Fantasy writing may be completely otherworldly, but your characters still need to eat. However, food or the attainment of food can provide your characters with more than just nourishment in your story. It’s a chance for you to add colour to your fantasy world through the descriptive use of food and the socialising that often surrounds eating.
- A gathering – There’s nothing like a good feast to bring out the worst in people, be it a wedding, festival, celebration or any excuse for a shindig. There will be lots of party-goers, plenty of food and drink, a good bit of carousing and lavish entertainments – just the right environment for a spy to sneak in, have someone choke, enable poison to be slipped into someone’s dinner or have a large enemy force drop in unexpectedly to wipe everyone out. So a gathering can provide a key turning point in your story.
- The hunt – There’s usually a lot of testosterone flowing during hunts, even when it’s only to hunt down dinner. There may be barking dogs, wild-eyed horses, men and women with weapons, trees surrounding you that hide your quarry – it’s a strangely exhilarating mix as people tear through the forest intent on finding and bringing down their prey – and occasionally each other.
- Survival of the fittest – Food is not always easy to come by. Your characters may have to scavenge from others, grub in the ground for roots and worms, steal scraps, clamber up trees/cliffs, dodge thorns for berries and wonder if what little they’ve managed to find will kill them. Making a meal difficult to come by provides a challenge for your characters to overcome and empathy in your readers.
- Grow your own – Depending on the environment your story is based in, your characters may have a plot of land to harvest their food from. This can provide you with the opportunity to grow unusual foods and even introduce new dangers to your fantasy world. It may be dangerous to grow desirable foods or the foods themselves may be the problem. Imagine a rare plant that only flowers once a year high on a cliff face and its single delicious fruit is poisonous up until the moment it ripens at midnight, but people will kill to have it as it heals all ills. Well, maybe that’s a little over the top.
- Sugar and spice – I will never forget an editor’s comments about a story I wrote year’s ago: “too much eggs and ham”. What they meant was that my characters were eating food that was too everyday, too ordinary for a fantasy novel. Ever since then I’ve spiced up nearly everything my characters eat and borrowed inspiration from culinary treats and delicacies across the world, whether it’s breakfast or a full-blown feast. You can also get inspiration from the books you read or see in films – remember the monkey’s brains and eyeballs in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom? Hmmm, maybe not for dinner tonight.
- Get creative – Although it’s fair enough to simply suggest meals rather than describe them in detail, occasionally a story needs a little more to help the reader understand and visualise the fantasy world they’re reading about. Enormous tiered sugar cakes decorated with crystallised hummingbirds and butterflies dipped in honey, gives a sense of sickening indulgence. Compare that to fresh bats stuffed with desiccated bees, or bread soaked in dragon’s blood. It may be unpleasant, but these types of foods, their quantity and ingredients can give subtle hints about your characters’ personalities, preferences and social standing without expressing it directly.
- Taste – The actual flavours, textures and aromas a character experiences while they’re eating can also give subtle hints about the people who have provided their meal. If a guest has been served up a dinner that’s greasy and smells like a wet rat, it’s likely to be a fairly nasty establishment. If the food has enticing aromas of rosewater, is laden with sweet jewels of fruit and is accompanied by smooth sauces that simply melt on the tongue, then they’re probably onto a winner – unless there’s that strangely bitter aftertaste of poison… well, it is a fantasy story…
I’ve started up a Pinterest board on unusual, extravagant and older-style foods to provide you with some additional inspiration.