Don't Starve Your Characters, pleads Griselda Heppel

‘A very famous editor once said to me: “Barry, tell them what they eat.”’

This is one of the delightful pieces of advice given by Barry Cunningham on writing for children. He doesn’t say who the famous editor is – Kaye Webb? – but I love this nugget for its apparent triviality, actually giving an extremely important message. 

Food matters to children. It’s a big part of their everyday lives and if you want them to get lost in your story, better make sure you don’t let the action go on too long without feeding your characters. Yes, you can have scene breaks, but every now and then your readers will want to know what your hungry hero will be having for supper; even more so, if supper happens to be a fabulous party, or a midnight feast planned in the dorm. 

Enid Blyton totally got this: remember all those picnics enjoyed by the Famous Five, or the illicit night time snacks shared by boarding school girls in Malory Towers? More recently J K Rowling began and ended many of the Harry Potter books with lavish feasts in which everyone ate their favourite dishes; and one of the brilliant details Robin Stevens puts into her Murder Most Unladylike series is the crucial part Bunbreak plays in the lives of her characters, in which the total absence of buns is irrelevant; it’s the different biscuits 
offered, depending on the day, that matters.

Much as I’ve enjoyed all the vicarious scoffing kindly supplied by the authors above, for me one children’s author towers above all the rest: C S Lewis. 

His evocation of the sheer sensuous pleasure of food – the smell, touch, taste, texture – is enough to both whet the appetite and satisfy it at the same time. I challenge anyone reading the Narnia books not to want to dive into the ‘very sweet and foamy and creamy’ hot drink the White Witch gives Edmund in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, or slake their thirst with the delectable fruit that refreshes the exhausted heroes at the end of The Last Battle (my inspiration for the feast in Elysium that Ante and her companions tuck into in Ante’s Inferno, as I wrote about here).

So I’m absolutely with Barry Cunningham in this, except I’d say he doesn’t go far enough. It’s not just children whose mouths will water at descriptions of glorious nosh; it works for adults too. No one knew this better than Charles Dickens, whose books abound in depictions of food so tempting the reader can practically taste the ‘red-hot chestnuts, cherry-cheeked apples, juicy oranges, luscious pears, immense twelfth-cakes, and seething bowls of punch, that made the chamber dim with their delicious steam.’ (A Christmas Carol). There’s a joyfulness in these lines, a delight in the simple pleasure of good things to eat, that makes the reader feel all’s well with the world. You know that at some point in the story, the characters will get to sit down and partake of all these yummy things.

Which is why I felt so sorry for the heroine in Autumn de Wilde’s new film of Emma. (If you haven’t seen it, do – it is beautifully acted and directed and designed, costumes and set beyond praise.) Wonderful feasts are repeatedly laid out – for weddings, Christmas, social gatherings – with marvellous looking Regency meats, trifles, jellies, cakes and baskets of strawberries – and poor Emma is never allowed to taste a thing. All around her people tuck in with relish, while she never even picks up her cutlery. It is difficult, of course, to look elegant while eating, and certainly wading into such irresistible things as chocolate eclairs is used to comic effect with Miss Bates and Harriet Smith – but I can’t help feeling that is a mistake. Call me a killjoy, but the subliminal message is that only clumsy, unattractive women eat; luminously beautiful ones like Emma Woodhouse don’t. They live on… what, air?
No cakes for Emma

Jane Austen would have had no time for such nonsense. Food in her lifetime was a serious, practical necessity, something her heroine had as much right to enjoy as anybody else. It probably wouldn’t have occurred to de Wilde, directing the film, that starving her main character was a problem. But speaking as a devourer – in more ways than one – of great classic fiction, driven by real, flesh-and-blood characters – it is, believe me.


Umberto Tosi said…
So true. They are what they eat! Not eating also conveys charateristics, intentionally or not. Starving heroines in films smacks of Hollywood's obsessions and sexism more than anything aesthetic. As for filming - eating can be in character and its manner revealing if the actors, cinematographers and directors bother to work at shooting it intimately as the film sex scenes...
Oh dear, we have more spam in the comments box (see Griselda Heppel's blog today...
Meanwhile, Griselda has written a lovely piece on food and eating in children's and adult's books... I can only add to it that C.S. Lewis's friend J.R.R. Tolkien also homed in on adding delicious food (though somehow often with a bit of 'nursery quality - bread and honey, for example - though what is actually wrong with that? There are also those wafers the Elves favour - energy without substance apparently... (I'd prefer the bread and honey...) and, in the days before smoking was known to be harmful, plenty of smoking along with the good beer...
Sandra Horn said…
Fascinating post, Griselda - it made me realise that my own record in feeding my characters is very hit-and-miss!
Alex Marchant said…
A lovely post, Griselda, and absolutely true - a wonderful sensual quality can be added by lavish details of food. I haven't seen the latest Emma, but I wonder what Scarlett O'Hara (or her mother) would have said? Always the rebel, Scarlett bridles at being forced to eat before any public event, so she doesn't stuff herself at the barbecue or whatever - because, of course, a real lady only ever eats like a bird. The opposite is found in the wonderful 'Like Water for Chocolate', where food is central to life. (In my own books, I belatedly realized that my characters spend rather a lot of time quaffing wine - even the youngsters at certain times - and enjoying little sweetmeats along with it - which probably says rather more about me than about them!)
Griselda Heppel said…
Many thanks all for your nice comments - I sense a lot of fellow feeling here! Absolutely eating is often used in films and books to say something about the person who’s doing it - which feels jolly unfair, especially in the case of women ie as in Emma, it’s a shortcut way of presenting miss Bates as clumsy and childish - even though endearing - and Harriet smith as nervous and out of her depth. The message is - and Scarlett O’Hara is a brilliant example of this - that fine, beautiful ladies don’t eat. And we wonder why so many young girls succumb to eating disorders. But used well, an eating scene can be clever and incredibly evocative. I can’t think of that delicious book Like Water for Chocolate without my mouth watering; and one of the best - and funniest - eating scenes I’ve read is in A s Byatt’s Posession, where the villain chomps his way heartlessly through a plate of shellfish.
I once did a guest post on a blog called But What Are They Eating? In my debut novel 'Song Quest', it was mermaid eggs...

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