Food. Every character needs it to survive. Food brings conflict because of starvation, class differences in preferences of food, and difference in religious diets. Food can be used as a source of coercive power and control. Consider two hostile nations vying for control over fertile lands or the river that floods the delta yearly. Consider the economic interests of individuals, families, communities, and nations at stake for fishing rights or the right to access (follow and hunt) elk herds from one nation to another.
Conflict is what drives the plot in all books. Various types of food-related conflict can be scaled from the individual, the national, or even galactic. Consider conflict of land/resource access, trade route access, labour, material inputs such as fertiliser or diesel, and technology. You can have a border dispute between two farmers or a border dispute between two empires that span multiple solar systems.
In my fantasy series (yes, the one I keep talking about. Yes, the one with 29 books that need to be entirely rewritten), lack of food plays an important part in the main characters’ constraints and decisions. Calanthe is so concerned about the food supply that she has an agriculture-development arc throughout the entire series. (Don’t worry, that wasn’t a spoiler).
For the die-hard fantasy fans out there, I promise you there will be at least one scene where the characters have stew. The stew pot over a fire appears to be a fantasy trope, and yes, I will oblige.
Food brings joy and love because it brings people together to talk, share, and celebrate. In Seven Points of Contact, the two main characters meet at a bar and discuss sports over beers and food. In Book 1 of The Outdoorsmen (The Game Warden’s Match), James has a long-standing tradition of fishing with his four children. His daughter, Paige, holds the family record for the most fish caught in a day. The record is two walleye, two northern pikes, and one bass). James and Mirabelle meet at a café, and Mirabelle first meets James’ brothers at a restaurant. Why? Because everyone eats and restaurants are great places to bump into people.
In Book 2 of The Outdoorsmen Series (there will be a better name for it, I promise, before its release in October 2022), Sylvie is a forager. In Book 2 of The Outdoorsmen, Sylvie has direct economic interests in food (as she harvests items in the wild and transforms them to sell them). She also deeply loves food and will share food with strangers she meets. She has a strong relationship with her grandmother, who taught her how to cook. Sylvie also provides readers with recipes.
In Novella 1 of my cyberpunk series (release winter 2023), the MCs get to know one another through their different cultural food. They each have a story to share about this dish or that and what it means to them.
Food is a fantastic method to deepen characterisation. Is your MC a picky eater? Do they have food allergies, do they have food allergies and yet eat the thing anyways (Tactical Officer Malcolm Reed in Star Trek Enterprise had a pineapple allergy but took an allergy shot and ate it anyway), do they have an eating disorder, do they only eat expensive food, do they follow a specific diet (KETO, veganism, etc.)
All these nuances help flesh out your character.
You can also develop your character by layering emotions when they eat (or don’t eat). Maybe one character loves a certain food, but the other character is allergic or can’t stand its smell. Did your MC’s parents give them ice cream and cookies when they were sad, and now as an adult, your MC is an emotional eater? Were your MC’s parents great cooks or terrible cooks? Are your characters fast or slow eaters, and what does that tell the reader about them?
Consider doing more than having your characters eat a meal. Consider layering in conflict, personality, and meaning to bring the scene alive.
Thank you, @LouSchlesinger, for the blog topic suggestion. Image by @Wow_Pho Readers are welcome to reach out to me on Twitter at @reneegendron