Writing Craft: Using Tradition to Give Depth to Your World

It’s Australia Day, today, and that, coming so soon after Christmas got me to thinking about what significance this sort of even might have for world building. After all, every society celebrates or commemorates something, whether those events centre around a religious festival, an event rooted in history that helps define national identity, a culturally significant day, or a personal event. Each and every one of these helps to give a society structure, and to build individual identity. They are often used to cement a society of individuals into a cohesive whole, and as such are an essential part of social fabric. And this means that a variation or replica of some or all of the events below should exist in every story that is peopled by individuals and communities:

Religious Festivals: Christmas, Ramadan, Passover, and Easter are the four events that come immediately to mind, and this reflects my own cultural bias and experience. Those of you from other backgrounds will come up with different event, as there are many religions and religious events observed around the world.
Every culture has its share of deities (sometimes many, sometimes one) and the means of worshipping or appeasing them. And this is something that will probably remain true of any culture, no matter what its world setting.
Human settlers might take a variant of a known religion to the stars, or develop a new one on whatever world they land. Aliens developed their own culture and their own way of explaining natural occurrences in the world around them. Who knows, from those explanations gods may have grown or demons evolved, and there will be religions based around them.
How a person believes (whether they are human or otherwise) impacts on the way they view their world, and interacts with it. Regardless of whether religion is playing a central part of your story, if your character has a set of personal beliefs, then the behaviour resulting from these is likely to be apparent.

National Identity: Bastille Day, Australia Day, Thanksgiving, Independence Day, ANZAC Day and Veterans Day are all examples of traditions that are important to national identity, as well as being culturally significant, but it must be remembered that not every individual will feel the same way about an event of national significance.
Australia Day, for example, celebrates the landing of the First Fleet of British colonists in Australia, but not all Australians celebrate this day. Some protest that it has no place in modern Australia because it signifies a period of theft and slavery, and others argue that it is a reminder of when all Australians were bound to a foreign power, while many see the day as the only one in our collective history that forms the pivotal point from which the continent became a single, unified country. I celebrate it because it is the day that was chosen to celebrate being Australian, but I am glad to be Australian, even if I am aware that not all the history tied to the day is happy.
So, days tied to national identity can be fraught with contrast and conflict, and the emotions roused by these can enrich your story and add depth to your characters, even when these elements are not the central theme of your tale. And that is something important to remember when using national identity. Don’t let it become the central theme of the story, if the conflicts tied to national identity are not the main story point, as it could weaken the structure. At the same time, don’t water down or belittle the viewpoints of the characters who hold those emotions and beliefs.
And, finally, days that are significant in this way are often tied to events that are pivotal to a nation’s history. If those events had not occurred, and the day not existed, that nation would be different to what it is today. When applying this concept to tales of alternate history, it’s important to look at events of national significance, and decide whether or not to keep them. When designing an entire new culture, it’s important to choose events that are significant to more than one group of the individuals in that culture, and to be aware of how different groups might view that significant event.

Culturally Significant: Spring or Winter Festival, funerals and wakes, or Hallowe’en are examples of culturally significant events, although the last could be argued to be more religious than cultural. How a group of people is affected by their environment, how they view death, birth and the afterlife, and the importance they tie to these events can deeply affect how they behave at any particular time of the year.
For example, a culture that suffers from a long, cold winter, for example, is likely to place great importance on the arrival of spring and to celebrate something that signifies the winter is over. Likewise, that culture is likely to emphasise the importance of the harvest season preceding winter, given that the success or failure of that season is tied to their very survival. And these traditions, which are deeply entwined, have a very good chance of surviving into times when the seasons are no longer key to a group’s survival.

Personal Event: birthdays, christenings, coming of age celebrations, significant survival dates such as a fortieth , fiftieth or seventieth birthday, and wedding anniversaries are all examples of personal events that help make a character what they are, and which can sometimes dictate how that character responds to another.
In some cultures, for example, young adults greatly anticipate the day they officially become adults. Some look forward to being to get themselves completely and legally drunk, or enter bars as themselves instead of that person on their fake id. Some just want to be able to drive. Others want the adult wage, or to have sex without the social beaurocrats having a hissy fit of spectacular proportions.
However, before the modern world took many of the dangers out of survival, coming of age held a greater significance. For example, a young man or woman who came of age was able to make decisions for themselves and help provide for their society, where previously the society had dictated what they could do. Young men could go hunting, young women could marry, some had a voice in tribal decisions where their age had silenced them before and others were able to claim ownership of something, instead of having to hand the ownership and control of that thing to someone older.
What a society values and celebrates on an individual level also influences how members of that society treat those who possess the characteristics so valued view others, including individuals who do not come from within the society.

Interactions between events that have a significance in tradition and other happenings can increase the emotion surrounding the new event. A death before Christmas or on New Year’s Eve or on a birthday, for example, has a greater emotional impact than a death in a month where no significant event was scheduled to occur. Likewise a birth on a culturally significant day often places a burden of expectation on the ‘lucky’ child. A mishap such as tripping over one’s own feet has a different impact if it happens on an unimportant day while a mundane activity is being undertaken, than if it occurs while doing something tied to a significant day: tripping while accepting an award, handing someone a present, or while buying someone a gift for a special day. How a character, or those around the character, view the world and the importance of the day is going to have an effect on how they respond to any single event. Including this in your story (provided you don’t explain it to death) helps to enrich your story-telling.


  1. Excellent post. Adding references to traditional events in a fictional society gives instant backstory. One of the best at this sort of thing (IMO) is Jack McDevitt. Just a casual sentence or two about an historical event in a planet's past (with a date added) says so much.

  2. Thanks, Greta. I think it's easy to overlook traditions, or to avoid them when telling tales, but as you observed, so much can be added when they're used properly.


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