No matter what day it is, it’s always a normal day. Stories tend to take place mostly in environments where there’s nothing unusual going on… except for the horrible trauma. The exception to this is stories which take place on a specific, overwhelming holiday which saturates the entire story. We as authors rarely take into account the flow of moderately special days in our setting’s calendar. One way of adding depth and life to your world is to use special days and seasonal activities. This week, we’re taking a look at what using the calendar can offer to our stories.
What does the calendar do for you?
People tend to make plans based around the numbers on their calendars. We look forward to holidays, and save our energy for the awful push leading up to them. Or we schedule our vacations and live for them. Maybe we mark birthdays and anniversaries on the calendar so we remember to celebrate. These remembrances can uplift us during difficult times.
The Catholic Church has feast days as often as you glance at your calendar. Special days are laid out across the year take the faithful into periods of introspection, discipline, and service to others. Even normal time has reminders of pious living for people willing to dive into the calendar and keep track of the various Saints.
People rely on measuring the passage of time in order to make sense of their lives, and to maintain sanity while adhering to a routine. We use holidays and birthdays as excuses to gather and strengthen our family bonds. We remember fallen comrades and family members on the anniversaries of their deaths, or on their birthdays. We use weddings to combine families and grow our support networks. During the harsh winter slog, we have multiple holidays to break up the monotony and fill the world with light and revelry. All of these things get marked down on the calendar, or remembered by those in our society responsible for keeping track of time.
Using a calendar in your story means that the readers are drawn into a world that feels more lifelike. When was the last time your characters celebrated a birthday, attended an anniversary party, or engaged in a holiday that didn’t involve just the marketplace? How often have you included holidays which weren’t a major plot hook for the story (Christmas special, anyone?) but instead served as a subtle backdrop for unique character interactions?
Seasons matter! We can use seasons to make the world seem less static. Harvest time, planting time, freezing time, all of these are important parts of the cycle of life. And it makes a difference to the town what season it is when the adventurers come asking for troops, or a guide into the mountains. During the hungry months, how friendly will the villagers be to travelers looking for handouts? Maybe your character has to work extra hard to pay back that handful of dried grain she was given when the villagers found her at death’s door.
Holidays and special occasions give characters a chance to grow closer, display their personality, and become attached to the cultures and people they find themselves surrounded by.
How do I use these days?
Characters are born, but we authors rarely mention or celebrate their birthdays. Imagine someone in the book getting a letter from the renegade cop’s mother that his birthday is coming up and that she wants him to come home for a surprise party. Or if one fantasy character needs to head home for their oldest child’s 16th birthday, the day they become an adult.
Sure, characters can arrive on the King’s birthday, or on market day. But when was the last time you wrote about a non-purchasing holiday? Have your characters ever settled into a long dinner with family and friends, or participated in non-competitive decorating? Or extremely competitive decorating?
Imagine having your characters pick the perfect gifts for each of their party members. A gift says a lot about a person, but it also says a lot about what you think of that person. What happens when the Elf gives the stuffy paladin a steam-powered action figure of the paladin’s deity, now with kung fu grip? The stuffy space cop and the hardened space criminal are coerced into shopping for each other by the charming space pop diva: Imagine opening those gifts, and the tension which will inevitably follow!
Is it Orphan Day again? The characters just arrived in town, and people are happy to do business with them. But then, the merchants notice that the party aren’t wearing “I contributed” pins, and give them disapproving looks. Turns out everyone in the city is expected to do something to help the plight of the orphans in the city. The size of the contribution directly impacts the extravagance of the pin, and the pin is dated and good for one year.
Seeing a city at peace is a rarity in most settings. Having the characters sit down to a community meal with the town, and be welcomed in despite being strangers, can be a novelty. It also helps the readers get invested in the everyday people of your setting without coming off as railroading their feelings through cheap plot devices.
There are of course royal birthdays, which lead to nation-wide celebrations. There are also market days. Add to this religious holidays of every sort, cultural festivals, fertility festivals (not only the sort you’re thinking of), harvest celebrations, days of remembrance for deceased characters, days celebrating parents or children or romantic love or the founding of a nation.
Not for every chapter
Obviously, you don’t want to make every chapter about a birthday or holiday. Stories are about adventures, and these holidays are best as interludes to soften the frantic pace between action scenes. On the other hand, these make great interludes to soften the frantic pace between action scenes! Use them sparingly, perhaps only once or twice per book. If it’s an exceptionally long series, maybe each character can get a birthday.
Let us know in the comments below what interesting holidays you’ve used or seen used in stories.