Thursday, May 7, 2015


I've been thinking a lot about rituals.

We all have them, but it's easiest to recognize the big ones like religious, cultural, or holiday-related (not necessarily religious*), but we all have smaller rituals as well that infest our daily lives.

Maybe because I've always been crazy interested in cultures/mythology/etc, I tend to think about rituals more than most. It's not the elaborate ceremonies (although death rituals around the world is always a fun topic to Google) that I love, but the small series of actions that are repeated over and over until they become habit, or are even passed on to become traditions at a certain point.

When I moved away from the lower mainland for the first time, I purposefully started a ritual to maintain contact with my mom and sister. In that case it was the resurrection of a childhood tradition. Even though we all now live within a 20 minute drive of each other, we still do it. Not every month, but when one of us does remember, it packs a lifetime of shared memories and laughter into a single 10 word text message.

...and I'm going to break my rule a tiny bit here... since I generally make it a point not to talk about/name the books I've read.

You can tell when a book is written by a person who spent 10 minutes and Wiki'd a city/culture versus someone who has actually lived there, or has taken the time to research it in depth. A Wiki'd story feels shallow/flat, like the 'Coles-notes' version. A veneer thinly spread and easy to chip if you pick at it a little.

"Drift", by MK Hutchins is a good example of a book that does not feel Wiki'd. I know the mythology was based on Mayan/Aztec, but it was entirely its own thing... so layered, so textured that I wanted to crawl into the world and live there.

A non-YA book I love is "Bliss Street", by Kris Kenway, who actually moved/stayed in Beirut for a year or so while writing the book. It's full of these tiny moments, tiny peculiarities and details that make the book a much richer experience and you can really feel how alien these are to the main character, a British citizen temporarily stranded in Beirut.

Whenever I read a book like this, where I can really get a taste of the world, I get insta-writer-crush. Especially when authors use rituals to not only world-build, but manage stuff like this.

Rituals give depth and, I think, especially with fantasy books (meant as an umbrella term, including, but not limited to: magic, alternate world, steampunk, alternate history, dystopian, etc), it's too easy to fall back on our own familiar patterns rather than step back, take a look at the world we've built, and create some new rituals/traditions to fit. I've read many fantasy books where I have been disappointed that the flavours were too North American (sorry, is that understandable?).

Often this is because writers are imposing their own personal thoughts/morals/ethics/etc on these fantastical worlds. They have a certain tone of modern-judgement, especially when the stories involve things like arranged marriages, slavery, etc.

...but it's in the smaller things as well. Subtle things like gestures related to local superstitions or religions. How people greet each other. Eating rituals or what they snack on. How respect or rudeness is conveyed. What's joked about and what's taboo.

It's all the tiny everyday details that really enrich a story and make it feel 'real' instead of flat.

It's easier to notice rituals in Fantasy because they can be quite different from what's familiar to us, but I think rituals are just as important in contemporary books. They just aren't as noticeable.

Often small rituals evolve to centre a person, so they can be a great device to show the emotional state of a character.

To use a (perhaps) familiar example? (so I'm not spoiling other people's enjoyment of other books by over-analyzing them to death)

Triss, from TRoRS, licks her lips when she's putting on the pretence of confidence. So, before she tells a lie, to someone else, or to herself. When she's preparing to do something she doesn't want to. When she's unsure of a decision she's about to make. In times like that, she licks her lips.

Similarly to how some girls chronically check their makeup. Or someone might adjust their clothes or wipe their hands (to check for sweat).

These are all tiny, self-soothing rituals. A preparing of the mind and the body. Some may start out as intentional (like checking make-up to be battle-ready) some not so intentional. I, for example, have a bad habit of cracking my fingers/wrists/elbows/knees... for a similar reason as someone might wipe their hands... I'm nervous and it's a self-soothing ritual to break my own tension/anxiety. Sometimes I do it semi-intentionally because I know it shocks people -> so it's a good way to break the tension of an awkward silence, or to get a laugh (or shiver of disgust).

Just to be clear, what I'm talking about is different from a character-specific beats/actions** to modify dialogue... y'know, like how you shouldn't have more than one character always rolling their eyes or running a hand through their hair*** while speaking... those are often meaningless, other than making dialogue a little more visually interesting. They don't necessarily have an emotional/psychological reason behind them.

In the case of Triss, she also has her driving rituals, her music rituals, her drinking rituals, her weird-condiment rituals, and more. Some of which are intentional, some not so much, but all ingrained in her life to make her feel more in control.

Because that's what rituals do. Even if it's only in our minds.

Triss' rituals are all repeated series of actions/behaviour that make her (perhaps) a far richer character than N (the main character) since N is observing Triss' behaviours and is less aware of any self/personal rituals (though they do exist).

But that's fun too... because rituals so often become habits and we cease to notice our own until someone else points them out (like my joint-cracking-thing).

And y'know what, maybe this is just something that I like, that I care about. And I'm fine with that.

No matter what, I'm still going to get writer-crushes on authors who layer their stories with habits, rituals, etc.

...and I'm going to write characters this way too.

...and I don't care if anyone else notices them.****

I get to be selfish like that :)

Write what you love, yes?

What about you? What do you think about rituals, either in your own life, or those in stories? Can you recommend any books where you've noticed repeated actions/behaviours used as subtext to hint of a character's emotional state, or books where you've really been impressed by the depth of the world-building?

Hmmm, I also am super interested in totems/items of great sentimentality... but there's been enough nerdy-ponderings for one post, so I'll leave that for another day :)

* As a kid, the Christmas Eve ritual/tradition would involve homemade clam chowder, opening one gift which would always be new pyjamas, then my sister and I posing in front of the fireplace/stockings wearing the new pjs. Seriously... like even as teenagers we had to stand there and get our picture taken (less giddy smiles, more eye-rolling, but still...)

** There's probably a better/more specific term for this, but it's late (will do a quick dyslexic-error-hunt tomorrow before posting) and I'm tired :p Anyone who knows the term, please tell me in the comments (I love hearing when/where I'm wrong)

*** OR, the one I hate the most... the dreaded eyebrow or lip 'quirk'. If I see this more than a couple times, I will not read another book by that author. Seriously, I am not kidding. Especially if every character's face is quirking... gah!

**** Seriously, a crate full of virtual cookies to anyone who can name N's rituals. There are 3 major ones that repeat a lot and several smaller ones as well. Okay, I'll give you the most obvious one: repeating the rules when stressed out/uneasy/afraid.


  1. I have a character who chips at her nail polish when she's in high stress situations. I try to think outside the box when it comes to those rituals (away from the eye rolling and hair brushing).

    1. Nice! I like that you are intentionally having her do it when she's stressed and not just as a dialogue tag action :)

  2. I am a creature of habit, so I have many rituals in my everyday life! I especially love my writing ritual because it comforts me and gets my brain in the right mindset :)

  3. And it is late, and that post inspires this in my head....

    "Look, Charlie! I'm totally quirking!"

    "Jay, that's not -- what ARE you doing?"

    "Characters that have quirks are all quirky, so! I am quirking!"

    "Firstly, I don't think you need to worry about quirks, Secondly, twerking is not the same thing as quirking. If that is even a thing."


    1. ...ah, but HAVING quirks is perfectly acceptable to my brain.

      It's when a body part IS quirking that I feel the need to throw things...


Type me out a line of Shakespeare or a line of nonsense. Dumb-blonde-jokes & Irish jokes will make me laugh myself silly :)