Books, news, & views from Karen Traviss

The menu of characterisation

I took part in a podcast the other week and one of the topics we discussed as we roamed around the nuts and bolts of writing was the use of food in characterisation. It’s a useful lens to examine your writing. As ever, what follows works for me, but your mileage may vary, there’s more than one way to skin a cat, and there are nine and sixty ways of constructing tribal lays etc.

I don’t mean that you need to shoe-horn each character’s dinner choices into every scene, although it’s the kind of detail that can build reality for the reader if used carefully. I mean the stuff that doesn’t go into the book but still needs to be there in the writer’s head to form a three-dimensional, believable character. Characters need to feel as if they have a life that’s still going on when they walk off the page, even if the reader never sees it. If you’re a character-driven writer – or, like me, you depend wholly on characterisation to create plot – you need to know a lot about your cast.

You don’t need to dump it all in the book. Nor do you need to spend hours drawing up detailed notes of everything your characters like, have done, and wear. You just need to know them well enough in your head to walk into a supermarket and know what they’d put in their basket, or pick up a menu and know what they’d choose for dessert – or even if they’d bother with dessert at all.

It’s about knowing the kind of person they are. If you instinctively know that Fred would insist on artisan wholemeal sourdough and make a loud fuss about it, or that Ann wouldn’t mind what kind of wine she was offered as long as she got some, then you already know how the character ticks and what their life looks like. If you know the kind of person they are, you won’t even have to think about this, let alone write it down.

It’s like a marketing exercise. Certain groups of people tend to have broadly similar outlooks and buy certain things. The important thing for a writer is to work out why, and not to fall into easy stereotypes of Joe Slob and his beer or the neurotic middle-class mum making sure everything’s free of additives. Our food choices very often define us. Ah, you say, but what if those choices are constrained by income? Yes, they are: and that’s still part of characterisation.

The important thing is that moment when you know that a certain character would buy a certain food, why they would buy it, and how they would feel about it. When it happens, you’ll know you’ve created a fully rounded character in your mind, and you can draw on that for every reaction and line of dialogue. You can test this with preferences other than food choices, too. If you know without thinking what your character’s taste in music, cars, clothing, TV, or a hundred other things would be, then you’ve got a proper understanding of them. I just use food as the benchmark because it’s something every human needs, and we all form emotional memories around it.