Today I have the pleasure of hosting Juliette Wade, author extraordinaire and host of the fabulous Google Hangout group Dive into Worldbuilding. It's a fantastic series and she's just started a Patreon to support the effort.
So when Megan invited me to post to her blog series on Drinks with Characters, I took a look at a few of the suggested drinks, and mostly didn't want to try them! But I thought this would be a perfect opportunity to talk about how drinks can help your worldbuilding. In fact, if you've been following Drinks with Characters, that's what you've been getting: one little peek at a time into "what do people drink in this world"? Today I'm going to look at another question. "How do we define 'drinks' in a world, and how do they help define the characters in that world?"
Let's start with water. Unless you're working with a science fictional world with alternate chemistry, this will be the basis for most things being liquid-that-you-put-in-your-body because it's necessary for life. In our world, people worked very hard to create water purification systems and plumbing systems to deliver fresh water to the places where we'd find it most convenient. However, the drinking of tap water gets entangled in value judgments about wealth and poverty. Sometimes people refuse to drink plain water because they are so accustomed to juice, milk, or other flavored drinks. They may also refuse to drink tap water because they associate it with being poor. As a result, the drink companies take advantage of this bias to sell them bottled water, along with an entire narrative about why it would be better to pay money the bottling and the bottle itself. We've also seen the extent of water contamination in places like Flint, Michigan, where the only thing residents can afford is contaminated, and poisoning their children. Poisoned water or environmental racism can be explored in fiction just as well as any of these other value judgments. I think the most classic example of a different value placed on water in SFF comes from Frank Herbert's Dune. On the planet Arrakis, because water is incredibly scarce, people are used to drinking water recycled from their own body excretions, and water is a form of currency. The oppressors on the planet waste water as a show of their overwhelming power.
When you look at drinks other than water - yes, I'm getting to alcohol - you find that those drinks will reflect the world, because at their root lie questions of climate and the availability of grain for beer, fruit for wine, potatoes for vodka, etc. Some cultures avoid alcohol, of course, and some avoid caffeine, too. What will you do in the culture you're creating?
One way to approach creating drinks in an alternate world is to think of drinks as occupying the same slots that drinks occupy in our own culture: e.g. one slot for water, one for juice, one for milk, one for coffee, one for beer, one for wine, one for whiskey. Of course, you don't have to substitute into every slot. Anne McCaffrey's Pern books used wine without any alteration, but replaced coffee with a drink called klah.
Another way to approach drinks in worldbuilding is to look at the social groups you're defining in your world, and consider how drinks might fit into the drinking habits of those people. Perhaps there is a form of moonshine that is the only thing affordable by poor people at the end of a hard day. It may have chemical similarities to another strong drink that is favored by rich people, but they would probably not have the same name. Is there a before dinner drink that contrasts with an after dinner drink? Is there a "dress up, dress down" drink that keeps its name but differs in flavor depending on who produces it and how it's priced? And don't forget to think about drink-related language, such as what people say when they drink a toast (and why).
Drinks might seem like a side note in the context of a large story, but in worldbuilding, tiny details can make a critical difference, helping to create a sense of difference, and helping readers to believe in the seamlessness of the world you've created.
Cheers, and happy worldbuilding!
Juliette Wade hosts the Dive into Worldbuilding show on Google Hangouts, where she uses her academic expertise in anthropology and linguistics to take discussions of worldbuilding topics beyond the expected. Her short fiction explores language and culture issues across the genres of fantasy and science fiction. She has appeared in Clarkesworld, Fantasy&Science Fiction, and Analog magazines.
If you're a fan of worldbuilding and want to take your skills further, you can also become a part of the Dive into Worldbuilding workshop. Join Juliette's Patreon and get brainstorming prompts, research links, exclusive peeks into research topics, or even get Juliette to help you with your work directly. https://www.patreon.com/JulietteWade