Posted by: Phil Anderson | February 8, 2015

What are you eating?

I’m not asking you to post pictures of your meal, but I want to expand on last week’s post and the question of how fictional characters meet their basic needs. Food is a central consideration of daily life, and it only makes sense for writers use it to their advantage.

The first decision to make is what people eat. Almost every day when we arrive home from work my son asks what’s for dinner. I always give him the same answer: “Food.” But that means different things to different people in different settings.

Characters in a novel set in the future might eat a lot of processed food, packaged in convenient containers. People in a historical setting would more likely eat food they had to grow or kill themselves. Those who live by the sea tend to have fish in their diet while mountain dwellers and desert nomads would not. Travelers need meals that are quick, simple, and portable while dinner at a palace or mansion can be quite elaborate.

I enjoy the Redwall books by Brian Jacques for their description of the feasts at Redwall Abbey. The flavors and smells are palatable, and my mouth waters at foods I would never eat in real life, with ingredients like herbs, roots, berries, and bark.

Besides the obvious consideration of what is being eaten, meals can make many other useful contributions to a novel. People gathered around a table or a cook fire have an opportunity to talk and share information, making conversation and dialogue feel easier and more natural. The way people eat, their reaction to others eating, and even food choices can reveal character traits that would otherwise be hard to show.

Meals can also be a subtle way to show the passage of time. Most readers have a sense of the distance between midday lunch and evening dinner. We know the feeling and roughly how long it takes to get really hungry. And there’s the time and work involved in preparing and cleaning up after eating.

Do you have examples about food from your favorite stories? Was it used to provide information or characterization? Did it perhaps go too far and make you set down the book to get a snack? Share your stories in the comments below.

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