Food is an important part of human activity.
You might be breaking bread with a former enemy, enjoying a meal with old friends, or scrabbling to survive in a post-apocalyptic wasteland.
But how much focus do you actually put on food when you’re designing your characters?
Food can be a tremendous way to improve your character design.
This post explores how you can use food for your own writing.
After all, one of the most famous movie lines revolves around a particular meal.
“I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice chianti.”
That line tells us so much about the kind of guy Hannibal Lecter is. Not only is he a cannibal, he’s also one that’s very particular about his food. Fine dining meets a social taboo.
I decided to go with Date 4, “Cook Something Luxurious”.
Do you know what your characters like to eat?
Sounds like an odd question, but it’s a valid one nonetheless. Food can be an easy way to highlight the era of your story. After all, it would be totally common for a poor milliner’s assistant to eat oysters as street food in the 19th century.
Or maybe your characters are used to eating game birds or rare foods. In this context, food lets you highlight their class without you having to be explicit.
And let’s be honest, the more you can show your character, the stronger they’ll appear in the reader’s mind.
In The Necromancer’s Rogue, the forthcoming sequel to The Necromancer’s Apprentice, Jyx compares the lush, fresh produce available in the City Above with the mouldy or dry scraps on offer in the Underground City.
It’s a super easy way to show the economic differences between the two cities without me having to say “One is super rich and the other is essentially a slum”.
Can your characters cook?
If they can cook, what do they like to make? If they can’t cook, how do they manage?
And let’s be honest here, what they make, or don’t make, is another good way of showing their class, their upbringing, their culture, and many more character traits.
This is especially important if you write dystopian or post-apocalyptic fiction. Cooking isn’t just something you do as part of your daily routine. It’s a matter of survival.
So with a lack of typical food sources, what does your character do? How far will they go?
Think about Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Other characters resort to cannibalism, but the father is determined that he and his son will not follow suit. Preserving their sense of civilisation is almost as important as survival itself.
So how do you use food in your story?
I consider there are two ways to do it. First of all, you can use it in the character design itself.
Wingfield suggests that you actually write about the role of food in your novel or short story. Perhaps you want to discuss a character’s earliest food memory. Or maybe their favourite cake.
In this case, you’re not actually writing food into the story, you’re freewriting about food in the story. I’ve written a post on the value of freewriting if you’d like to know more.
This will give you loads of valuable tidbits you can weave throughout the story. Perhaps a character mentions something in passing or the sight of a particular type of food triggers a memory.
The smell of a certain food is even more powerful, particularly since smells often trigger memories.
Alternatively, you can put eating smack bang in the middle of the narrative.
Wingfield suggests that you set two of your characters into conflict on a food-related matter.
Are they fighting over the last scraps? Has one of them caused the destruction of the other’s supply?
Are they arguing over whether or not they should start eating their crewmates?
You can free-write (or improvise) these scenes and you’ll learn so much about your characters and their inner lives in the process!
Over to you! Do your characters mention food a lot? Is it something you might introduce into your story? Let me know!
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