Holidays In Fantasy Fiction
With the arrival of the Christmas season I’ve been thinking about the effects of holidays on our lives. The influence of Christmas is incredibly far reaching; I doubt most people can make it through the day without seeing some sign of the festivities or feeling its impact. Holidays are an important part of our lives; they serve as a way to mark the time and special events. They give us something to look forward to, something different from the mundane. They are often an integral part of a society and have cultural or religious meaning. With them being such a large part of life it would seem wrong to leave them out of our stories.
Adding a holiday or festival to your world will help to solidify it in the mind of a reader; it will develop the atmosphere of the piece and allow for a more vibrant setting. Additions like this will help flesh out the story, even if it’s just an offhand remark, and make the world more real.
There are a number of interesting holidays and festivals in reality that can serve as fodder for the imagination. Whether it’s a traditional seasonal celebration like the winter solstice, an immense party like Carnival in Rio de Janeiro, or something more sombre with Japan’s Obon festival where families release floating lanterns into the water to represent the spirits of their ancestors. Look across different cultures for inspiration and ideas to suit your work, you might come across some of the more obscure and unusual celebrations like the Netherlands’ Frozen Dead Guy Days, featuring exciting events like the coffin race and polar plunge.
Holidays can be an important part of the world construction, whether they act as a backdrop or a central part of the story. What a people choose to celebrate and what festivals they observe will reflect the psyche of their culture. Do they focus on life affirming occasions like the coming of spring and rejoice in the birth of new life? Or does the civilisation have a more stern and dignified outlook, with dedicated observances to the gods that must be followed for the sake of honour and respect? It’s important that your holidays reflect the spirit of the people and vice versa.
Are holidays merely a token religious observance and excuse to party, or are they steeped in precise ritual that must be followed to the letter? You must consider the source of the holiday, the meanings behind it and how it could have evolved into its current form (again history is a great source for this). For example, a nomad people might venerate freedom and travel, perhaps tracing their origins to freed slaves. But if they live in a harsh environment they are unlikely to have the resources to host a celebration of great excess. Instead they could have a more solemn/spiritual celebration of tradition involving prayer and meditation, reflecting on their experiences. The author could use this expression of spirituality to add depth to the culture and maybe alter the reader’s perception of them.
A well crafted holiday will fit seamlessly into the world as if it belonged. It should be the product of a dozen snatches of dialogue spread through the writing. A few scattered sentences weaved into the description of your world, a note on decoration or colour. It should relate to other aspects of the world that the reader has heard of, the more you link concepts together the more your world will feel like a cohesive whole.
There’s a moment in Erikson’s highly detailed Malazan Book of the Fallen series where some prisoners observe part of the Festival of Flies, a ceremony honouring Hood, god of the dead. The reader has been introduced to Hood before through other references such as invoking his name as a curse: “Hood’s breath.” Part of the festival involves a priest coating himself in blood and flies as he wanders the town. The prisoners think they are witnessing part of the festival, yet after delivering a message to them the humanoid mass of flies disappears to reveal no one. This has a double impact to the reader who has been informed of the festival’s nature, and who expects a priest along with the prisoners. By setting up the concept of Hood, the festival is a natural extension, building up the world, and allowing it to influence the plot through an unusual occurrence.
How much impact a holiday has on the plot is up to the author. It might be mere background, or something to show the passing of time in the plot. Equally it could serve a vital role in the story. In The Lies of Locke Lamora the climax of the story is centred on the Duke’s feast and the Day of Changes, because of the date (spoilers follow) it is the only time the nobility are all in one place, providing an opportunity to take them all out at once (end spoilers). As the date approaches it can add a sense of pace and build-up if the author has laid the groundwork to establish it. The nature of the holiday can also be used to affect the plot, an event like the Carnival of Venice with its focus on masks and costumes would transfer well into a fantasy novel, and it could provide the perfect opportunity for a heist or assassination.
As a fantasy novel you can bring in elements of the supernatural to enhance the festivities; you could have a holiday with a divine appearance from its patron deity, a magical ceremony of blessing, or a ritual to chain a demon for another century. One of the best examples of a fictional holiday I’ve seen is from the Chronicles of the Necromancer series. Gail Z. Martin has the Feast of the Departed, better known as “Haunts” – where the large number of ghosts that exist in her world can become visible to the living and speak to their descendants. It is a holiday that suits the nature of the books and the world that Martin has constructed, it’s introduced and supported throughout the series and its impact on the plot reinforces the construct.
However you want to use holidays in your writing, know that they have been a big part of life throughout history and can make your story richer. As with all additions to a story they must be handled with care to ensure they suit the needs of the world and plot, but when used wisely they can make the world much more vibrant and atmospheric. So, hang up those elf ears on the mantle and get ready for the dragon egg hunt, ‘tis the season of fantasy.
This article was originally posted on December 24, 2014.