Vomiting As An Overused, Overworked Symbol!

I was just reading a book recently, one which, unfortunately, has had the bad fortune of putting me to sleep every time I pick it up. My most recent reason for falling asleep was when the main character vomited upon identifying his dead wife at the morgue.  Oh, please, not again, not another character vomiting in the face of great trauma!

Now, in writing this blog, I haven’t wanted to name any names or pick on any specific writer, because I’m a writer myself and I feel for anyone who gets criticized re their writing.  So that’s not my intent here, and if I’m talking vomiting scenes, there are so many sinners, it goes well beyond counting.

What I’d like to do is make a general observation and recommend some solutions to it.  This is what I’ve observed.  It is almost a universal truth that in any movie, television series, or book that when a protagonist faces an  extraordinarily horrific situation like seeing several dead bodies disemboweled, or something of that nature, he or she will throw up.

It has gotten so bad this throwing up business that the act of throwing up in fiction has become a veritable cliché, even with truly great writers.  If you doubt my word, simply go into google and look up vomiting scenes in literature or vomiting scenes in movies.  These vomit scenes are so darned well ubiquitous to the point where as soon as I observe a main character heading for the toilet bowl, or as Kat in the blog site “Book Thingo” described it, the “porcelain goddess” my boredom meter spikes upward, thus my habit of falling asleep which I described at the start of this blog.

It is just beyond belief for the average person to accept that such a great majority of literary characters has a single, vomitous reaction to trauma.  As J. Abram Barneck states, it becomes very difficult to suspend disbelief, which is essential to really get excited about a story, if the main character keeps on throwing up at “every little thing.”  To me, the fact that such a large number of writers uses vomiting as a symbol of, oh my goodness, my main character is in distress, represents a widespread intellectual and spiritual bankruptcy on the part of so many writers, unless you want to simply ascribe responsibility for this nonsense on pure and simple laziness.

If you doubt my conclusion that this propensity for substituting vomiting for true writing prowess is pure laziness, let me tell you all the other ways other than vomiting that you can use to portray your main character’s distress.  Here are a few:

  1. Your character’s face can drain of all color
  2. Your character can faint dead away
  3. Your character can sob, wring his or her hands, cry
  4. Your character can suffer apoplexy—very common in 19th century novels
  5. Your character can find it hard to breathe
  6. Your character can experience heart palpitations
  7. Your character can moan and groan and state something on the level of “Woe is me!”
  8. Your character can become motionless and expressionless like stone
  9. Your character can change into another one of his hidden personalities
  10. Your character can place his or hand over his or her heart and bow his or her head

You see!  There are any number of ways to describe the distress of your characters without having them vomit, so why has laziness won the day?  Vomiting is the lazy writer’s shorthand for distress.  It also shows disregard for the fact that vomiting as a physical process isn’t as easy as it sounds.  That’s why, in reality, vomiting as a response to trauma is on the rare side.

Any writers worthy of the name should have the imagination to do considerably more with their characters .  So writers, stop grossing us all out, dig in, and get creative about describing protagonists as they face the horrendous.  Isn’t that what good writing is all about and don’t we all aspire to the very best?

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