Guest Blog: Cooking Up a Character with Rashda Khan



Hope everyone had a wonderful holiday! I'll be back to blogging on Wednesday, but today I have another special treat for you. Rashda Khan is tying her love of cooking with her love of writing and talking about how to cook up a character. Hope you enjoy! (Although, I promise you'll probably end up hungry after reading this. :) ) 

Cooking Up a Character by Rashda Khan

Even though Roni and I are both in Texas, we ended up meeting in Twitterverse and I discovered her blog, which I thoroughly enjoy. So when she sent out an SOS for guest bloggers, I decided to come out of my shell –lurkmode—and volunteer. In the past, Roni’s posts and those of others have educated and encouraged me, so I figured it was time try and do my part. So without further ado, let’s cook up some characters! J

A good story, to me, is like a warm bowl of home-made soup on a bone-cold winter evening. Nourishing and filling. You can’t stop until you’ve scraped together the last spoonful. For me this magic happens with characters as real as my best friend, or the helpful librarian, or the flirty bartender at my favorite bar. Someone so real that I forget “it’s just a story” and root for their dreams, gasp when they are in danger, and cry for their heartbreak.
When I first started writing, I knew I wanted real characters. Easier said than done. I looked at all kinds of character worksheets, some of which were frightening in their length. But just as you can’t force an pantser to plot, worksheets and I do not get along. So instead, I decided to imagine character building in cooking terms. It worked for me, so I’m sharing it in the hopes that if there are other foodie-writers out there, maybe this method will help them create characters.
The readers, first and foremost, must be able to relate and care for a character. So think of a character, now think of him/her as a soup. Everyone has sipped soup at some point in their life. A bowl of soup can hearty and casual, something you curl up on the couch with while wearing your bunny slippers. Or it can be sinfully rich and made with fancy ingredients like truffle oil and escargot and served on fine china by a waiter waltzing to your table. It can be hot and sour, or sweet and mellow. What kind of soup would your character be?

Most people imagine the goodness of soup comes from long hours of slow simmering on the stove-top. Not so. There are some basic procedures and tips that can help you make soup in a cinch. Characterization doesn’t have to be an arduous process either as long as you keep the basics in mind. Remember food should appeal to our different senses through aroma, color, texture and taste. So should your character.

What Goes In the Pot:

Build the Base (Vegetables, trimmings and soup bones) – these provide a flavorful soup base). For a French flavor you’d use the mirepoix, an aromatic combination of onions, carrots and celery provide the base of many dishes. But for an Asian soup, I’d probably go for onions, garlic and ginger. Whatever kind of soup you make, it’s important to have a base to build on because it provides underlying flavor and depth.
In terms of character: your base would include goal, motivation and conflict. In other words, what does the character want, why does he/she want it and what keeps her/him from it (the conflict should include outside influences –the antagonist—and inside influences, fear).

Fat – only a small amount (about 2 tablespoon) is needed to cook –or sweat -- the vegetable base. You can choose rich, golden butter, lean and dark olive oil, or the boy/girl next door equivalent –canola or vegetable oil.
The backstory equals fat. You can’t do without it, but a little bit goes a long way. Like oil, it’s an underlying layer that shouldn’t be overly conspicuous.

Main Ingredient­-- In a chicken soup, that would be the chicken. In a lentil soup, that would be the lentils. In a story, go with the overriding description of your character. Former ex-marine turned detective, or mousy accountant taking on the mob.

Seasonings – such as spices, dried and fresh herbs, garlic, shallots should complement the main ingredient, enrich and deepen the flavors of the soup. 
Character traits and quirks help define the character and add more dimension. Think of the obsessive-compulsive TV detective Adrian Monk with his phobias and brilliant eye for details. Now compare him to Sherlock Holmes or Stephanie Plum. Each one of them solves crimes, but each is unique and different.

Liquid–you can use water, but broth or stock is more flavorful. Use more liquid in a soup with starchy vegetables –winter squash, lentils, potatoes and beans—and less when working with vegetables with high water contents—leafy greens.

The liquid in your story is your plot with all its twists and turns, pacing and reversals. The nature and amount of the liquid depends on your story. A woman’s fiction would have slower pace, rich with flavor, and different twists and turns. Think of Steel Magnolias where the issues are friendship, family and dealing with the complication of diabetes and loss—flavor provided by a cast of colorful small-town characters. Now compare it to an urban fantasy, which would require tighter pacing, danger and kick-ass-itude out the wazoo, spicy and sharp in taste,  such as Ilona Andrews’ Kate Daniels series, where the main character wields a sword and an even-sharper tongue, while dealing with magic and monsters, as well as identity, relationships and loss.

Plot is also colored by your particular character’s nuances. For example, your mousy accountant is not likely to cuss like a marine and beat up the mobsters…unless you give her a plausible backstory.

Thickeners -- are ingredients added to give more substance to the soup. These can include barley, pasta, rice, potatoes and flour.

In terms of writing, secondary characters would serve the same purpose, they help round out your main character and expose hidden layers.

The best example of this is JD Robb’s Death series. Eve Dallas, the main character, is a tough, driven, workaholic cop. Her hero, Roarke brings out the feminine, the playfulness and romantic in her, colleagues and friends like Peabody, Feeney, Nadine and Mavis show us the respect her dedication has earned Dallas in the job, and show her loyalty. Even antagonists like Roarke’s butler, Summerset and the cat, Sir Galahad, bring out her soft spots and her inner child.

Garnishes – are added at the end for visual, aroma, texture and/or taste. Typical garnish include: chopped herbs, lemon or lime juice, chopped or fried onion, or sour cream etc.

When it comes to characters, the garnish would be those physical details, like height, color of hair or eyes, build, voice etc. You just need a bit of garnish to help readers imagine, but choose wisely because too much can overwhelm your soup, while the right detail can add a whole new layer to the overall dish. Many writers pull the garnishes out first, but these should be added in the end. Just like chopped parsley adds a burst of green to a bowl of soup, details should make your character vivid.
Let me share a piece of Robb’s description of Roarke: His voice was smooth, with a whisper of the charm of Ireland over it, like rich cream over warmed whiskey. Yum!

To cook a soup or a character, we have to pull all the raw ingredients together. While we don’t have to cook for hours, we do need to let everything simmer so the flavors meld together to form a satisfying dish. So step back from the character for a bit, try to imagine this person in your head, sitting curled up on the couch next to you. Share a bowl of soup with them. Talk and visit instead of rushing him/her on to the page.

So does any of this make sense? Let me know what you think & Happy Writing!


Rashda Khan is a West Texas-based food enthusiast and writer. She teaches culinary classes and writes The Family Table column for her local newspaper. She also day dreams of hunky paranormal heroes, magic and mischief and writes them down as stories. Other than that, she's raising a family of two children, two cats, two dogs and a husband.
She can be reached at Or @SpiceBites on Twitter. You can also find her at her blog  Hot Curries & Cold Beer.

Thanks so much to Rashda! 

So what do you think? What ingredient gives you the most trouble? Which do you sometimes forget to give proper attention to?