For me, the best fictional worlds feel just real enough to draw me into them. That doesn’t mean that I don’t enjoy the fantastical because, well, Outlander…and Harry Potter…and Lord of the Rings…and Game of Thrones…
Well, you get the idea.
But what really draws me into a story are those little touches with which I can identify. The sounds, and smells, those “been there done that” bits woven into the tapestry of the story. Those moments when I see my own imperfections in the characters I love.
Once of my favorite, snort-laugh-worthy moments in the Outlander series occurs in Dragonfly in Amber. Claire had just returned from getting her legs waxed. Jamie was not amused because, well, God Himself put the hair there. No, seriously, Jamie had seen it there just the day before. Where the heck did it go?! (and, for the love of all that is holy, WHY did it go?!) Sensing his indignation and alarm, Claire tries to mollify him:
“It might have been worse, you know,” I said, sponging the inside of one thigh. “Louise had all her body hair removed.”
That startled him back into English, at least temporarily. “What, she’s taken the hairs off her honeypot?” he said horrified into uncharacteristic vulgarity.
It made me laugh so hard I had an asthma attack (yes, apparently laughter induced asthma is A Thing). But it wasn’t the fact that it was funny that stuck with me—it was that it addressed an issue that I have: whenever I read books, I get distracted by wondering how a character’s legs are so smooth if she’s been on a deserted island for six months, and why no female protagonists ever seem to have a menstrual cycle…or stray hairs needing plucking…or acne… How come they never seem to sweat, or have bad breath, or fart? Seriously! It’s like they’re not even human! Oh, wait, right…
Still, perhaps that’s one of the reason that I love certain books—because we get to see characters with warts (both literal and figurative), and we get to see how they actually cope with being less than Fancy-Shiny-Airbrushed.
While many books have a few elements of the ordinary thrown in to keep us Mere Mortal Readers from totally forgoing our Willing Suspension of Disbelief* and tossing the book aside (along with our well-wept-over fashion magazines), some books really own their characters’ humanity. Outlander owns it.
I don’t care how much you character-crush on him: James Alexander Malcom MacKenzie Fraser farts. He does. More than once. (It was not just a token fart.) Not only that, but his hair sticks up weird sometimes. Also, he actually does have body hair, quite a bit of it, in fact (no manscaping here!), and his nose gets snotty when he cries. Did I mention he cries? Because, yeah, people sometimes do that when they’re sad.
Claire gets snotty when she cries, too. She also hip on all the best 18th Century Things With Which To Wipe Your Bum. She talks about birth control pre-Pill. She talks about orgasms and masturbation and other things that People Really Talk About.
But perhaps the part that makes her unlike a lot of female characters is books is that she doesn’t live in a vacuum; over the years, Claire changes…she ages. She talks about her spider veins, and the silver in her hair, and her waning fertility.
She is a bit like the BFF who you’ve known since sixth grade. Sure she’s changed…you both have. But you live with the changes–day in and day out–so it all seems so gradual that when you look at in the mirror you still see your youthful face staring back from behind the wrinkles.
People gain weight and lose weight. They get wrinkles and have scars. Also, sometimes, they…well…stink. Outlander is a virtual olfactory oasis. The reader is regaled with descriptions of odors, both good and bad. Men don’t smell like aftershave; they smell like a wood fire (or a peat fire, depending which book you’re reading). Jamie frequently carries the tang of sweat or musky maleness about him; while Claire smells of her wee herbs or, if she’d been making a poultice, perhaps the sharp bite of onion. But very rarely do we greet them freshly bathed and perfectly coiffed (and when we do, such coiffing seems to be rather against their will—remember Jenny dragging a brush through their tangled hair and tugging out all manner of dried leaves and vegetation?).
So, yeah. My favorite books have farting. And crying. And snotty noses. They have tangled hair and make-up sex. They have flawed people doing stupid things for good reasons. They have fights and misunderstandings and grudges. The stories are often messy, and bloody, and unfair.
Just like life.
* Thanks, Coleridge! (And thanks Professor Stenson…see, I did listen in class!)