World Building, pt.2

Having already discussed what world building is (see part 1 if you haven't yet), it’s time to expand with a little more detail. This time, I’d like to discuss ways to characterize a setting through its food.

Let Them Eat Cake

What is Italy without pasta? The United States without burgers? Westeros without honeyed ham? When writing a story–again, this can be applied to any medium–a culture’s food is the direct product of their ethics and society. A tribe of people who hunt would likely make a big deal out of the meat. They might have rituals or different ways of looking at the animals that reflect their need to hunt for survival. A modern society like ours has an interesting collection of diets that range from mostly meat to none at all, plus the specialty diets such as the gluten-free ones, Mediterranean diet, and paleo diet. People are either enjoying what they want, avoiding foods that are against their morality, or just trying to stay healthy in a world of processed food. Who knows what we might be eating in the future, but I’m certain it will be far different than what we have now. Perhaps a good jumping-off point would be the kind of food astronauts use–freeze-dried or in cans. Each type of diet, as well as situations where multiple diets are simultaneously enjoyed, is a reflection of the world they exist in.

So, don’t skip over the food. Let your characters eat. Not only will in show them during a very relatable situation, but it will inform the audience about the world, the economic class of the person eating, and more if you let it.

So How Do I Go About This?

My favorite examples of food being used this way come from Firefly, a 2002-2003 television show created by Joss Whedon, and George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire.

Beginning with Firefly, there are several moments in the shortly-lived show that depict the crew of a ship eating together. They talk about their day, make jokes, occasionally rebel, and when the food’s good they just eat. Through these moments you can see relationships grow stronger or dissolve, you can discern information about their economic state based on what they eat (plain and tasteless fare was the norm until one character brought on a wealth of delicious foods that everybody in the crew goes crazy about). One of the most defining moments of the first episode occurs when one person gives another a strawberry as payment for catching a ride on their ship. Just one. The woman who receives it treasures the fruit, savors the taste, and we can tell that such a thing is at the very least a rare delicacy for her. Perhaps strawberries are typical for the wealthy, but in the future society that Whedon created, they have certainly become hard to acquire.

In the Martin’s series A Song of Ice and Fire there are several scenes that utilize food. At one wedding there are over 70 courses, illustrating all of the obvious wealth and gluttony in the families involved. A religious man talks about oranges fondly, giving his last one away despite the fact he likely won’t get more for years. Where you see the common folk living beneath the lords and ladies of the realm, you see them struggling for food. At the same time the noble’s are stuffing their faces, hinting just for fun, the common people are trying to catch pigeons or cooking rats.

So don’t skip over the times when your characters would be eating, and don’t just have them eat. These are opportunities for great storytelling while also exploring more of the world through what they eat and how they react to the food before them.

Photo credit: Colin McMurry

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