Being a Better Writer: Traditions and Worldbuilding

Welcome back readers! It’s Monday again, and you know what that means! More Being a Better Writer! But as is the norm, I do have some news for all of you to go through first.

So we’re going to start with the more fun update: Axtara! Just like the Saturday before last, two days ago saw the posting of another preview from Axtara – Banking and Finance which you can find and read here! This time it’s an excerpt from chapter 2. That won’t be all the Axtara news you see or hear this week, because the final cover is scheduled to be delivered this week, at which point not only will you guys finally get to see it in all its glory, but Axtara itself will be able to go up for pre-order! At last! So yeah, get ready for a week of Axtara, ending in what will probably be a third and final preview as we all count down to an official release date.

Second bit of news to talk about is that this will be the last new Being a Better Writer article for the duration of Christmas and the end of the year. That’s right, once today is past, Being a Better Writer will be going on break until the New Year, 2021, arrives! At least two weeks, but I might go for three if I really feel the need to unwind. Of course, that doesn’t mean I’m going to stop working on Starforge. No, that’ll still see a lot of work. In addition, unlike previous years, this also doesn’t mean there won’t be a dearth of content during this time. Not only will there be the pre-Christmas release of Axtara – Banking and Finance to keep me busy (along with everything that entails) but there will still be Being a Better Writer articles on each Monday. They’ll just be Classic Being a Better Writer articles. That’s right, I’m going to dig through and pull out some of the most popular BaBW articles of the past few years and feature them for the holiday season. That way the site won’t see a dearth for one of its more popular features during the season.

All right, that’s it for news. So now, here we go with the final new BaBW post of the year. Which was, if I’m honest, a bit of a tough choice. I spent a little bit of time sitting there looking at the list (#16 for those of you keeping track) and asking which topic suited the finale for the year the best. But after a bit of back and forth, I settled on a topic that felt both seasonal and not at the same time: Tradition.

I got the idea for this post topic after reading an interesting little post on a US Navy tradition called the “Boot Shoot.” So in the US Navy, “shooters” is a nickname given to catapult officers, AKA the people who assist jet launches off of an aircraft carrier with that awesome catapult. Among shooters, there is a tradition that’s … Well, like some traditions are, it’s a combination of meaning, silliness, and fun. Basically, at the end of a shooters tour aboard an aircraft carrier, as their final act they remove their boots, tie the laces together, and then with the rest of the crew looking on, fire the suckers off the front of the carrier with that catapult.

Silly? Sure. Fun? Of course (look, if you can’t see the appeal of using what’s effectively a giant, nuclear-powered slingshot to fire your boots off into the horizon, you’re a lost cause to good fun)! Meaningful? Well, yeah. It’s tradition. It’s what you do when you finish.

Reading about this got me thinking, about both the traditions we follow in day to day life (like many families and people have around the holidays) and then from there my brain skipped to the traditions we give our characters and our world. Because make no mistake, no matter who we write about, be they fantasy warriors on a distant world circling a dying star or Sci-Fi accounts trying to balance the books of a booming space station … tradition will play a part in their life.

All right, so maybe we should start with a definition first. Let’s talk about what traditions are first, and how they’re defined, before we start talking about their use in writing.

So first up, a tradition is not a habit. So for example someone having coffee every morning as soon as they get up is not tradition. It might be a habit, but mostly it’s just a part of their day to day routine for them, because they like coffee.

Now, if they get up and have coffee not because they like coffee, but because their parents had it each morning and told them “the day isn’t right without coffee,” and this mindset ingrained itself into the character and they have coffee anyway, well, that might be a tradition.

Other examples of tradition could be something like a business picking up a box of donuts from a specific donut shop once a week, and it needing to be that shop. Why? No one knows. Or maybe they do know. Maybe ten years ago, under another manager, that manager bought donuts for the crew there and everyone loved them, and so they kept doing it … and a decade later, long after that boss is gone, the new boss keeps it up because well, that’s what we do.

I imagine there are a few of you at this moment wondering if I’m going to link a particular song from a very famous musical and … not yet. In a moment. First let’s keep talking about tradition and its definition. The official definition, from a quick dictionary search, seems pretty straightforward at first:

The transmission of customs or beliefs from generation to generation, or the fact of being passed on in this way.

Which frankly, while informative, sounds pretty droll. In addition, I actually think it misses the mark a little bit. For example, above I gave an example of a tradition inside a business, but that isn’t “generational,” at least not in the way the quote defines it. And I myself can think of family traditions that are unique to my immediately family growing up that weren’t passed from generation to generation, but rather were a single, unique occurrence of shared interest inside my family growing up that just became, well, a tradition.

Personally? I’d change this definition. I’d suggest that rather than “from generation to generation” we treat and think of tradition as something that can be passed along and reinforced inside a specific group, or from, and I want to note the difference here, from generations as groups to the next.

The reason for this change? Well, the definition I pulled seems focuses on the passage of broad cultural traditions from generation to generation in a manner of “grandfather-father-son.” Sort of like the song from Fiddler on the Roof, which we’ll see later in this post, this form of tradition is a strong cultural one, a sense of giving someone a connection to their forebearers.

But that’s not the only kind of tradition one can have. Businesses have traditions. Friend circles can have traditions. The “boot shoot” that kicked off this entire post is absolutely not a tradition passed from father to son unless both happened to have been career US Navy catapult shooters, but instead a tradition passed from catapult officer to catapult officer. Why did it start? I couldn’t even find out, and it’s possible that no one knows. It may have, for all I know, started out as a slamming practical joke that was so well-loved by a catapult team that they did it to all their members before they left, and, like magic, a tradition was born! And the first person who had it done to them, when they served on another carrier, immediately did the same to the next guy to leave … and then they did it to the next boat and … Boom. Tradition!

Point being is that tradition isn’t restricted to parent-child in the familiar sense. It can crop up anywhere, from business to social circles. It can be long lived, for decades or even centuries, or it can exist only as long as the circle around it (like a business, or high-school friends before going to college) does.

It can be a ritual. It can be an activity. It can be a food. For example, what’s the traditional US Thanksgiving meal centerpiece? A turkey! Why? Tradition! We associate the turkey with the holiday, and while it’s doubtful that most of us could offer an official, accurate answer as to why, for most Americans, Thanksgiving would be incomplete without it.

Why? Tradition!

Truth be told, tradition is all around us from our birth to our deaths (and beyond, considering funerals). Much of it many of us never consider because for us, it’s just the way things have been. And that’s not bad. Tradition, as a concept, isn’t bad or good. It simply is.

And that is-ness? When we sit down to craft a world, or characters, or a setting—Any of it!—that is-ness should be there. Tradition should be there. Forefront, background, whichever as the needs of the story may dictate, but it should be there. Because with people, it always is.

Now, readers, we can finally satisfy those of you that have been waiting for this video to show up for this entire post. Fiddler on the Roof is a quite-famous musical about tradition, to the point that the opening number of the film (or play, I guess) is all about that, explaining how tradition gives this small town its sense of balance and … well, just give it a watch.

If you’ve not seen the film, I do recommend it. It’s kind of a classic, and the concept of what tradition is, means, and how to keep it alive (or not) as life changes is kind of a core theme running through it.

Plus, you’ll get to hear one of the greatest lines about money in modern cinema, which I won’t spoil for you here, but after your finished laughing at it, you’ll suddenly remember this post and say “Ooooooh, that’s what he meant!”

Anyway, hopping back on track, this song illustrates the depth to which tradition can permeate our daily lives, as well as why it might. For the town in Fiddler on the Roof, tradition is everything.

What about for your characters?

Now, I’m not saying that you need to go out and write a setting and characters where tradition is as firmly ingrained and dedicated in their lives as that of the characters in Fiddler on the Roof. I offer that as an example however, for how much influence tradition can have on our characters.

Nor am I saying that your characters need to acknowledge such tradition as such and point it out for the readers to be aware of. To which I add “How often do you think of the day-to-day or week-to-week traditions you take part in as such?”

My point is that though your life, as well as the lives of your characters, may be steeped in tradition, we don’t often think of it as being such. Such traditions just are. They’re there, and we participate in them without considering them because that’s what we do.

The same should be true of your characters. This doesn’t mean you can’t point out a little bit more about it if you feel like it, but the core point I’ve been pushing at is that without directly acknowledging them, traditions should still be present in whatever culture or setting we build for our stories. Small, big … whatever!

Okay, what about the why? Why would you spend any amount of time on this if, for example, you’re never going to draw any direct attention to it? Why bother to think about it at all?

Because omitting it is like omitting a color from the color palette. Imagine if someone made a film and then used computer effects to remove all instances and shades of the color green from their film. Everything else was normal, but the color green was just gone, filled in by nearby shades and colors. It’d be strange to look at, wouldn’t it? And the longer things went on, the more you’d likely be convinced that there was some significance to such an odd omission,

Tradition is similar. We live and breath tradition with every day of our lives, whether we admit it or not. Cutting that aspect out of our worldbuilding, then, will leave us with a world that feels sterile and unreal. Cold. Inhuman.

Sands, you can even use this to your advantage. Starforge has as a minor conversation between two characters about the direction of the Pisces military after the events of Colony and Jungle. One of the agreements of the two factions from Colony coming together as one was that they did away with a lot of the background in an effort to start anew, and that includes traditions that the combined groups are now attempting to work out anew (because traditions are an important cohesive element of most military units). Their world is incomplete because they don’t have a lot of traditions as of yet, and so they’re slowly working to establish new ones that bring the two groups together.

Ultimately? Tradition is an important part of what makes us human, and if you want your characters to feel human with your audience, you won’t discount traditions, from cultural to among friends, when you sit down to brainstorm your world, characters, and setting. Traditions, be they small habits that we’ve passed on to other people at work or even misunderstandings that get passed from parent to child (such as the tale of a woman who always cut off one chunk of the ham because her mother had, with her mother replying that the grandmother had always done it, who when asked answered “because it doesn’t fit in my pot otherwise”), or the results of a fun evening out.

Whatever. Tradition permeates our lives, and should as well the lives of our characters. So when you sit down to build your world, be it any kind of fiction, give some thought to tradition, then let it “breathe” in the background. You might be surprised how much more human your characters suddenly appear.

Good luck. Now get writing.

And Merry Christmas!

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One thought on “Being a Better Writer: Traditions and Worldbuilding

  1. […] Author Max Florschutz goes into more depth about what tradition is in his post on the topic, but the basic idea is that tradition is a repeated action that reinforces a belief. For example, Christmas is an annual reminder of Jesus’s birth. Thanksgiving is a specific day that we set aside to be grateful (its historic meaning having been largely dropped in celebration over the centuries). I’d make a comment on Halloween but I’d make people mad, so I’ll refrain from using that example. The same is true of smaller-scale traditions. If a family does nightly worship, that’s a way of passing on the faith from one generation to the next and reinforcing a family’s beliefs. If someone gives a donation to the same homeless person once a week, that might be an intentional reminder to themselves to be kind and generous, or to slow down and connect with strangers, or to consider the importance of their community. Traditions are repeated actions that reinforce a belief. […]


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