When you think of worldbuilding, what is the first thing that comes to mind?
For me, I tend to think of maps first. In part, that’s because maps are what I start with whenever I write. In other ways, maps are one of the most obvious and literal means of worldbuilding. They do, after all, show you the world.
Other people may also think of the geography: the designing of mountain ranges and deserts and forests and attaching long, hard-to-pronounce names to the rivers and valleys. History might also come to mind, the creation of handwritten timelines and lists of important dates detailing a king or war or rebellion. Perhaps you think of culture, of the way people dress and speak, the way they’re educated and brought up, how they treat outsiders. Maybe you think of politics; the political intrigue of one nation and the power of religion in government in another.
How about… food?
I don’t know about you, but food is not the first thing that comes to my mind when it comes to worldbuilding. In fact, I quite often forget all about it, until I’m writing and realize “oh this character needs to eat something… what in the world do they eat here anyway?”
Then, like the lazy novelist I am (… that’s not redundant to say, is it? Like… triple redundant: lazy, novelist, me… anyway), I pick from the top of my head a few foods that they might eat in a fantasy or sci-fi world.
The thing is… the first foods you’ll find in your brain will most likely be clichés that you’ve seen a hundred times before. It’s a wall you’ve met before; the procrastination of the brain that provides you clichés rather than actual answers. You’ve ran at it, attempted to break through it, only to end up on the floor, admiring the bloodstains from the last time you tried this.
How do we break through the wall of clichés? How do we find… of all things food for building our worlds?
The Real World
One of the best places to start with food is our world.
After all, we love food. People love to eat; it’s a communal thing we do with others, a thing we enjoy. Our brains literally release chemicals that produce pleasure when we eat. Therefore, we eat not only to keep our bodies alive, but also to please ourselves.
If the real world is an excellent place to start, let’s observe a few interesting details from our world that we can use in our fictional worlds, hmmm?
- Food varies by region. This may seem obvious, but it’s well worth noting. A lot of novels you read that take place in other worlds neglect this fact. The main character travels across the galaxy and she can still find her favorite foods in this alien world?
How? I mean, sure, there might be one “novelty” restaurant that serves this foreign food for the fun of it, but if the cuisine changes in our world across borders, why is it uniform across galaxies?
- Food varies by climate. This is actually quite interesting, but when you take a college-level intro to Psychology course, you’ll learn a lot of interesting things. Including the fact that countries closer to the equator use more spices in their food, and countries near the poles use less (like a 2 spices vs. 8 spices difference). This seems to be unrelated to culture, which is quite surprising.
There are other ways this is true: some plants and animals which are used in food production don’t grow well in frozen tundra, while others are nonexistent in tropical forests. The type of foods people eat depends on their location.
- Delicacies vary by culture. People in Alaska consider whale blubber a treat. People in South American enjoy fried ants. If you brought these two groups of people together and had them exchange these two foods, you’d end up with a large group of people rather disgruntled by what they just ate. Why? Tastes are dependent on culture. People in the Orient enjoy squid and raw fish, while people in Northern Europe won’t (generally speaking, of course) touch the stuff. In the USA, it’s repulsive and “inhumane” to eat dog or horse. In many other countries, dog and horse are just another form of viable meat. The same goes with rats and other animals that would make Americans shudder. Silly Americans.
Your World, Your Food
How do you apply all of this to your world?
Well, let’s look at those three areas I just mentioned and ask questions about our own worlds:
Food by region. What foods do people in one country/region eat that people in another would find strange and foreign? What foods can you not find anywhere else but there? For instance, my current project has a place where the people eat salted fish wrapped in cabbage leaves. They dump so many spices on it that you can barely taste the fish or the cabbage.
You won’t find this anywhere else in the world, because it’s an oddity.
I’m not saying every country and village you create has to have an odd food; some foods do cross boundaries (like many sorts of breads and some meats). But if everyone has the same diet no matter where you go, then your world won’t feel as real.
Food by climate. What sorts of food are found in one country in your novel that can’t be found in another? Salt may be abundant in the empire which claims large salt flats, but it might be scarce in the small neighboring country who can claim none. Deer might be common and venison a staple in the village built near the river in the forest, but capybara and snake are a more realistic staple for the town in the tropics.
For instance, in Brandon Sanderson’s The Stormlight Archives, most of the world is weathered down to bare stone by these powerful “highstorms”. Very few plants grow, and those that do have adapted to deal with these storms (for instance, the “grass” retracts into the ground when touched). Even the animals have changed and grown to fit the climate and weather. Feathered animals are rare (and almost exclusively referred to as chickens, regardless of their actual species). No one would dare eat a chicken, because chickens are rare and valuable. In one particular area, however, chickens aren’t rare. This place is protected from the highstorms, and so became a sort of haven for “normal” plants and animals. The grass doesn’t retract at the slightest provocation; the animals aren’t covered in chitin. And people eat chickens.
Delicacies. What sort of delicacies do your peoples eat? Where would those same foods be considered repulsive? It might be easy for one people to eat fish eggs, while their friends from a neighboring country sit by and gag. This can be a fun one to explore, because delicacies rarely seem to make sense (I mean… fish eggs?). You can pick nearly any sort of thing and decide “okay, this is a delicacy only rich people eat here”, because people on our world seem to do that.
There is, as usual, the danger of clichés in writing when it comes to food. You can go with the stereotypical “adventurer’s survival pack”, which includes dried venison (or beef) in the form of pemmican or jerky, hard-crusted rolls that supposedly taste good when fresh (or hardtack), and a bit of cheese for the early days. And, if we’re lucky, our hero will stumble upon a berry bush or apple tree.
OR, we could actually put some thought into our character’s favorite foods and the region’s staples and decide to be different.
What if your character lives near the sea? They’ll probably put dried/salted fish, maybe some sort of seaweed thing, crab meat/mussels, and lots of salt in their “survival pack”. A boy who’s lived all his life in a culture where all animals are sacred would bring a lot of breads and vegetables and fruits, and no meat. Don’t have the vegan kid bring meat. Duh.
The easiest way to avoid clichés, you may have realized, is to simply develop your world. Your brain will reach for the first and easiest answer to any question you may have about your story. If you prepare a list of ready-developed answers to simple questions like “what does my character eat?”, you’ll be more able to avoid clichés.
And that’s a good thing, right?