Today is Thanksgiving here in the US, and I’m grateful for a good many things (you can read about some of them in my post from last year). Food, of course, is one of them. With that in mind, I have a very important question for you:
What are your characters eating?
Yes, I know that a lot of writing advice says to marginalize trivial things like meals in fiction. But I think everything from how a person eats to their choice of menu items says a lot about their personality, and even if everyone’s sitting around the table eating in silence, that says a *ton* about the relationships in the room (and is a great way to show tension in the scene).
How do your characters eat? Do they arrange food a certain way on their plate? Shovel food in fast? Pick at certain items? Just push things around? All of those little things can be a way to show parts of a personality or emotional mindset, and even though the reader may not consciously stop and say “hey, she’s picking at her food so she must be upset/stressed/angry about something”. Actually, you never want a reader to do that – it should be a seamless, seemingly trivial part of the narrative. But mentioning it as part of the overall action is helping to set the emotional scene in a reader’s mind, and details like that help to make it more real.
What a character eats could be a clue to their overall personality as well. I have a burgeoning killer at the moment who just ate a TV dinner. One of my previous killers ate only high quality, gourmet food prepared by a staff. You don’t want to know what a third killer ate (but I guarantee it means something to the reader). A bite of cake set off a big chain of events in one of my short stories. In a current draft, one of my characters ate fish for the first time the other night…roasted on a makeshift spit over an open fire. All new experiences for her that were a little scary and served to both bring her out of her comfort zone and move her growth arc along just a little further. And so was the logistics of disposing of the bones afterwards.
Could I have set those scenes without food? I suppose, but I think they would have been lacking in color and depth without it. Well, and the lack of food can be just as much a key part of a story as a meal, in that hunger will affect the way a character makes choices, thinks, and manages emotions. Unless they’re super-human, of course.
The best way to pick up these subtle cues and learn how to use them in fiction is to watch other people eat. And what better place and time to do that than at a holiday dinner, where many of us typically eat around more than just one other person? Today whether you’re dining with too many relatives in too little space or out at a restaurant surrounded by strangers, I challenge you to really pay attention to what people choose, how they eat, and whether their words and facial expressions match their eating habits. You may be surprised how much extra information you get by taking note of how people interact with food, and how important a fictional meal really can be for setting scenes and revealing clues to your character’s thoughts and emotions.
If you’re in a commenting mood, tell me – what’s the last meal one of your character’s had? How did it reveal something about that character, or serve the emotional setting?