So your Character needs to Eat

I’m taking a break from elements of style this week – trying to figure out how to explain syntax in one short post wasn’t working. I’ll be having some random guests appear for our 7-7-7 challenge, some of which will be on my Wednesday slot during the remainder of this month. I found studying syntax was the single most important thing I needed to learn in terms of stylistics, and consider it is July and my little peanut brain is thinking of beaches and daytrips rather then what I learned in school, so this is probably for the best.  If you are overly disappointed, go read Sin and Syntax by Constance Hale, best layman book I have read, although I bet you there are equally fabulous books out there.

What this post isn’t is about is nutrition or caloric needs – your big guy will invariably need more calories then your small guy, but it also depends on their activities – and while you can figure out approximate caloric expenditure of hours of hiking or fighting, you’re on your own for your metabolic rules for magic flinging and deep-space cryosleep. I’m not going to tell you what you can eat raw or how to quarter red meat, but here’s a few things to consider when your character’s unable to stop at a regular settlement for sustenance.

Brought to you by personal experience

My sister and I picked 44 liters of strawberries yesterday – yes, we have frozen most of them. Strawberry season came a little late this year, and we grew up with agriculture on my mother’s side of the family – the side that taught me skills I take for granted, like, how to start a fire and make a shelter in the bush. Without going into high-angle rescue and water, I take for granted using a compass, navigating terrain and how to tie knots.

Seemingly simple situations can become emergencies very quickly, especially for the unprepared – I work in EMS, and there’s no way I can possibly cover every emergency you will come across – our saying is an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure – before setting out, your characters should have made allotments for what they’d realistically need for their voyage. That being said, a lot of things can go wrong. Consider your voyaging character’s daily challenge: Food.

It’s all well and good if your character has a good stockpile of food that won’t go bad and an efficient means of bringing it with them. However, whether your character is journeying across an unspoiled landscape or he’s crashed his ship in post-apocolypse NYC, he’s going to face numerous challenges as his food supply dwindles over time, as he picks up additional characters, has equipment stolen, or his food goes bad. I can’t go into everything, but here’s 5 major things to consider:

1)      Equipment – Consider everything your character would likely need, and if they need specialized equipment, you should establish this prior to them just having twine or whatever they happen to need at the time in their backpack. If they’re an outdoorsy ranger or survivalist, your readers are more likely to accept them being able to have random items on them then a character who shouldn’t. Consider everything – clothing layers and material, shoes, sunglasses – small things can make a big difference – your character not putting on sunscreen can be a huge factor if they get sunstroke and are now useless until they recover. Another example: when I walk my dog, I always take two bags with me for his droppings. In post apocolypta-Manitoba (or when I neglect to bring a water dish) those bags become very useful – I can stick a sealed bag in my purse and suddenly: Instant liquid container! You can use plastic bags with rubber bands to make an improv pair of rubber boots for short distances – and getting your feet wet? Not a big deal if you’re going back to a nice, warm and dry environment – this can be murder in a cold environment. If I were to need to forage, a plastic bag helps me bring back more berries or kindling then what I could carry with my hands – especially if I run into a predator and I need to high-tail it out of there, it’s easier to hold onto my bad while I’m pumping my arms, or at least if I drop the bag, my hard-earned material is all in one place. If you have to give your character just one thing – hands down, a pocket knife is the most important small thing that they could have. While not as useful as other items, it is small enough and common enough that any almost any character over the age of 10 wouldn’t be a stretch to have one.

2)      Climate/Landscape – there are advantages and disadvantages to your settings, some of which aren’t always obvious at first. Manitoba winters are notorious and deadly if you aren’t prepared for them – a good many of the animals are hibernating, and there isn’t much food to find without knowing where to look. However, a distinct advantage to winter is food storage. Food, especially meat, will spoil in a few hours if untreated, accelerated under moist and humid conditions. If your character has an excess of meat, they would be able to preserve it under cold conditions, however care would need to be taken to hang the meat a distance away from the camp so that bears, wolves and other predators won’t come at random hours.  Consider what your characters would be foraging – some berries are plentiful and have long seasons, many require going off the beaten path and specialized growing conditions. Your characters might be able to stumble across a deer – but they have to fall the deer quickly, because if it’s just injured, it might run for several miles before succumbing to injuries; most of your human characters can’t catch a deer. Now that you have a deer, do they have the equipment to butcher it? Do they know how to bleed it? Your characters might be better off catching smaller critters in creeks and on game trails with simple snares.

Unless you have a very strange biosphere, don’t assume because you’re in an urban landscape that your characters can’t find food that isn’t processed. A good number of animals thrive where humans go – scavengers, mostly; such as raccoons, gulls and rats – so even if you’re on a drifting spaceship that shouldn’t have anything, if your character chances across fresh mouse droppings, the mouse is making it. Granted, little squeaker needs far less calories then your eager young space cadet, but if there’s some semblance of a complicated organism living there, there has to be enough raw material for them to survive on, if only barely.

3)      Your Cast – it’s all well and good if everyone pulls their own weight – many animals are able to forage for themselves, and some, such as hawks and dogs, might be able to bring back food for their masters. The downside is some of these creatures have very specialized needs. Many raptors, for example, need to eat a lot or they will die very quickly – you or I, assuming we are healthy, can go several days without food. Just as you can’t run your horse ragged for miles and miles, you need to take into consideration your cast’s injuries, their mental fortitude and their abilities – and even though I pointed out that your (human) character can go days without food – I sincerely doubt he’ll be pleasant about it, because after a few days of eating nothing but moss and insects, he might chance the zombies for a chance to sneak into farm and raid the chicken coop.  And yes, injuries matter – while your character is healing or just sick, he might not be hungry – but his body is expending stored calories to recover.


4)      Resources – Tying in with equipment, it’s more then okay if your characters improvise a relatively flat stone to use over a fire to cook bird’s eggs or they have enough bags to carry the food they’ll consume over the next few days. Consider cooking implements and all that under equipment. Consider things your characters don’t have a lot of control over: How much time does your character devote to the activity of cooking? Can they make a fire, or has it been a rainy day and all the equipment is now soaked? Does boiling the food require water? Is that water clean? Consider a rider riding all day and stopping for stew. That’s nice – stew takes hours to cook, and quite frankly, if I’m on a day’s-long journey, I’ll settle with soup and some shut-eye after I’ve taken care of my horse. Unless there’s a bunch of us and it’s someone’s job to stir the pot for hours, I’m going to be frying up some bannock, it’s quick.

5)      X-Factors – Though tying in with all the other elements, X-Factors are the unexpected elements. Your ranger might know that there’s a hunting lodge just on the other side of the river, but when they get there, they find it’s a hide-out for a bunch of bandits. Your character might find a bow, but they are a hopeless archer. It was a late crop year. The pests have eaten all the berries.  The only food available is rhubarb, and your character is sick of everything being so tart. You have a carnivore in the cast and they’re getting restless. You fed your trusty dog to the carnivore last chapter who just now totally could swim across the abnormally high rushing river with a rope. The possibilities are endless – the best way to research this is to look up natural disasters.

When sending your characters into the wild, there’s nothing wrong with having things go wrong and making them forage for supplies, and in terms of importance, food is actually one of the last things you need to concern yourself about in an emergency, but it can be an ongoing struggle if your characters are on long journeys and ostensibly have to survive for several weeks on their own. If you’re going for authentic details, get to know a similar area you’d be sending them out to – even if you’re writing in a fantastic, non-earth setting where the characters are more concerned about not getting eaten rather then eating, you can draw on normal experiences and tweak accordingly to fit your imaginary world.


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