Why is it important for writers to read? We hear it time and time again that it’s important, and that reading different styles and genres will help with our own writing. I also felt like those arguments were always a little vague, and I started wondering why I had to read and why couldn’t I just watch a t.v. show? I mean, those are focused on story telling as well. Isn’t that the same thing?
The prompt in short:
Your character goes to a restaurant. Write the scene for that, using these questions as guidelines for what they decide to eat, and how they interact with their food and anyone they might be eating with.
The long part, where I talk about all the different things you can think about, questions you could consider, and how you can draw from your life’s experience:
It’s a running joke with one of my best friends that I am a very bland eater. My friend has a Lebanese dad, who did most of the cooking after he retired from his job. Because of this, my friend has grown up on trips to Syrian markets by his town and dishes filled with spices and many, many flavors and textures. In contrast, I grew up (mostly) Italian parents, who had grown up in Italian households, so my upbringing included a very large amount of Macaroni prepared in almost any way you could expect, and then some.
Unsurprisingly, thinking about the difference in my eating habits contrasted against my friend inspired this question of “how does your character relate to food,” and what I love about this prompt is how in-depth you can get with it. Food is something that people (and characters) interact with multiple times a day, and on multiple levels. There are many aspects of your character that you can explore when looking at what they eat, how they eat, and what they think of food.
Does your character’s racial or ethnic background affect their favorite foods?
I think that this is a good place to start. My assumption is that, if you’re doing this prompt, you already have a character in mind. You probably already know their race and ethnicity, so this is something that can provide depth to that aspect of your character. As I stated earlier, my family is Italian, and we tend to eat food that is somewhat bland. The most exotic we get with herbs are basil, bay leaves, parsley, oregano, and chives. We tend to not eat spicy food in general, because my mom and I have really low spice tolerances (e.g. I don’t eat anything but sesame flavored wings, because everything, including mild, is too spicy for me). On the other hand, the friend I talked about earlier, constantly complains that the college food isn’t spicy enough for him.
I have another best friend who is Chinese, and her diet is much different than mine. Her family eats fairly traditional Chinese food and usually eats with chopsticks. (We have gotten into “arguments” about whether forks or chopsticks are better). Both of these friends typically will go to ethnic supermarkets to get specific ingredients for meals. The Lebanese one will go Syrian markets, and the Chinese one goes to an Asian Market.
Another thing to keep in mind when thinking about this question is that someone’s favorite food might not align with the food they grew up eating. I know that my Chinese friend really enjoys eating falafels and salads. Personally, I absolutely love Chinese food and most Japanese food. My Lebanese friend likes Indian food and sushi. So, while a character’s racial or ethnic background influences what food they may like, it doesn’t necessarily affect their favorite foods. It will probably just affect what foods they feel the most comfortable around and which foods feel the homiest and the most nostalgic.
Is your character sensitive to texture in food?
I am very particular about textures. I don’t like squishy things, mealy/ grainy things, and leafy things. That rules out more things than you’d expect: overripe apples (or pretty much apples in any season beside fall), any type of canned bean, pears, lentils, tomatoes, lettuce, and cabbage.
The other interesting thing about this whole texture thing, is that it can easily be overcome. I have no probably eating lettuce if it’s cut up into strips or cabbage if it’s in coleslaw. I don’t mind beans if they’re mashed up into a humus. I love crisp apples. I will also eat almost anything if it’s been pureed into a soup.
The only item on this list that I dislike eating in any form is the tomato. I’ve been the butt of many “how could you possibly be Italian if you don’t like tomatoes?!” jokes, but I’ve consistently disliked tomatoes from a young age. I have, on the rare occasion, been known to eat pasta with sauce if I have no other options, but that happens maybe once every six months.
Other textures that someone could dislike: slimy, chunky, watery, slippery, chewy, etc.
Is your character sensitive to over thinking food?
I have not eaten shrimp for almost five years. Why? I watched a show on the Food Network that informed me that the “vein” in a shrimp is actually a digestive track, and that it appears black because it’s full of poop. I think about that fact every single time I see shrimp, and I cannot bring myself to eat them. The exception to this: shrimp poppers. I don’t have to see the digestive track, and, as they say, out of sight, out of mind.
Similarly I LOVE hotdogs, but if I think about them too long before eating one, then I have trouble eating it, which is always really disappointing. Because you don’t understand, HOW MUCH I LOVE HOTDOGS.
This might be something especially present in vegan or vegetarian characters, depending on why they’re vegan or vegetarian.
Who is feeding your character? How much money do they have? And how much time do they have?
I decided to make a list of different possibilities for this question, since there are so many different directions it could go in.
Who is feeding your character?
- A school or college
- A spouse or partner
- Another family member
- They always buy take out or premade meals
How much money and time do they have?
Money and Time affects how much effort you can put into a meal and what your ingredients will be like. I grew up in a two parent household in a middle to upper-middle class range. My dad worked full time, and my mom worked part time. That meant quick meals on most week days (usually some type of pasta), and meals that took longer to cook on the weekend (like Shepard’s pie). We typically bought fresh vegetables and meat, instead of canned products, but we ate modestly. It wasn’t like we were have steak or expensive food every week. (We did sometimes have fancier things as a treat).
If a family has more time or more money, then having take-out or fancier ingredients seems more likely. If a family has less time or less money, they might be more resourceful with how they use food (boiling leftover vegetables into a stock) or they might make meals that are quicker (hot dogs and beans).
College students, who are generally short on money and time but only eating for one, tend to eat a lot of ramen, bagels, and eggs if they’re off meal plan. (Or at least that’s what I’ve gathered from friends). If they’re on a meal plan through the school, then they’ll likely be complaining about the food, but eat whatever is offered. They’re also easily bribed by free food. I also think that a lot of college students drink a ridiculous amount of coffee, since it’s seen as a very normal thing.
Is your character sensitive to salt?
I am. I dislike eating anything that super-duper salted, like pepperoni. I am also one of those people who put a very minimal amount of salt on my food. My dislike of over salted food is actually enough, that I’ve never used one of those salt shakers on restaurant tables.
My dad, on the other hand, adds salt to almost everything he eats. (A fun aside. Over the past holiday season, I visited with my grandmother and uncle, with the rest of his family, on my dad’s side. While we were there my mom asked my dad, uncle, and grandma if they ever added salt to things. All three of them said that they did, while my mom and my aunt never do. So there is a practice of over salting (or under salting) that differs on the two sides. It’s expressed itself differently in my brother and me. I tend to prefer things without too much salt, while Nick prefers salty food. (On the other side of the argument, my grandmother and aunt on my mom’s side both love sweet things, and I have a huge sweet tooth).
Does your character have any genetic thing that makes them dislike certain foods?
There is actually a genetic trait that affect whether people like cilantro or not. To a majority of people, cilantro tastes fine or not that horrible. To people with the genetic trait, cilantro tastes indescribably awful. I have a friend who, though I can’t technically prove this, has that particular genetic trait and has gone on multiple rants about how much he hates cilantro. On one such occasion he described it as tasting like “Satan’s asshole.”
Are there just foods that your character doesn’t like for no reason at all?
For example, I dislike blue cheese, hamburgers, sausage, ripe bananas, and most deli meat. I have no reason for disliking those things, especially since I love the majority of cheeses, turkey burgers, and under-ripe bananas. Sometimes, it just doesn’t make sense why people don’t like certain foods, and it’s completely fair to have a character dislike something (and be mad about disliking it) for no reason at all.
Is your character vegan or vegetarian? And why?
Some people are vegetarian or vegan for moral reasons, others for health reasons. Personally, I am not (which might be good for my health as we’ve established that I don’t like many foods key to a vegetarian diet), so I can’t say much of what it’s like to be vegetarian or vegan.
I do think that it’s important to know why your character is vegetarian or vegan, though, because it will impact other aspects of their personality. If you’re character is vegan for moral reasons, then it would be very unrealistic to have them where a fur coat or go hunting. If they’re vegetarian as a diet that brings up other questions.
Is your character on a diet?
Having a character be on a diet can actually impact their personality or self-image in a lot of different ways. This one is really best approached by just asking a lot of questions to your character, so I’m just going to write down a list of possibilities of questions (and some answers):
- Why is your character on a diet?
- Are they a health nut?
- Did they have a health scare?
- Are they doing it to be healthy?
- Are they doing it to lose weight?
- Are they trying to gain weight?
- What type of diet is your character on?
- A normal one with lots of veggies?
- Juice cleanse?
- A fad diet?
- How does your character feel about their body?
- Are they comfortable in it?
- Do they think their body is a home for their soul, and they want their home to be in the best shape possible?
- Are they unhappy with it? And why?
- Are they self-conscious of it?
- Why do they feel the way they do about their body?
- Are they exercising as well as dieting?
- Are they dieting in a healthy manner?
- Do they read articles on how to eat full meals that are healthy?
- Are they trying to avoid eating?
- How do they diet?
- Do they count calories?
- Are they using a dieting program?
- Are they just trying to eat more vegetables and less sugar?
- What do they do about drinks?
- How many cups of coffee do they have a day?
- Do they prefer coffee, tea, or hot chocolate?
- How often do they drink alcohol? And why do they drink it? (To get smashed? To relax?)
- How much water do they drink?
- Do they think of it as a diet or as a lifestyle/ lifestyle change?
Is your character allergic to anything?
Obviously if a character has an allergy that would affect how they interact with food, and how they interact with other people. In my experience there are two main types of people with allergies. There are the ones that just sort of deal with it internally whenever someone is eating something they’re allergic to around them or they’re very, very verbal about it. Depending on your character they could be super nice about it, just explaining the situation and asking the other person to maybe eat whatever further away from them. Your character could also be a lot meaner and try to dictate what everyone eats so that said character will never be around allergens.
Does your character have any medical reasons to not eat a certain food?
This one you might have to search a little bit on your own, since I don’t know what diseases have what restrictions. I do know, however, that if your character has a heart condition they’re strongly advised to stay away from caffeine, which includes coffee, tea, and chocolate.
I also know that some genetic disorders can be regulated by staying on a specific diet and staying away from certain foods. The foods, though, vary from disorder to disorder.
There’s also diabetic characters, who need to watch their sugar intake.
Some characters that need to regulate their blood sugar (or other levels of chemicals) might have devices that they use to track them. This could be something to incorporate into a story!
Does your character have any religious restrictions on food?
Here’s a quick list of some website that go over food and drink regulations for certain religions:
There are obviously more religions than those three that have restrictions when it comes to food. (One of my high school friends doesn’t eat root vegetables due to his religion, though I can’t remember what that religion is). It’s also important to keep prayers and fasting in mind when thinking about religions and food. For Catholics we tend to say grace before eating and fast on certain days throughout Lent. Other religions do this differently, and it’s very important to research these things before writing or during revisions to make sure that you’re representing a religion in the most accurate way possible.
The Prompt: Your character goes to a restaurant. Write the scene for that, using these questions as guidelines for what they decide to eat, and how they interact with their food and anyone they might be eating with.
There are a lot of different factors to think about when it comes to thinking about food, and it could be a really good prompt to look into your character. These questions ask you not only how your character interacts with their food, but also how they interact with their surrounding environment. It could be a helpful exercise to write if you’re trying to get a handle on how your character works.
I hope that this post proved helpful and informational, and if you have any additional thoughts or prompts based off of this, please comment them below!
Here’s a bit of an unconventional writing prompt, for those of you with writer’s block or who are looking for something a little bit different.
The prompt: Take your character grocery shopping.
How to write that: You can write it like a scene. You could write down a conversation between you and your character while they are shopping for groceries. You could also write down a grocery list as if you were the character. You could approach this prompt in many different ways, and I encourage you to brainstorm a couple and pick your favorite.
Why it can help: This prompt can help you hone in on a couple different elements of your character. Depending on how you write this, it could help you discover your character’s voice. If they speack fluidly, impatiently, or if they get distracted midsentence. Also you can see different aspects of your character through the food they pick. Does your character pick food that all fits into a vegan diet? They may have strong opinions on animal cruelty, and they may have strong opinions on other social issues. Or, maybe, they just like to eat healthy. This could show that they’re very consious of their body, and they want to take care of it. They may also be into exercising and/ or meditation as well. Does your character buy a lot of sweets? Maybe they’re a kid at heart. Or maybe they just went through a break-up and this is how they deal with it. Do they buy fresh-squeezed kale juice or some other “trendy” food item? Maybe they like to be “trendy” and that affects many aspects of their personality. Do they buy food from the “interational asile?” Maybe they’re adventurus or like to try new things.
I think that this prompt can be a really fun and different way to get to know your characters without the pressue of having to include it in whatever you’re writing (be it a novel or something short story). The main this is, don’t force your character to buy anything. Let them wander around the grocery store however they want to, and try to just record it. Don’t interfere too much.
For this prompt to be the most effective it can be, read one line and do the action before you read the next line. This prompt is specifically to help writers be more interesting with their word choices and to make writers look more closely at the language they use.
Write down twenty of your favorite words (include at least two verbs).
Choose ten of those words.
Using those ten words, write something! (Jumpstart ideas: pirates, a childhood story possibly involving a garden, your first all nighter, or work on writing an alternative or new scene to a piece that you’re already working on.)
Write for 15 – 20 minutes.