Author Topic: Ritual and re-use: writing places that feel alive  (Read 813 times)

Jubal

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Ritual and re-use: writing places that feel alive
« on: April 27, 2019, 05:39:11 PM »
Ritual and re-use: writing places that feel alive
By Jubal



It struck me recently that it’d be interesting to share some thoughts on place in writing and game design. Places are, to say the least, pretty vitally important to designing any setting. A good backdrop can really set the action of a plot into appropriately epic (or appropriately non-epic) context, and hugely affect the mood of an event: being charged by a troll when you’re defending the gates of an ancient temple is a much more heroic feeling action than being charged by a troll in a large sewer tunnel, even if it’s basically the same difficulty of encounter. More prosaically, places are often largely designed by means of function – there has to be a bunch of stuff in a place that does certain things.


Every house has its own story. Image via Wikimedia Commons, by Lasovarga & under CC licence.
Imagine a fantasy village called Isicando that we need a couple of rag-tag adventurers to visit. We’ll probably give them a tavern, the Blue Rose, to refuel and meet people, some sort of economic functional stuff (for the sake of argument, llama farms), a leader who we’ll call Ms. Marianda who can do local authority things, a temple, which can be to the air-spirits, and maybe a small fortified tower in case of attacks from the lizardmen. Boom, set of functions plus a not all that subtle Latin American evocation of place, and we have ourselves a settlement.

Function, however, is only a small part of what’s important to us about places, and few places are solely important to people for their intended function. Re-using and repurposing places for different things, and attaching unintended meanings to them, is a pretty natural thing for people to do. Places, for us, aren’t just about what you can do there, they’re about the stories we attach to them and the unintended aspects of their existence that make them unique. I’m going to suggest that it can add a lot of depth to a fictional setting if you incorporate that into your place design.

We’re already used to doing this a bit with taverns in particular – they’re expected to double up as “the place where a mysterious stranger offers you a quest”, rather than just being places to meet, eat, and drink. But even a tavern can have a lot of repurposing and additional meaning given to it as a place. Precisely which social circles meet at a particular tavern in any given town is important; does one guild favour one tavern and another their rivals, or perhaps a particular temple’s followers have a certain tavern they go and sing songs at after services. Maybe it’s the traditional gathering point for a certain ceremony or communal game, or hosts the village dances (with the result that about half the settlement’s people got together with their spouses there). Perhaps it’s not even humans who are repurposing the tavern – a particular tavern might be known for hosting a lot of birds’ nests in its roof, say.

Ritual and linkages are two key things to think about here, and I’ll talk about ritual first. In the previous paragraph I mentioned dances and ceremonies; settlements often have processions, carnivals, street parties, and other such events, and they’re important in binding the people of that settlement together. They also often mark particular emotional moments for people in the settlement, because they’re important in dealing with the major milestones of life, be that meeting partners, childbirth, marriage, coming of age, dying, and so on. Many of those rituals will not have discrete spaces in a typical settlement – trying to confine them all to “this is social stuff so it goes in a temple” is weird and just not how societies work. Instead, repurposed buildings and space inside buildings will double up as ritual spaces that tie everything together

That tying together leads us on to considering linkages between different societal functions. Take my example of a temple group going to the tavern to sing songs afterwards (perhaps keeping alive ones that have been removed from the official hymn book, a phenomenon that actually happened in real-world Sheffield). Or consider the relationship between governing figures and the military or economic aspects of a town – a small town leader is likely to have to take a hands on role in its economic life, and in lots of societies religious, secular, and military leadership roles could be doubled up in various combinations. Perhaps in this society the priest is required to be an active part of the garrison as the person most trusted with morality and virtue, while the town’s secular leader is mainly in charge of running the market and collecting taxes. And of course, everyone needs to meet up and have a pint now and again. So we don’t just want to think in terms of a functional model where place X hosts person Z who does thing Y – these functions and how places host them are an interlocking model, and how they interlock can be important.

Adding stories and purposes to buildings lets you promote or flesh out landmarks that are otherwise unremarkable. A village, to its inhabitants, is not simply comprised of some “function buildings” plus a few undifferentiated houses which may have different shapes or owners. Think about when you last spent time in an ordinary house in a game or story setting – it’s actually a surprisingly rare occurrence given that houses are a huge percentage of buildings in total. I think one reason for that is that in the functionality paradigm, houses are inherently boring; they get reduced to places to store stuff, sleep, eat, and poop. In practice, though, our homes are a massive part of our lives, and have a huge number of auxiliary functions and stories attached to them.

Homes can certainly be meeting places: after all, any old adventurer could just walk in on you in the tavern, so actually a decent guild gathering might well be happening at a senior guild member’s house, and even in humbler dwellings there’ll be some people who particularly enjoy hosting friends for a bite and a cup of wine. Homes are landmarks and story vessels, too – there’ll be the empty house where such-and-such who eventually ran away into the woods used to live, the house where someone got the door fixed wrong which is where you have to turn for the track down to the temple, the little white-polished house whose owner gets the job of keeping the town’s well working in winter, and so on. Homes can also be important in certain ritual or even defensive contexts, as well – perhaps one older house is built of stone and can be barricaded whilst its surrounding ones are less defensible and more vulnerable to fire, or maybe one has a cellar that the villagers know can be used to hide from the invading lizardmen.



A noticeable tree can be a camping or meeting point with different social functions.
Many of the functions we’ve mentioned can be applied to non-building features too. A particular tree or large boulder or stream crossing can be a meeting place for casual bartering, a place to join hands and do circle dances, the site of wedding dances, a mustering point at times of crisis, the political space where villagers come to elect their spokespeople or plead with their overlords, and so on. Especially in smaller and more medieval style settlements, the natural landscape can be a proportionally more prominent part of what’s going on, and features from it can provide some of the most memorable locations in a certain settlement. The village that has a burned oak on the heath where its villagers go as neutral ground, in order to stop the hotly contested elections to their reeveship spilling out into violence, feels a very different one to the village with a blossom-filled orchard in which people set up stalls at the weekend for an old barter-style market (much to the chagrin of some nearby knights who have been trying to get their own market licensed in order to be able to reap the spoils of local trade, but who are unable to stop the traditional bartering from continuing). That said, those two ideas may feel very different, but there’s no reason they shouldn’t both exist in the same village – life can, after all, be very multifaceted.

So to recap, let’s look back at the Isicando we might have now. The air spirit temple is innately tied into the life of the tower garrison, which it operates. Its followers, after their weekly procession carrying offerings from the great boulder at the south end of the village up to the temple, are often to be found at the Blue Rose, singing the old songs that are no longer part of the official worship. Ms. Marianda mediates at times between a frustrated priest and his traditionalist flock, as well as leading some of the village’s less religious aspects: she is well respected by the llama herders, for whom she throws feasts once or twice a year at her house to ensure their continued support, and she can often be found heading out to help rescue an errant livestock animal stuck in the mud of the nearby swamp. As she does so, she’ll no doubt pass the well-house, a home on stilts built over the well to double up as its roof, and she’ll pass Meadow Cottage, a now-ruined old dwelling in the fields just outside the village whose owner died some years ago – the tumbledown building is now the most popular playground among the village children. We still have the same basic structures of economy, politics, military, and social gatherings, but now the places and structures are all tied together with a web of connections that both physically and socially wraps the village together and perhaps also helps us start to think better about how this society would react to the sort of pressures and changes that come along with adventurers and heroes turning up!

I hope this piece has given you a few ideas for how to get beyond that basic “here’s the menu of five places that do the things you want” system – I don’t want to be too down on that idea as it is a starting point that helps you cover the basics, but if you want to create somewhere that’s memorable and capable of sustaining the suspension of disbelief then starting to attach ritual, story, and tradition, even just occasional hints of them in the background, can go a long way towards building settlements that really feel alive.
 


« Last Edit: April 27, 2019, 11:03:26 PM by Jubal »
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Eadgifu the Fair

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Re: Ritual and re-use: writing places that feel alive
« Reply #1 on: April 29, 2019, 09:20:49 PM »
This was a FASCINATING article and one I will definitely be keeping in mind from now on when writing, well, pretty much anything set anywhere! It's interesting, too, because I think when we're writing stuff in a "real world" setting, to some extent we do actually instinctively work towards this - I think for example of a WIP short story of mine, set in a secondary school which I can neither confirm nor deny is ACTUALLY my own, where I find that places and the meaning associated with them and common school rituals seem to come to mind and imbue the school setting very quickly. (To the point that a friend who went to the same school immediately figured out where the story was set...)

This also reminded me of Elizabeth A. Lynn's book "The Dancers of Arun", which has some very strong place writing, even in (or perhaps because of) her very sparse prose. This may partly be because of the fact that the protagonist has lived in the same place his whole life before he sets out on the main journey of the book, and Lynn definitely leans in to how unfamiliar everything is to him; it may also be because of the sheer simple physicality of how she describes things, how they feel and what things are there and what food there is (also a feature of the first point); it may also be because she is very good at evoking a sort of ALIEN sense of ritual in place, the idea that one is in this place but not truly in this place, observing how every part of it has a meaning to its inhabitants that a stranger cannot share. (Again related to the first point.)

Jubal

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Re: Ritual and re-use: writing places that feel alive
« Reply #2 on: April 29, 2019, 11:20:16 PM »
Thank you! And yes, I guess once we're familiar with a place, a lot of this stuff comes more instinctively - when we're writing a place explicitly for other characters to pass through, it can be easier to just think about what functions they immediately appear to need, which is fine as a starting point but reduces what you can do with the results, I think.

Also that is another book I have not read and apparently should do. But the strangeness thing is a good point - inherently, things that bind a particular community together also start defining that community as having boundaries, even if it's only the boundary of "we have this body of shared experience we can discuss and you don't". I feel like not enough settings lean into the fact that travelling, or heroic, characters actually definitionally often end up in places where they're excluded from that communal body of experience: they may be allowed to observe it in a rather "this is the quaint culture of the locality/this is the Ignorant Superstition that I'm Better Than" sort of way (which has, to say the least, its own problems), or they may be explicitly invited in or shut out to show a place's reaction to a character, but I think there's a lot you can do with the subtler cultural mechanics of protagonists as just being somewhat outside the rhythm and cultural flows of a place.

There's also maybe a lot you can do with having protagonists who are inside that system, or very used to a place: the overwhelmingly predominant system in adventure fiction is to have the heroes being mobile, and for good reason, but actually there are some great traditional tales that rely on protagonists being quite tied to areas and knowing them well (think Robin Hood, Hereward the Wake, etc). I think that "hero with a geographical situation and tons of local cultural ties" rather than "hero with no ties who is loose to roam" is something that maybe isn't done enough, though maybe I'm just not sufficiently well read to know who's done it well.
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Glaurung

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Re: Ritual and re-use: writing places that feel alive
« Reply #3 on: May 04, 2019, 01:01:20 AM »
Thanks for posting the article - thoughtful and thought-provoking.

My favourite example of this is Ursula K. Le Guin's book Always Coming Home, published in 1985 but probably still available second-hand. It's novel-length, but not structured as a novel; collectively an evocation of people who "might be going to have lived a long, long time from now in Northern California". There are three long-ish pieces - one of these people telling her life story - interspersed with a great diversity of other things: other shorter stories, conversations, oral story-telling, poetry, descriptions of these people's way of life and beliefs. All together it's a remarkable evocation of a people and the place they live in.

Also thanks to Eadgifu for the reminder of The Dancers of Arun - something I read a long time ago, and am now prompted to take down from the bookshelf and read again.

Glaurung

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Re: Ritual and re-use: writing places that feel alive
« Reply #4 on: May 04, 2019, 08:46:55 PM »
And a follow-up on Elizabeth Lynn's The Dancers of Arun: it's the middle book of a sequence of three. The other two are Watch Tower and The Northern Girl, and the sequence is The Chronicles of Tornor. It's not a conventional trilogy: the books are set several generations apart from each other, so there's no direct continuity of action or characters. However, there is a shared world, and a line of descent linking some of the protagonists. The books were first published around 1980, and I'm not sure they're in print at the moment - you might have to find second-hand copies.

Glaurung

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Re: Ritual and re-use: writing places that feel alive
« Reply #5 on: June 09, 2019, 04:19:03 PM »
And another example: Jan Morris's Hav. This is not a conventional fantasy, in that only the city of Hav and its people are fictional. Morris is conventionally described as a travel writer, though she herself has said that her writing is about places and people. With Hav, she has drawn upon all her real-world experience to create a fictional but very plausible city and cast of characters, set in the eastern Mediterranean. The city has been through all the historical vicissitudes one might expect from the area, including successive rule by crusaders, Ottomans, British and Russians, and trade with many others; each influence has left its mark in the city's people, culture and heritage. The first time I read it, it took me some time to work out that Hav was not in fact a real place that I had somehow managed not to find out about before.

Jubal

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Re: Ritual and re-use: writing places that feel alive
« Reply #6 on: June 09, 2019, 10:07:27 PM »
And another example: Jan Morris's Hav. This is not a conventional fantasy, in that only the city of Hav and its people are fictional. Morris is conventionally described as a travel writer, though she herself has said that her writing is about places and people. With Hav, she has drawn upon all her real-world experience to create a fictional but very plausible city and cast of characters, set in the eastern Mediterranean. The city has been through all the historical vicissitudes one might expect from the area, including successive rule by crusaders, Ottomans, British and Russians, and trade with many others; each influence has left its mark in the city's people, culture and heritage. The first time I read it, it took me some time to work out that Hav was not in fact a real place that I had somehow managed not to find out about before.

That's really interesting and sounds like something I should definitely read... agh, too many books, not enough time!
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