We’re Not in Kansas Anymore
Planning a wedding is a bit tricky, I’m discovering. This one is actually tiny, as far as weddings go, but because most of the tasks are little nit-picky administrative things, it’s nearly as complicated as a large one. I’ve heard the bride’s mother is supposed to make a lot of the arrangements, and I’m sure my mom is looking out from the afterlife and cheering me on, but she can’t exactly make phone calls and answer all the silly questions I have.
But perhaps as a consequence of all this tradition, and deciding what I should include and need to leave out, I’ve been thinking about the role of cultural signaling in books.
When I say ‘cultural signaling’, I don’t mean the SJW kind; I’m thinking of the kind that shows up in SF/F to indicate that the book or movie doesn’t happen in the modern Western world. In The Garia Cycle, I made a very young Lazlo Skirgata sacrifice a horse to gain the gods’ favor. In The Avalon Chronicles (epic fantasy series that’s been on the back burner for a while), fire plays a large role in the main character’s abilities, so rituals like funereal cremation are common.
How do you signal culture in your books? In particular, how do you alter rituals like marriages, namings/christenings, or funerals to show that you’re writing about something a little different from the usual Western tradition that is familiar to most readers? I’m not necessarily talking about using foreign words or fictional languages, because that’s its own set of posts, but the actual behaviors that mark changing events in your characters’ lives- a phrasing of marriage vows, the number and sex of a child’s godparents, how long a body remains in the house where the person died, and so on. And, perhaps more importantly, do the readers notice when you add in these cultural markers (or when they’re left out)?
Because these things aren’t universal, and even within a culture, there’s room for variation, as I’m discovering with planning this wedding. There’s a seemingly infinite number of choices for everything from the venue to the dress to the food, and since I wasn’t one of those little girls who daydreams about her wedding, I’m having trouble narrowing down what I actually want, what is a sop to tradition, and what I can live without.
So- tell me in the comments: did the bride wear a white dress, or is purple more appropriate? How old was your MC when he officially became a man in the eyes of the community? How do they treat old people, and how does that affect their treatment of children and adults? Have you read any books where cultural changes were signaled in a particularly noticeable way, for good or ill?