Sometimes writers forget the basics while putting our vision to paper. And in this case I’m not talking about basics like grammar, plot or even character development. No, I’m talking about the basics of life: the need to eat. Often, times characters in books will go days without eating, making them more robot than human.
In my first book, which was completed in middle school, I don’t think my characters ate at all, except during one scene … needless to say, they should all be dead from starvation. Later characters in more recent writing endeavors have fared better in the food and drink department; they have also actually felt hungry when food is not readily available.
Food should appear in a character’s day-to-day life; it makes them more human, and food is something readers of all creeds can connect with. While food is a basic staple for life, it should not dominate any text, unless it is being intentional used to say something about a character. However, it should be sprinkled throughout a manuscript whether shown or mentioned in passing.
Beyond adding realism to your manuscript, the inclusion of food can have two other benefits: character building and world building. After all, food can say a lot about a person and a world/culture.
Is your character a picky eater or do they follow the see-food-eat-food method? Are there certain foods they do not eat, either through choice or because of cultural or religious reasons? Does your character have any food allergies? Hot and spicy or as bland as it comes? Would your character kill for chocolate, maybe even literally?
All these questions add depth to a character and can actually say a lot about them — not only that, they might make a good plot point. Perhaps, they don’t realize they are allergic to a type of fruit, leading them and associates on a hunt to find a doctor in a land where they don’t speak the language. As for depth, food choices tune an audience into a character. If they are vegetarian that will tell the audience something just like if your character follows all his/her cultural or religious eating norms or one that follows most but enjoys something that is not suppose to be on the menu.
Food choices can also affect how your character interacts with others, possibly adding conflict. Your vegan character visits a party full of personal taboo food items. How do they or the people around them react? In general some people, no matter whether they are meat eaters, vegan or so on, can be defensive about their eating habits.
Do not forget about the have-nots and have-plenties. They will each react differently to food. How has your character’s childhood of living off scraps affected them? If placed in a situation where they will have to do without food again, do they accept it and continue on or do they dive back to the past traumas? Does your wealthy, always well-fed nobleman cave after missing a lunch and dinner or persevere? There are many possibilities to explore.
Of course, a lot of your character’s eating habits will be influenced by the world and culture they inhabit.
Certain foods can’t grow everywhere. And while conducting world-building, this is a topic that needs delved into. What grows in the various regions of your world? Can certain regions sustain livestock? Or can certain ones only sustain smaller critters like chickens or sheep and goats? This will affect your characters and possibly have economical consequences in your crafted world.
Is one region the sole source for grapes? This might make the region exceptionally wealthy through trade, or perhaps it has attracted the attention of neighboring regions who have since conquered it, leaving the native populace poor and at the mercy of their overlords who benefit from the resource. One region might depend on hunting and gathering while another has established a strong agricultural society. A region with plenty will view its food very differently compared to a desert region where all food and drink is not to be wasted.
Don’t forget the politics that can revolve around food. Maybe one of your regions has forbidden the import of a delicacy that can only be found in a neighboring region. Or maybe they just place high levies on the delicacy, meaning only the wealthy can procure it. Governments can also place embargoes on other countries and regions, which might keep certain foods from reaching that country.
There is a lot to be considered when plotting your world’s food chain, as it were. And perhaps the best way to map it out is to explore your local agriculture scene in addition to those that can be found around our world. Research crops to see if they could exist in the environment you intend to place them. For example, you are not going to find rice paddies in a desert region or world, cherries require a temperate latitude to be grown and mangoes require tropical temperatures. Each plant has its own requirements.
Other research revolves around livestock. Certain livestock like cows require a lot of resources to raise, which is why it is important to make sure a region in your world can actually provide for them. Beyond integrating livestock into a world and its regions, don’t forget wild game — which will also require certain resources be available in order for them to feasible exist there.
While all this research might seem tedious, it will provide add realism to your novel and possible open doors to unique conflicts or character development.