Wednesday, January 5, 2011

How do you write about bums?*

No, seriously. I have to describe a bum in my book because my character has one and some of the other ones do as well. But I'm stumped. How do I go about this exactly? How do I write about that thing that fills out jeans and sits in chairs and gets warmed up by a boyfriend's VW heated seat and looks depressed in a bathing suit after the age of 30? There are so many words that I could employ, but not a one feels a right.

trunk (+ junk)

Each one of those options feels cheap and embarrassing -- not worthy of a mention in my manuscript. So the problem remains a problem: In literature, where do "bums" fit in?

Here are two examples of the kind of sentences I'm struggling with:

It was short and tight and accentuated everything round about him. His stomach, his ass, his two rolling chins.

The hall, no not just hall, the entire suburb itself was reserved for high-end Italian weddings and the sizeable hair and asses that squeezed their way into them.

As you can see, I've talked myself into using "ass" the most because my character's father swore a lot. But in reality, I know that I've really only used that term because it sounds the least lame.

The problem isn't really a problem when a word for "bum" is used in dialogue. Here's an example of that:

"And not like here where you hide from your neighbours and you can't even look into the eyes of the guy with his hand on your bum on the subway because you're worried he has a knife in his shoe."

"Bum" works in this instance because it's in the character's voice and for some reason is therefore acceptable to me. Otherwise though? When I have to use a word for what I'm sitting on in the exposition, in the heart of my literary art?... I'm just not sure. Has anyone else had this problem? If so, what word did you settle on for "bum" and why?

*And yes, this blog post was brought to you by Keeping Up with the Kardashians. And yes, I actually typed "bums" into Google images. I wouldn't recommend it.


  1. Instead of describing things in narration, could you describe them through the eyes of a character? Then you could use "ass" all you wanted, since it would technically almost be dialogue, but not really.

    Or you could use the terms trouser apples and pants titties in narration. That might work, right? Right?

  2. "Trouser apples" it is! Thanks Matt, I knew you would be the guy to solve this particular problem.

  3. I agree with Matt, about using the word your narrator would choose. In The 29th Day, I used "buttocks" as it sounds cheeky (ha ha). It is also technically accurate and somewhat awkward ... which also sums up my narrator. That said I just did a keyword search in my MS and discovered this word 4 times, without me having contemplated the matter at all. Perhaps I should have!

  4. "Buttocks." Your choice is a fascinating one, Evadne. It says a lot about your character. For me, no matter what word I use -- even if it fits with the narrator's voice -- "bum" in any form, still looks ridiculous. Maybe I should scrap the word altogether and use "part which shall not be named." Look what it did for J.K. Rowling's career.

  5. I third the "what would the narrator say?" approach. Maybe the narrator would be too embarrassed to say anything.

    You could also say something along the lines that he's wearing a nice pair of jeans -- that would likely get the point across...


  6. Hi Graham. A nice pair of jeans! You're on to something! Now, would I have to use quotation marks, you think? Something like "a nice pair of jeans" and then follow that up with a "wink wink"?