#CQ – Characters’ Diet in a Fantasy World

How much do you think of food when you write?

Food usually drives our body and mind to a safe place, where we feel nurtured, comfortable and happy. One would think in the every day life eating is necessary for our sustenance, strength and good health. But in the fiction world, eating doesn’t seem essential to the development of the plot. Picture the movie Die Hard. The main character doesn’t drink, doesn’t eat, and doesn’t take a break for the two hours he spends killing the villains. I stop here. Die Hard was set in our time, and based on our food culture of the late eighties in America. Not describing John McLane’s last meal wouldn’t have changed anything to the plot.

But for fantasy, paranormal and science-fiction genres, food can become a total different animal, and a bigger part of the story. The characters may eat (and drink) things that don’t exist in the real world. During a random conversation with a fellow author friend, she mentioned she was eating a chocolate chip cookie. I asked her if she enjoyed the cookie and she immediately replied: mmmmmmm! Which in other words means YES! I also love cookies but does one of the main characters in her fantasy story know what cookies are? No. Cookies don’t exist in his world.

Time for the author’s imagination to get to work! Thinking of a character’s diet, bear in mind the reader must be able to still make the connection between the fantasy world and the real world. The ingredients will bear different names, but the end result will produce the same taste. Food in a fantasy, science-fiction or paranormal environment might therefore add an extra touch of originality and make the story stand out. Characters are molded according to our standards. Some people are foodies, some aren’t, but nobody is immune to a great or disgusting meal.

However playful, dreadful, unbelievably complex or awfully simple, food is like love. Authors don’t necessarily have to describe their characters’ love life, but if they do, it brings something more to the table. Readers discover the character’s background, his/her personality, his/her likes and dislikes, and the combination of everything ultimately renders the character more believable.

Next week, I’m tackling a fantasy recipe – but I don’t know yet what to cook! Any ideas? Remember, this isn’t Top Chef. It only has to taste good…


Add Yours
  1. Ciara Ballintyne

    Food can be a part of fantasy worldbuilding, yes – but it shouldn’t be gratuitously included to the detriment of the plot. If it is, it just becomes an infodump and a potential way to annoy and maybe lose your reader. I love fantasy but I hate lengthy descriptions of food in them. Tell me there’s a sugar swan and I get it. It’s a nobleman’s feast with all kinds of excessive food.

  2. Benjamin Clayborne (@BenClayborne)

    In fantasy fiction, it seems that food primarily serves two functions:

    1) To be something that characters have trouble finding in the wilderness, making life difficult

    2) To serve as a shorthand for the relative affluence of whoever’s serving it: opulence (lots of elaborate dishes) in a palace, scarcity (unidentifiable brown stew) in some rural village.

  3. Jeff Edwards (@navythriller)

    Definitely some food for thought here. (Okay, somebody had to drop that pun.) Thinking back to Die Hard, I’m fairly sure that John McLane eats a Twinky – or tries to. It’s old and stale, so he spits it out in disgust. He asks his police radio buddy, Al, what’s in the Twinky. Al – who loves junk food – responds with a long and humorous list of the ingredients, most of which are industrial chemicals.
    This seems like a fairly good example of what you’re talking about in your post – the use of food to reveal character, or advance the story.

    • themanicheans

      You’re right, John McLane eats a twinky. But besides that, he doesn’t eat anything else. Maybe he could have ordered a burger and made the film last 20 min longer… Thx for your comment!

  4. Rob Adams

    I think in some writing, as in some cultures, the act of dining, as well as what is eaten, should be an important way to get to know your characters.

    The absolutely best example of this I can recall is the Christmas dinner scene early on in Great Expectations; I learned so much about Pip and the people in his life, particularly the contrast between how he was esteemed by Joe compared to all the others present. The use of gravy in that scene made me laugh more than any other scene in the book, I think.

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