Feed Your Characters: Using Food as a World-Building Tool
Today we’re going to talk about three of my very favorite
things: reading, writing and food. And while we do so, I’m going to
sporadically torture you with obscene #foodporn GIFs.
In most stories, the food of the world is probably going to be a minor background detail, but it’s still an important one. And it’s something that can be really fun to play with! Using the depiction of food in your writing can both help to immerse your readers in the world by cluing them in to the culture and setting, and also to add some flavor (ha!) to your narrative.
Using food in your story can also help to lend your voice authenticity. But because of this, it’s important to do your research, especially if you’re writing a story set in a culture—whether a real-life one or a fictional one that you’re basing on a real-life one—that you’re not personally familiar with.
For one random example: Did you know that if you go to a pub in Ireland, you will probably not be able to find a cheeseburger anywhere? You might be able to walk into just about any Irish pub in the U.S. and get one, but they’re few and very far between in the motherland. You’d be more likely to eat something like fish and chips or lamb stew or seafood chowder (my personal fave pub food). I know that because I studied abroad there. But if I hadn’t known that and had written a story where my main character chowed down on burgers in the middle of Galway, that could have lost me credibility with any readers who knew better.
So, sure, there are some perils with adding foodie details to your writing. But when it’s done right, it can be a really great way to transport your readers to another place.
Our very own Kimberly Karalius is a great example of this. She uses food all the time in both Love Fortunes and Other Disasters and Love Charms and Other Catastrophes, and the detail completely brings her fictional town of Grimbaud to life. Her characters snack on chocolate-drizzled waffles and pralines and twice-baked fries dipped in mayonnaise. They drink tea and munch on savory fish stew and honey-roasted endives and parsnips for dinner. Is your mouth watering yet? The inclusion of these details gives Grimbaud a charming, whimsical feel that is pitch-perfect for the stories that take place there. And in a story where setting plays such a big, important role, it’s imperative that the details fit the spirit of the setting.
Food can also help you move your characters forward. I love using my all-time favorite author Tamora Pierce to illustrate this point. For those of you who have read her books (and those who haven’t, I implore you to do so at your earliest convenience), have you ever noticed that her characters never just sit there?
Even if her characters need a moment to just sit and talk, they never JUST sit and talk. If they can’t be walking or doing some other activity while they speak, she plunks them down and gives them food. Her dialogue usually might sound something like this:
“I can’t believe you did the thing,” Person A said, calmly peeling an orange.
Person B selected a grape from the platter and crushed it between her thumb and forefinger. “I had to do the thing. The fate of the kingdom depended on it.”
(Except her dialogue is far and away better and more interesting than mine, obvs.)
Tamora is awesome at keeping her characters active. They never stagnate or get bogged down in dialogue because she keeps them occupied on some level at all times. Having an orange to peel or a grape to crush probably won’t play any significant role in your character’s arc, but it could help to keep them from ever being too still, and your reader might have an easier time sticking with them.
Food can be a very powerful world-building tool in your writing arsenal. It’s something that’s deeply ingrained in cultures all around the world. It’s something that can bring characters together or comfort your MC when they’re all alone. And it can be a really fun part of your setting.So, as a writing exercise sometime, maybe give your character(s) a snack and see what they do with it. This is one case where it’s totally OK to play with your food!