Minor details in your story can mean a lot
One of my characters–right now, her name is Terry–has really changed herself over the years. She used to believe that she wasn’t worth a hell of a lot. Like many people with that opinion of herself, she did things to re-enforce that premise. She made bad decisions, undermined her own success, and generally did things to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.
Part of her backstory is that she hit bottom and found her way back, in part through a fitness instructor. The fitness instructor took her under her wing, and eventually, Terry became a personal trainer. The woman who left home fat, out of shape, and unhappy still has issues, but a big part of her change is shown in her new body, and the outlook that goes along with it.
When the story starts, she’s already decided to make these changes. She works out regularly and her body is a billboard for the lifestyle changes she’s made, even though she’s in her late 40s. She eats the part, too. As she drives from upstate New York to Florida during a massive winter storm, she winds up staying a night in a high school gym because the ice storm has closed the Interstate. The only place to get food is a convenience story across the parking lot–and she has difficult choices to make because she typically eats much better.
As the story unwinds, and she makes it back home, she’s reminded of her past failures in a way that penetrates the wall of muscle she’s built around herself. And as a result, when she eats, she falls back into the habits she’s left behind. No quinoa for her. More like M&Ms, milkshakes, and a bag of Doritos.
All of this happens as it would in real life. I don’t add any signs that she’s gone from the Yul Gibbons model to a teenage boy’s dream diet. It just happens in the background. Having engaged in stress eating–and eating based on self-image–in the past, that’s enough for me.
Maybe when someone reads this story some day, they’ll miss this detail. Maybe they’ll even say “I don’t care what she’s eating. Why is he taking away from the story to tell me she’s munching on a bag of chips?” If so, that’s fine.
But while some of the character cues have to be obvious, not all of them do. Taking things that would otherwise seem superfluous and adding meaning to them–like the things a character chooses to eat–can help build depth in your story and your character.