Food is one of my top five favorite things in the world. Maybe even the top three. But if I have to be honest, it’s probably in the top two. That says a lot about me. Likewise, food can be used to say a lot about your characters.
What’s for Dinner?
Do you know what your characters eat? Does the reader know?
Food can be more than sustenance. It can be used as a tool, a prop, something to show instead of tell. The main characters in my first novel, My Lovely Wife, live in a gated community, eat organic food, and use almond milk instead of the real thing. When one of them chooses to eat something like a hot dog, there’s a reason for it. Food can be used not only to show a person’s character, but also their state of mind.
Do they eat when they’re stressed, or not eat at all? Or do they eat different foods? All of this can say a lot about a character.
Something to Do
Funny thing about characters … they have to do things. Eating can be a big part of that, but it doesn’t have to be fluff.
Imagine two characters meet at a coffee shop to discuss a topic integral to your story. Maybe one lost a job, or their spouse is having an affair, or maybe they’re having an all-out war with a neighbor. The dialogue may be the most important part of this scene, but it doesn’t have to be the only important part.
For example, if both characters order the same thing — say, medium lattes — that’s hardly notable. Or if what they order isn’t mentioned at all, it becomes irrelevant.
But what if one character orders a plain black coffee, and the other orders a jumbo cinnamon roll with an extra-large salted caramel mocha? And which ordered which? Does the one with the problem order the food, or is it the one who has to listen? Either way, the scene just became a lot more interesting.
Cook or Burn
The preparation of food is as important as the consumption of it … or so my friends tell me. I do not cook, not ever, and anyone who knows me is grateful for that.
If I said the same thing about character, it would tell you something. The same applies to characters who cook all their food from scratch, using only ingredients from the farmer’s market. Or maybe your character’s idea of cooking involves pre-made sauces and pre-cooked meat, because they don’t have the time to make homemade marinara sauce.
Kitchens are places where people gather in life and in books, so use the location to your advantage.
To Drink or Not to Drink
Alcohol has at least as many uses as food, if not more. Going out for a drink is another thing for your characters to do. Bars are also where people meet, flirt, and — as often happens in fiction — decide and plan to commit crimes. How much or how little a character drinks, and what they drink, can tell the reader a lot.
But that’s not all alcohol can do. Characters can change when they’re drunk. The shy become bold, the calm become angry, and the happy start to cry. Some drink to the point of blacking out, only to find themselves in a mess the next morning.
Or picture this scenario: A group of colleagues go out drinking after work. As the night wears on, and the group becomes more intoxicated, people start to flirt. They start to say things they shouldn’t. Maybe they gossip about their boss and other co-workers. Secrets are revealed, embellished, repeated.
One of the characters — let’s say a man — goes to the bar to get another drink. He orders a club soda with lime. Unlike his colleagues, he hasn’t been drinking at all. He’s just pretending to be as intoxicated as they are.
Now it’s not just a night out, it’s something deceitful — maybe even sinister. Alcohol can do all of that, if used properly.
Enough is Enough
This is not to say food can be used to show everything, nor should it. While I’d like to spend the majority of my time eating bonbons and bacon cheeseburgers, I don’t. Neither should your characters.
Food is one example of how everyday activities and needs can be effectively used in fiction. It’s not the only thing. It may not even be the most interesting thing. It’s just one of the many tools available to tell your story.
Check out Samantha’s book here:
Who better to give book recommendations than the bookish experts? Penguin Random House employees are sharing their favorite reads every month. Browse below!
This month, we’re featuring Stella Spiegel, Associate Email Marketing Manager at Penguin Random House. Stella loves to travel and is always looking for a great book, or five, to bring on her next adventure.
Check out the books she recommends:
The fascinating tale of a fictional ‘70s rock band is chronicled in Daisy Jones & The Six, Taylor Jenkins Reid‘s riveting new novel written as an oral history – a literary roller-coaster ride marked by sex, drugs and rock & roll, with fly-on-the-wall glimpses of life in the recording studio, on the road and backstage. #1 on the March Indie Next list and the Penguin Random House Spring Title Wave pick, this Ballantine book has already earned many fans, including actress Reese Witherspoon, who raved, “I devoured Daisy Jones & The Six in a day, falling head over heels for it. Taylor Jenkins Reid transported me into the magic of the ’70s music scene in a way I’ll never forget. The characters are beautifully layered and complex. Daisy and the band captured my heart, and they’re sure to capture yours, too.”
Daisy Jones is a young woman coming of age in L.A. in the late ‘60s, sneaking into clubs on the Sunset Strip, sleeping with rock stars, and dreaming of singing at the Whisky a Go Go. By the time she’s twenty, her voice is getting noticed. Also getting noticed is The Six, a band led by Billy Dunne. On the eve of their first tour, his girlfriend finds out she’s pregnant, and with the pressure of impending fatherhood and fame, Billy goes a little wild on the road. Daisy and Billy cross paths when a producer realizes that the key to success is to put the two together.
Jennifer Hershey, SVP, Editor in Chief, Associate Publisher, Ballantine Bantam Dell, pulls back the curtain, offering glimpses into this book’s creation and special magic. Hershey shares her impressions of Taylor Jenkins Reid’s unique writing style, the book’s “oral history” format, and why DAISY JONES readers will be inspired to revisit their favorite ‘70s rock albums.
How did you discover Taylor Jenkins Reid and what were your initial impressions of her writing voice?
To say that I “discovered” Taylor would be a little like saying that Columbus “discovered” America! Before I had the huge pleasure of making the acquaintance of Daisy Jones, Taylor had written five terrific novels and won herself a devoted following. I loved the book right away—and read it in one sitting; it has a very addictive quality. I was struck by the freshness of the milieu and conceit of the book—a bit like the movie Almost Famous or A Star is Born, but the first time I’d seen that in book form—and the “as told to” narrative structure for a novel was so distinctive.
How would you describe the editor/author process as this manuscript became a book and why do you think the “oral history” structure works so well?
The novel was already in great shape when I acquired it, so we just had fun fine-tuning and tightening. We talked a lot about how to make the voices feel convincingly as if they had been spoken aloud, without going too far down that road. Taylor has said that the “oral history” format forced her to up her game as a writer, because everything she wanted to convey had to be done completely through the voices of the characters. I particularly love the way various characters remember the same event differently, and contradict each other in the telling.
What aspects of DAISY JONES & THE SIX do you feel will resonate most strongly with readers?
There is so much here: not just one, but two great love stories, a lot of ’70s and classic rock nostalgia (I guarantee you’ll pull out Fleetwood Mac’s Rumors for a fresh listen when you are done!), and some great moments for the feminists in all of us. Reading the novel makes you feel like you are just hanging out backstage with your favorite band. It’s just such a fun and fresh read—the kind of novel that, despite its layers, almost reads itself to you, it is so effortless.