Food in Fiction

Food is an opportunity to add character and plot detail if you look beyond straightforward expectations.

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I am a member of a popular fiction writing group on Facebook in which people often reach out for advice from other writers. One post caught my eye recently, in which somebody asked for suggestions about what teenage girls would eat at a sleepover. The opening poster already had on their list “cupcakes, ice cream, soda, crisps,” and others contributed their own suggestions, some opting for typically sugar-filled treats and some suggesting that girls these days were more health-conscious than an older person might suppose.

The trouble with all these suggestions is that they sought generic and clichéd answers to what girls would typically eat, based on fictional portrayals that themselves were not always especially original in their approach. Why is this a problem? For a work of fiction the norm can only really be of interest for deviations or adherence to it. Food presents a far bigger opportunity to the writer than simply painting what we suppose to be a realistic portrait of teenage life. Let your character order twenty lobsters on their parents’ credit card if you like—it would tell us a lot more about the devil-may-care attitude than a party full of sugar-filled treats. And if you do have a party full of sugar-filled treats, have a diabetic character who feels alienated and left out by the indulgences, who through their actions might literally be dying to fit in.

Food is also an opportunity to historically date a work. Are your characters eating popcorn or nachos, sushi or hot dogs? Is this choice based on class, country or time period? Are they children of the nouveau riche experimenting with caviar and champagne? Food is about class and money as well.

A common device in film and television is a cup of coffee or a cigarette, as they add a pause. They are used in fiction too. But how does your character like their coffee? Are they making a health choice to avoid sugar or milk, or are they particularly indulgent and favour cream? Which brand of cigarettes do they smoke? Are the cigarettes bought cheaply from a friend who smuggled them over the channel? Sometimes there isn’t room to include these details, but it never hurts to think about them.

You don’t necessarily need to signpost something huge or drag on and on in detail about food but at the same time don’t miss an opportunity to efficiently elucidate a plot or character detail through food. The difference between a serial killer who drinks instant coffee and one who meticulously grinds freshly-sourced coffee beans will tell you a whole world of detail of what to expect in a story.

Anthony Levings is a writer compelled by capturing moments in time and history.

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