World Building: Traditions
World building is one of the most important aspects of crafting a good story, regardless of the genre:
- A contemporary story presents a world the audience is quite familiar with. That doesn’t mean the author is off the hook. Even in a modern setting in a native country, there will be lots of elements that need to be defined. For instance, if it’s a YA high school romance, you need to build the school hierarchy, traditions, family background, etc.
- A historical fiction has much more work to do. And by work I mean research. Everything has to be as accurate as possible before you put your fictional characters into action. If the setting is Christmas time in 1800s London, it better be bitterly cold and smoggy with pickpockets and wealthy carriages. You better have the proper government workings and accurate social divides. Fans of this particular genre will not let you get away with half-assing it. Get it right.
- For my preferred genres, science fiction and fantasy, world building is KEY. You might not have to do the research of historical, but you don’t have the familiar to fall back on either. Which means you have so much rope, you can hang yourself with it.
Most writers spend a LOT of time on the magic system or the technology as the basis of their world. Good. That’s kind of important. But there are so many elements to consider when building a world from scratch. For this article, I’m going to focus on traditions.
In order to make your world dimensional and concrete, you can’t forget to add traditions. It’s what defines the culture of your characters. Think about our world traditions. What does each tell you about the cultural who practices them?
Many of these traditions are centuries old. Your people will also have practices steeped in ancient culture. Make sure you know all the details, but don’t spend a page or two describing them and boring the heck out of your reader. Immerse your characters in the experience, bringing it to life for your readers.
Traditions in Turmoil
Now that you have some traditions created for your culture. Add conflict by having them go wrong, like a Christmas movie where Santa Claus is killed or a Chinese New Year where the animal of the year invades the celebration.
For a more subtle effect, I’m going to use one of my family’s yearly events and a natural phenomenon that mixed things up.
We volunteer every year at the Ellington Air Show, a fundraiser for the Commemorative Air Force. My husband has loved air shows since he was a child. He brought this tradition from his upbringing to his own family. All of us, including the kids, get up before the crack of dawn and work all day. The kids aren’t allowed to drive the golf carts yet, but when they become of age, they will know exactly what to do and where to go and how to honor our veterans and the aircraft that helped keep them alive.
This year something exciting happened. A cold front came through. The show runners closed the gates and made all the volunteers shelter in place. The sun shone and the sky was still blue while we all prepared for the dangerous storm’s approach. It felt surreal.
The front rolled in when we normally are transporting Heroes and Legends to their autograph ten and thousands of people are touring the grounded aircraft. Instead, everything was eerily quiet and our usually mostly empty fire station was stuffed full of volunteers and ROTC students.
As the blanket of a front pulled itself over the airport, the cold wind hit us like someone opened a giant freezer. Us veterans of the air show couldn’t help taking in the severe weather change.
The rain came down in torrents flooding many of the tents. The wind bent many of the poles. As soon as the storm cleared, golf carts ran out and surveyed the damage. By this time, it was lunch and no one knew where to drop off the sandwiches because the volunteer tent was flooded. The Medical tent was beyond use; so, the medical volunteers had to scramble to find a new location. All the departments who hadn’t checked out golf carts yet were now coming all at once to get their wheels.
With all of these departments out of normal functions, you would think the operation would be in chaos. That wasn’t the case at all. Everyone was calm. All volunteers focused on their tasks and fixed the problems one at a time. Four hours later than normal, the gates opened and all was as it was supposed to be.
What traditions have you designed for your cultures? Have they clashed in your plot? What would happen in your world if the normal traditions that you’ve painstakingly designed and planned get tossed on their ear?