know where the food and water is coming from.
For example, I read a book recently in which two characters got stranded on a planet for days, but it was mentioned that they had some protein bars they managed to grab from their ship, and they had a canteen with a filter that they filled any time they came across a water source. They were still hungry and dehydrated because they didn’t have much and were rationing and sharing, but they had enough to survive, and it was all very believable and realistic given the situation.
But that’s another thing, when characters don’t have much food or water, then they would be hungry and dehydrated and probably weak because of it. So if a character is living in a situation without much food or water, I expect these things to be a factor. The characters shouldn’t feel perfect and strong after days or weeks with little sustenance, they shouldn’t never feel hunger or thirst, etc.
For example, in the book I mentioned in the intro, the characters were eating old canned food that they managed to salvage, and it sounded like they were each getting three cans a day (one for each meal), and they weren’t even full meals like soup—the MC just kept eating canned corn. I’d be starving all the time if all I had to eat was three cans of corn a day, for weeks. And canned corn isn’t much sustenance or nutrients, so the characters should’ve been not only hungry but also not at their best physically. And drinking water wasn’t even mentioned, so that also would’ve made them not at their best. Yet they all seemed to be fantastically healthy and never even experienced any hunger or thirst.
Bathing, brushing teeth, etc. might not be completely necessary to survival, but they’re definitely things you’d notice if you weren’t able to do them.
For example, back to that book that inspired this post, the characters didn’t have running water. As I mentioned, I don’t even know what they were drinking. All I know is that the character mentioned at one point having to hunt down water to rinse mud out of her hair, and she never mentioned bathing. That leads me to believe the characters weren’t bathing. And ok, they have to conserve water—I totally understand doing what you gotta do in a survival situation. However, you would definitely still notice if you and everyone around you hadn’t bathed in weeks, especially if you were living in an enclosed space. Number one, you yourself would just feel dirty and grimy, which would be bothersome. Number two, it would smell. And the fact that things weren’t mentioned made the whole book feel completely unrealistic.
Let me make this clear, I neither need nor want to know the details of what goes on while a character is in the bathroom. However, depending on the living situation, what the characters are doing about bathrooms is still something the author should figure out, even if they ultimately decide it doesn’t need to be mentioned. Not only does it add to the realism, it can also add to the atmosphere, the world-building, or even the plot.
For example, I read one book in which there was an alien apocalypse and one of the characters and his dad made themselves a bunker in their basement or some room in their house… except they failed to take into account the bathroom situation. They used a bucket, but eventually it got full and the character couldn’t take the stench anymore and snuck outside to empty it but ended up getting attacked by an alien when he did so which moved the plot forward in a completely believable way.
For another example, I read another book that was post-apocalypse and all the characters were living on an airship, but there was a divide between the upper-deckers and the lower-deckers. The bathroom for the lower-deckers was only briefly mentioned, but it sounded awful, and it helped to reinforce just how terrible the living situation was for them.
My Overall Thoughts About Basic Necessities in Books
In case it wasn’t obvious by now, I think basic necessities in books are important, and they should be taken into account by the author. In certain situations they don’t all need to be mentioned or explained, but in some situations there does need to be some mention of them or else it makes the book feel completely unrealistic, like things are too easy and perfect for the characters, and like the author simply didn’t want to figure out the world-building or logistics because it was too much work. Including these things in a book can go a long way toward making a book feel realistic, three-dimensional, and well thought-out.