Tradition in Fantasy

By tradition, I mean the rituals, gestures, etc. practiced by characters in their respective cultures. In that sense, these are worldbuilding thoughts.

Traditions are an important part of any culture, even today. Breaking them, depending on the circumstances, can change relationships or the way one is viewed within their community. Works in fantasy often have longstanding traditions within the lore, some familiar to the audience, some maybe not.

Either way, it’s worth thinking about.

Why?

We practice traditions every day even if we don’t realize it. Shaking hands with someone you’ve just met is an example that we may not give much thought to, but we do if the gesture is not reciprocated. Why would we touch hands with strangers? Where does this come from?

The answer isn’t clear as it depends on the culture, but we do know if goes back a very long time. When people would carry weapons on their person, they would draw with their right hand. Shaking right hands is a show of intention: This is a peaceful interaction and we are establishing trust that we will not draw weapons on each other. Source

Today we use it for other purposes. If you’re making a deal or promise, it’s traditional to shake on it. Shaking hands at the beginning of a sports game shows that the teams have respect for one another. When meeting someone, it establishes familiarity or reinforces a relationship. Violating this tradition, such as breaking the deal the parties shook on, can be taken as a deep betrayal.

So while the tradition first a set a tone of “Let’s not kill each other today”, it stills stands. It was very practical, less so now.

Traditions have functions. They serve serve purposes. They bind communities together so that we can identify each other. They establish order. They honor the parties at hand. They speak to our cultural history. Sometimes, they’re fun. Sometimes they aren’t. They evolve for very specific reasons and have a universal purpose within that group.

The same goes in your fictional traditions. Where did this tradition come from? Why? Is it still practiced for the same reasons?

Not Practiced Equally

Growing up, whenever we had guests over, often one of the first things my parents would do is offer the guest alcohol (if they were of age). My parents said it was a gesture of good faith. While a guest in our home, we would share with them. Alcohol, in our family, has a history of bringing people together. It was a way of honoring the guest.

I knew other families that do this. Accepting the gesture as a guest (when I was of age) said something as well: “I am comfortable enough with you and am grateful for your hospitality.”

I’ve seen situations where simple misunderstandings get misinterpreted as borderline offensive. I’ve seen guests who’ve done their best to help out in the home; cleaning, meal prep, etc. and the host was offended. If a guest didn’t eat anything the host offered, it was offensive or at least made the host concerned.

Traditions aren’t always practiced or not in the same way. It’s often a careful calculation on behalf of both parties to figure out what exactly is offensive or not.

In the world of fantasy, this can be an interesting source of conflict, the lifeblood of storytelling.  Perhaps two characters don’t have the same traditions and navigating what is “okay” and not can cause tension and anxiety. Maybe one party gets extremely offended by an unintentional misstep.

Break at Your Peril

My mother did not take my father’s last name when she married. This offended my father’s family (though my dad didn’t care one way or another). I was given both my parents’ last names and my paternal grandmother refused to acknowledge it and called me by my father’s last name.

Within communities, families, partnerships, and so on, breaking traditions or even not holding the same ones can cause a lot of tension. My mother liked her name and didn’t want to change it. My grandmother saw it as an insult: my mother didn’t see herself as part of the family.

In your stories, sometimes traditions must be broken. Sometimes characters simply don’t want to do what is expected of them and it has consequences.

An extreme example is the case of the Red Wedding in George R.R. Martin’s A Storm of Swords. A Lord violated a sacred tradition drawing horror and disgust from many others.

If warranted, your characters should break traditions to drive the story and the conflicts forward, but remember breaking the status quo, so to speak comes at a cost.

Tradition Does Have a Purpose

Teenage me would scoff at the above. Traditions are old and outdated, we can do whatever we want, within reason, and it’s no one else’s business. That’s true, technically, but life is often more nuanced than that.

The purpose depends on the scale, the history, and all manner of conditions. A traditional Mass will be foreign and intimidating to some, while others will feel right at home.

Traditions preserve our families, history, cultural identity, but they also separate us from other groups. Within groups, they separate classes, genders, and so on. They can keep people in “their place” without question because “that’s how it is”.

Identify traditions in your work. What purpose do they serve? Do they bring people together or drive them apart?

The Source

I grew up in a religious home, as did my significant other. I was confirmed, meaning as a teenager, I reaffirmed my baptism by studying, giving a speech, and receiving a blessing. Afterwards, I was allowed to partake in the communion ceremony. My S.O. was not confirmed as his background didn’t see a reason you needed to go through hoops to partake. I was confused and a bit stunned (though not offended) simply because the idea was a bit foreign to me.

This tradition came from a deep religious tradition (though I no longer hold those same beliefs). Some traditions are political. Some are religious. Some are historical. Some come from other aspects of culture. Each one has a significance and each source will dictate the current/modern view of the tradition depending on the context.

Think of the sources of  the traditions in your work. Do scholars always wear academic garb? Are rulers anointed with oils? Do mages always wear funny hats that they have to earn somehow? How do these sources impact the current setting of the story? Who upholds them? Is it very real to the people, or is it more ceremonial?

Traditions Differentiate Us

As I said, while some traditions bring us together. Others divide. Not necessarily in a bad way, but they do divide us.

Coming from German heritage, my family always celebrated St. Nick’s. I met someone who didn’t and I was a little surprised as I had assumed it was universal. It didn’t make us any “different” but in a very small way, it made our cultural experiences different from each other.

Meeting someone who shares your traditions establishes a commonality. Those that don’t share your traditions have a different experience. This can be an excellent opportunity to learn from each other, but it can also divide us in small or big ways.

If you have multiple groups of people with different practices interacting in your work, what ways do their traditions divide them? It can be anything, small or big. Drastic or subtle. Does it breed misunderstanding or mistrust? Can the traditions be manipulated and then betrayed? Does it make some people feel left out or excluded?

Traditions Can Hurt

We’ve seen a lot in the past few decades about “traditional marriage” (as it’s often called) vs. “equal marriage”. This is one example of how upholding traditions can be hurtful to others (meaning, people exlcuded from being able to marry because their union is not one man and one woman).

In my religious upbringing, I went to a religious school where the only “right” way for children to be born was within marriage. Being born out of wedlock, some of my peers (we were like under 10 years old) briefly looked down on me. I remember being confused and disillusioned: Was I bad? Were my parents who loved me terrible people?

Traditions have their place in culture, but times change. It often does more harm than good to uphold them, and some groups get deeply uncomfortable or worse when what is perceived as “traditional” changes.

What is the long term impact of some of these traditions in your work? Are the times changing? What happens when others seek to break these traditions?

Traditions Aren’t Easily Broken

Too many stories I’ve read had characters standing on podiums, giving grand speeches, and swaying traditional belief with their wise words. While that’s nice to imagine, moving away from traditions that have gone on for hundreds (or more) years is not easily done. It’s usually a much slower change, and if it’s not, there has to be some huge game changer.

Remember that if you’re characters are seeking to break the mold of some tradition for a large group, they are fighting against what is already established. What is established has a lot of support historically and currently, in all likelihood. Whether that’s gender roles or a religious tradition, or whatever. Breaking these customs and traditions on a large scale is a huge undertaking and they should have to face a lot of opposition.

Experience Dictates Perspective

Even the most open minded among us (at least in the west) may still feel discomfort knowing that in other cultures eating dogs is relatively normal. Even “enlightened” people may have a hard time understanding others who wear traditional religious dress by their own choice. (These are perhaps poor examples).

What does someone do when they want to be open minded, but someone else’s culture/tradition violates a deeply held conviction?

This is an interesting struggle for your characters. Even your good characters are going to disagree with other cultures if they are interacting, on some level. Things are going to make them uncomfortable, or awkward. Things that go against their experiences are going to challenge they way of thinking about the world.

Challenge your characters. Even if their beliefs are “correct” in your view.

Your Characters Shouldn’t be so Easily Swayed

When you challenge your characters’ worldview, they shouldn’t be easily swayed one way or another. Don’t give them a “I’ve seen the light” moment right off the bat.

Make it difficult.

I love Christmas. I like a lot of traditional ways of celebrating Christmas. I know people that can’t stand the holiday for their own reasons. If either of us tried to sway the other to our respective views, it would be miserable and conflict ridden.

If your character grew up with a religion (for example), was never exposed to anything else, why would they be so quick to cast it aside? Even if they did, would their really be no fear or guilt on their part? If a ruler tried to change the flag/banners of the nation, would that really go over smoothly?

People are often stubborn. Make your characters stubborn. If it must happen, it needs to be for good reasons and it cannot be quick and easy.

Modern Morals

I see this happen a lot in fantasy and I personally don’t like it. I see writers inserting modern “enlightened” morality in a world that did not evolve the same way. Or worse, characters who go against tradition for no good reason.

There are some things that are almost universally horrible or frowned upon, no doubt, but remember that this world you created isn’t our world. We are on the outside looking in on some level.

So a spunky female protagonist in a world where women don’t traditionally hold as much power as men is fine. However, making all that support her “good” and everyone who doesn’t “bad” may not be the strongest choice.

Complicate it if you can. Don’t make it so easy. Make each and every character interesting to read.

It’t not completely unavoidable, but it’s something to be considered.

Tell the Reader Something

Traditions (whatever they are, big or small) tell the reader important things about your world and characters. A culture in which people don’t really care about nudity in public tells us something about the way characters from their view the human body and sexuality. A character with face tattoos (and this is common where he/she is from) tells the reader about his/her beauty standards.

Use traditions in storytelling to establish things about characters with the readers.

Have Fun With It

Not every culture you create has to have 100% familiar traditions. Different cultures in your work should do different things, and since you created it, you’re at liberty to do whatever you want with it so long as it’s justified. It doesn’t have to be dire, maybe it’s hilarious.

Your average peasant character landing on a distant shore where the people wear face paint and dye their hair crazy colors can be a really interesting read, with the added fun of being along for the ride with your character.

Parting Words

Traditions have a place in storytelling. They unify and divide. They are longstanding, but not always outdated. They are complex and deeply held. Use them well and have fun with it. Make it different and make it difficult.

Questions to Consider

  1. What are some traditions/rituals held in your world? (Holidays, greetings, religion, funerals, gender roles, etc.)
  2. Where did they come from?
  3. What traditions bring people together? Which ones divide people?
  4. How do traditions reflect culture, history, or morality?
  5. What are the social consequences for violating traditions?
  6. How important or sacred are these traditions? How do they connect to convictions?

Prompt

Write a scene or short story about a character who encounters a person from a completely different background. What are their interactions like? What brings them together? Do they like each other or not?

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