Monday, June 20, 2016

Characters Are What They Eat

How ever cliché it may seem, our characters usually need some type of sustenance to survive. While some stories can work around bodily necessities, others are forced to face them on the page or the author needs to use them to further the story. Be careful of the pitfalls of foodie scenes, though. Don’t use them to let the characters tell backstory or plot their next moves. It slows pacing. All too often, the scenes are set at a restaurant, home, or bar with predictable interruptions from wait staff or patrons. Make sure the story can’t be told in another manner. Food scenes are often overused by novice writers, much like scenes that include dreams or waking up in the morning and starting the day.

A spicy pepper and chicken dinner cooked and devoured in China.
Does your character like spicy food? How spicy?
So how can writers include these often necessary eating scenes and not make them cringe-worthy to editors or readers? By making them unique and bringing out more about the characters through showing, not telling backstory. Exactly what does that mean? How do you make a scene unique? How can we feed characters and move the story along at the same time?

Stick with me and I’ll give you a few bites to consider.
1. Use a food scene to show (not tell) a character’s background.
2. Go beyond the obvious.
3. Find out what’s particular to your story’s location.
4. Use food or eating to move your story forward.
5. Don’t forget to use the senses beyond smell and taste.

1. Use a food scene to bring out a character’s background.
More is revealed about a character when she is out of her element. Think about using a food scene to put at least one of your characters in an uncomfortable position. Is a character rich and can’t imagine a place that doesn’t offer warm hand cloths upon being seated, let alone eat street vendor food in Cambodia? Is your heroine poor, rarely eats out, or has a favorite pooch so finds nothing wrong with stuffing leftovers in an oversized purse? Is your hero in trouble and needs food, so resorts to old ways (stealing) to stay alive (or he’s with a heroine who dumpster dives after he complains about being famished because they are stuck in an alley for 24 hours to avoid bad guys). Use the actions of eating to reveal details about a character’s character or their background.

For example: Your hero and heroine are young so make a date for pizza. The hero takes her to a “special” place. She likes thick crust, pineapple, and fresh tomatoes. He tells her it’s not on the menu, but tugs her into the kitchen. The people in back smile as he snatches up dough and works it. During his show of tossing and creating her perfect pizza, she discovers his uncle owned the place and everyone in the family was expected to help out. Since he learned his craft, you can assume he has some work ethic. Or he worked at the restaurant after being caught stealing or painting graffiti on the building, and the owners/staff grew to like him. Why? Or as a wealthy kid, he’d made his first million at eighteen after betting his father a few years earlier he could invest a million and double his money (and he bought a gourmet pizza chain after learning the craft inside out).

You can also tell a lot about a character’s personality by what they drink. Every country, county, and frequently town has a special drink. Does your character drink moonshine, soju, foreign beer, pisco sours, champagne, or beer made by a local brewery? Is he a rich guy who disdains wine and hard liquor, but loves beer? Or a poor guy willing to do anything for French champagne?

Soju. A typical, inexpensive alcohol drink in Korea,
often mixed with a clear soda. Can be found in US, too.

2. Go beyond the obvious.
Your hero is helping a woman escape and are fleeing in an Asian jungle. The power bars are gone and they need food or will starve to death, particularly the muscled hero whose expertise is desert survival. Rain brings out flying bugs. The woman disappears, but later the hero finds her playing in the dirt, following male termites who have shook off their wings and are looking to mate. She has collected a good number of fat female termites and will cook them up in an old can they have secured. He learns how she helped her family survive in hard times by collecting the delicacy to sell at market. Or termites could be a favorite food she desperately misses after having run away and only rarely comes back home to see family (perhaps she’s afraid of a former opium lord that lurks in her mountain village). You could tell the same story using stir-fry crickets. Yeah, I just happen to have a photo of those.
Stir fried crickets cooked up at a small Cambodian village.

3. Find out what is particular to your story’s location.
On a trip I took to the southern states years ago, it was particularly cold and freezing. We stopped in a small restaurant in Georgia for dinner. Even though living in Ohio at the time, the cold had followed us south and I wanted to warm up. So I ordered tea. Imagine my surprise with they delivered a glass of ice-filled sweet tea. “Bless your heart, sweetie. You’re in the south. If you want hot tea without sugar, you have to tell us.”

When a British character exploring the world claims to love barbecue, his friend brings him a skewer with roasted frogs. Americans are frequently known for not wanting heads or tails on their fish dinners. Does your character try to fit in when traveling abroad or demand the fish eye staring back at them be removed?
Skewered frogs from a Thai street market. Highlighted in yellow circle.
Check out the other fish and eels.

4. Use food or eating to move your story forward.
Perhaps your character is from a foreign country and now lives in an American city. He craves coffee, tea or perhaps fresh bread made like back in his home country. Waiting at a special bakery in his multi-cultural city, he overhears something he shouldn’t. He suspects the people might be terrorists and tells authorities, but they level their suspicions at him instead of taking appropriate action. This could be the start to a mystery or thriller.
Flat bread baking in a Moroccan oven in Fez.

5. Don’t forget to use the senses beyond smell and taste.
You’ve seen on television a man holding a teapot way above a glass and pouring. The hot tea gurgles as it hits the glass. Food on a hot plate sizzles and flames up when sherry sauce is poured over it. It’s loud enough to turn heads in a restaurant. This is the perfect time to slip something incriminating into someone’s pocket or purse. Could popcorn at a movie theater remind a former soldier of gunfire?


Go forth and write your foodie scenes, keeping in mind a few of these ideas to make your scene unique, and your characters bigger than life.

6 comments:

Julie Moffett said...

Totally excellent blog. Although I could have done without the photo of the stir fried crickets!! Ha! Seriously, this is a great reminder of how food can play a role in a story and in character development. Well done!!

jean harrington said...

I enjoyed this post, Sandy, especially since a critique partner told me the character I'm developing needs to crave more "ethnic", read southern food. For example, she hates fresh salads--greens should be cooked and limp. Grits go great with eggs. And pecan pie is a tradition in her home town though personally she never touches the stuff. It goes straight to her hips.

Your comments are right on and explore a part of setting that is all too often overlooked. Thank you.

Rita said...

Oh! Sandy this is wonderful. I do use food in each story. My favorite is the heroine 'loves' thick sliced bologna and p-nut butter wrap. ALl she would eat one whole summer because she was mad at her father and she grew to like it. Shrug.

Sandy Parks said...

Jean and Rita, love that your characters are already eating their way into the hearts and minds of your readers. Way to go.
Jean, southern hubby has never been fond of ambrosia (read coconut) salad that is popular in the south.

jean harrington said...

Of course, he doesn't, Sandy. Ambrosia salad is SO feminine. Ask your Aunt Lucy.

Elisa Hordon said...

What a great post, I got great insight for character development for stories I'm working on but also it was great from a reviewers perspective, this has given me more to think about when I'm writing, reading and reviewing :-)