Wednesday, August 21, 2013

When Characters Cook

Does your main character's dinner look like this?
When characters cook in a story, what happens?

Food's a pretty important part of our lives, and so it's not surprising to see characters preparing it in the scenes of a story. Watching how they do so tells us about them. Do they microwave? Is the idea of putting a pan in the oven more terrifying than fighting six demons before breakfast? Or do they sweep through the kitchen with joy, dancing through elaborate feasts and feeding all their friends?

In some stories, especially those with restaurants, food is an obvious plot-motivator. But usually it's an accessory, just another way to help develop characters.

Or like this?
(From Wikimedia Commons,
uploaded by PanShiBo)

Sometimes it's a weakness, a point of vulnerability. Often characters will be bad cooks as a way to show something they haven't mastered. Kick-butt super heroine who destroys bad guys with one hand and speaks 14 languages? Chances are she can't boil water.

On the other hand, sometimes kitchen ability is a way of connecting characters. Have a party of four or five disparate characters who don't get along? Cooking together gives them a way of connecting. Have a hypermasculine character who needs a touch of softness? Give him a frying pan and an apron. What about a character who wants to take care of everyone? An author can emphasize nurturing tendencies by letting a character cook for everyone.

There's a lot of characters in stories I read who have unhealthy relationships with food, and often it's almost even celebrated. This trend seems to coincide with the writer's attitude towards skinniness. It's important to remember the character who survives off vitamins for half his meals is probably constantly lethargic and doing horrible things to his body--something often overlooked by writers. The truth is, starving distracts the mind, gives headaches, causes dizziness, and makes a character confused and weak in critical moments. Doing so too long can lead to nutrient deficiencies, including hair loss and weak nails, extreme illness, strange bruising due to the body's consumption of internal organs, and worse. Neglecting those consequences can romanticize unhealthy eating habits (something that bothers me, personally).

On the other hand, occasional missed meals may not be dangerous, and a character in situation where food is hard to come by might deal with starvation on a regular basis. Those who go adventuring (as many stories have them do) will probably burn off a lot of calories on a daily basis, meaning they can eat as they wish. And honestly, a story is just a story, and sometimes it's nice to pretend that the lifestyle habits are sustainable--wish fulfillment does play a role in many novels, after all.

In any case, how the characters deal with cooking tells the reader about them, and sometimes the foods themselves become popular on their own. Ever heard of the cookbooks assembled by sci-fi writers, including Anne McCaffrey (and her bubbly pies)? Some of those recipes are pretty tasty!

Does your favorite character know how to cook? What does his or her kitchen habits tell you about the character? And does the story offer realistic consequences for his or her general eating habits?

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