Incredible Edibles: 18 ways to use food to illustrate character

In the universe of Show Not Tell, food in all its guises is a magnificent ally.

Exc1In Singled Out my protagonist, Brenda, is a woman who loves her food. The way she indulges shows the reader what kind of a woman she is. To her, food is a sensual as well as a sensory experience. Another character is as dry and stale as the desiccated breakfast he chomps his way through, in the opening pages. Yet later in the story his own personal awakening is reflected in the way he begins to enjoy unfamiliar and exotic meals.

Food is a wonderful medium through which to illustrate aspects of a character’s personality. Food can food reflect what kind of a person they are, what mood they’re in, what attitudes they hold, how self-disciplined or spontaneous they are and other facets of their temperament and lifestyle; it can also reveal the ways they change or develop as a story unfolds.

Here are a few ideas on the way food – the shopping for it, cooking of it, eating of it, and attitudes that surround it – can help flesh out your characters:

  1. Where do they shop – Are they upscale or down-market? Is it important to them that they buy from certain shops or outlets? Are they Waitrose or Lidl; down the market or Harrods Food Hall; superstore or independent; farm shop or gas station; deli chic or corner shop?
  2. What do they buy – Is quality important to them? Do they care what they put in their body? Is their body a temple, or a tavern? Do they choose ready meals or organic ingredients, value ranges, own-brand or premium; vegetables or cake, brown rice or oven chips?
  3. How do they buy – Do they buy in bulk and stuff the freezer or shop for fresh food every day? Do they dash a trolley round the supermarket, shop online for home delivery, order vegetable boxes and specialist products or raid the discount bins? Do they pick their own, or grow their own? Or do they neglect nutrition and grab what’s closest when hunger strikes?
  4. What do they drink – Is alcohol important to them? Are they light or heavy drinkers? Does every meeting or event have to have an alcoholic component? Is their style Armagnac or alcopop, cocktail or Cava, prestige or plonk, mass-market cider or micro-brewed beer, spirits or spritzers, juices, smoothies or squash, tap water or bottled, fizzy or flat? Do they have a favourite tipple (shaken, not stirred…)?
  5. Where do they eat out – Michelin starred or McDonald’s, identikit chain or quirky cafeteria? Pizzeria, curry house or Chinese? Gastropub or burger bar? Trendy street food or shrink-wrap sandwich?
  6. What food aromas excite them – beef dripping on barbecue coals, sizzling onions slathered on a burger, or juiced wheatgrass and freshly-peeled citrus fruit? Candyfloss (cotton-candy to my American friends) and toffee apples, or home-made apple pie?
  7. How do they eat at home – Are they sociable diners or secret eaters? Do they pick or binge? Would they be at ease or ashamed if other people knew what or how they ate? Do they prefer dinner parties and conversation or lap trays and the TV, formality or fridge pickings, bone china or bowl food? Does food feature in the bedroom? Do they wake in the night and need to eat?
  8. What do they cook – everything or nothing? Do they follow recipes to the letter or throw in a bit of this, a bit of that? Are they spontaneous when ingredients run out, experienced enough to knock up a meal in a few minutes? Or do they cringe at the thought of warming up a tin of soup? Do they bake? Are they a candidate for Masterchef or a poke-and-ping merchant? Does cooking energise or depress them?
  9. What food principles do they have – Are they fashionable or faddy? Do beliefs (religious or otherwise) define their diet? Are they raw, vegetarian, vegan, fruitarian, kosher, halal or organic? Do they avoid GM, minimise food-miles? Are they cutting out sugar, reducing salt, getting their five-a-day? Are they on a weight-loss diet? At all these things, are they succeeding, or failing? How does that make them feel?
  10. What’s their kitchen like – Is it immaculate and well-equipped, or sparse and chaotic? Are the cupboards crammed with ingredients and choice, or empty? Are things fresh, or past their sell-by dates? What stands out – shine or grime? What’s the most important implement – a food processor, a juicer, a pasta-maker, or a tin-opener?
  11. What food allergies/intolerances/dislikes do they have – Nuts, lactose, dairy, shellfish, wheat, gluten, alliums? Do they have genuine digestive problems or are they faddy or picky, or attention-seeking?
  12. How do they eat – Restrained or indulgent, gastronome or greedy, baby bites, prim and proper or chomps and gulps, knife and fork or finger-lickin’?   Do they have any distasteful food habits – talking with their mouth full, sawing at their food, slurping or guzzling? Are they indifferent to, or repelled by bad eating habits in others?
  13. How do they breakfast – Full English fry-up or Bran Flakes and skim milk, donuts and Danish pastries or a cereal bar and a piece of fruit? Sit-down, desk-bound, or on-the-run? Variety-is-the-spice, or same-old-same-old every day?
  14. How do they regard food – Is it their friend or foe, life-enhancing or destructive, necessary fuel or tantalising taste temptation? Does it make them strong, or weak? Are they excited by mealtimes or inconvenienced by the intrusion? Are they a picky person, a food fanatic or a comfort eater? Do they have to eat, or do they forget to eat?
  15. What tastes/textures do they favour – Sweet or savoury, soft or crunchy, lean or creamy, mild or spicy, healthy or hedonistic, hot or cold, slow-cooked or fast-food?
  16. What do they eat – Are they rare or well-done, low-fat or deep-fried, naked or drenched in sauce? Do they love food that others despise… snails or sweetbreads, blue steak or horsemeat? Do they try anything, or stick to what they know?
  17. What’s their beverage of choice – Tea or coffee, green, fruit infusion or builders, latte, cappuccino or espresso, full-fat or skinny, sweetened, or sweet enough? Is there a ritual or a habit?
  18. And lastly… What might they choose for their very last meal?…
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Author: Jools

Abundant, Bold, Confident, Determined, Empathetic, Forthright, Grumpy, Healthier, Individual, Just me, Kind, Loving, Mellifluous, Natural, Optimistic, imPatient, Quirky, Real-world, Single-minded, unTreatable, Unwound, Verbal, Wilful, eXtraordinary, Young and old, Zero-tolerance.

17 thoughts on “Incredible Edibles: 18 ways to use food to illustrate character”

  1. Great ideas to use to better flesh out our characters. My finished manuscript centers much on food, but I could use it to better define my characters in my current WIP. Thanks for some ‘food’ for thought.

    (And I thought you did wonders with food in ‘Singled Out.’ I could taste some of your descriptions, and they left me hungry!)

    1. Thank you, Carrie! I received some very good advice on using ‘all the senses’ in my writing. When it came to food, it wasn’t hard. I took loads of notes when I was in Turkey in 2013 – and ape joyed so y lovely np meals. 😀

          1. Hmmm.. I think I was trying to say ‘And I enjoyed some lovely meals’ as I was dashing out the door! Back home and I can see I suffered an unscheduled malfunction in the auto-complete circuits…. Alert! Alert! Alert!… Pzzzzt.

          2. Is that the one with the new Fingers&Thumbs(TM) feature supporting full auto-complete word verification with optional global dictionary add-ons and root-level enhancements to combat the added challenge of chubby digits? 😉

  2. I’m with Carrie, one of the stand out parts of Singled Out was the way you described the meals and cleverly used these descriptions to add depth to your characters. Excellent stuff!

  3. A lot of great ideas here, Julie! I often notice what characters eat for breakfast. How they start their day can tell you a lot about them. I’m amazed at how many of them think frosted cinnamon rolls is an okay everyday breakfast food. 😉

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