Friday, July 3, 2015

Holidays in Fiction

Shannon Dittemore is the author of the Angel Eyes trilogy. She has an overactive imagination and a passion for truth. Her lifelong journey to combine the two is responsible for a stint at Portland Bible College, performances with local theater companies, and a love of all things literary. When she isn’t writing, she spends her days with her husband, Matt, imagining things unseen and chasing their two children around their home in Northern California. To connect with Shan, check out her website, FB, Twitter, Instagram, or Pinterest.

Happy birthday, America! Tomorrow we'll get to barbecue and swim and lay around in the heat and then finish it all off with fireworks. Today, I thought we'd talk about what a useful tool holidays can be in the hands of a writer. Not our holidays, specifically, but the unique days celebrated in our fictional story worlds.


Maybe your fictional world celebrates a sporting event like the Quidditch Word Cup or a barbaric exercise like the Hunger Games. Maybe, like in Victoria Aveyard's Red Queen, the lowly citizens have to gather once a week to watch the nobles show off their abilities. 

Or maybe, in a contemporary setting, friends and family gather together under a glistening tree and exchange presents. Maybe they dress up like ghouls and beg for candy. 

Whatever it is, holidays make a compelling element in works of fiction. Here's why: 

Holidays are fraught with emotion. We all want to feel. It's one of the primary reasons we pick up a book. Holidays give us a fabulous way to exploit that desire. Because memories are tied to the celebrations, it's pretty rare to feel absolutely nothing regarding a holiday. Maybe we love Christmas because it's the only day our family actually gets along. Maybe we dread it because that day was always spent with a friend who recently passed away. Whatever the case, most of us have deep-rooted feelings that begin to emerge as a holiday approaches. It is only right for your characters to experience this type of emotional upheaval as well. Whether it's excitement or angst or an equal helping of both, dropping a holiday into your story can up the drama. And that's always a good thing. 

Holidays are excellent moments to build toward. They can be that shining sun in the distance you're moving your character toward. Like the Northern Star, they can help you navigate your character's journey all while keeping sight of your goal. Your holiday certainly doesn't have to occur during the climax of your story, but it's a great moment to build to. The emotion growing inside your character as the decorations go up and the world around her readies, the major players gathering together to celebrate and setting the stage for the type of conflict or resolution that pushes your story forward. In Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, JK Rowling uses the Triwizard Tournament in this way. Brilliantly, I might add. 

Holidays reveal your characters' belief systems. Having your characters wrestle with an upcoming holiday is a great way to show their beliefs. Maybe they celebrate but don't embrace the reason for the celebration. Or maybe your character doesn't celebrate at all. Maybe the upcoming festival or event is abhorrent to him. What your character does or does not do in relation to a commonly celebrated moment in time says so much about who they are. Use it to put your character's heart on display. 

Holidays expose the values of your story world. Your characters aren't the only ones being exposed by the presence of a holiday. The values of your story world, real or imagined, are also being laid bare. What does this world hold in high esteem? What do these people value? Who established this celebration or festival? And why was it established? Does this holiday encourage the people or beat them down? Is it a source of unity or division? All very important things to consider and useful to a writer looking to add depth and color to a story world. 

Celebratory days can be used to such advantage in our writing and I urge you to explore all the ways they can help you show off your characters and the world around them. 

Tell me, who does this best? 
Which books use commonly celebrated days to move their stories forward with great success?

17 comments:

  1. I love putting holidays in my stories! I need always to pick-and-choose the best ones, the ones that will have the greatest impact on the plot and characters. It is seriously tempting to have celebrations just for their own sake, because (my) celebrations are full of jolly laughing people, and I love to be jolly myself and to laugh.

    The example of good holiday use that first comes to my mind is in Mr. J.R.R. Tolkien's *The Fellowship of the Ring*. (Please envision italics between asterisks.)
    Mr. Bilbo Baggins in the beginning of the story is hosting his 111th -birthday-party, and the *whole* Shire (not even excluding the Sackville-Bagginses!) is invited. I cannot but feel this is a display of Mr. Bilbo's extreme generosity (and wealth?).
    Secondly, Hobbits *give away* presents, rather than receive them, on their birthdays: they are a selfless, communal people. Mr. Bilbo's party clearly shows this. He's got something for *everyone*.
    Thirdly, the birthday party enables Mr. Bilbo to 1) flee the Shire, 2) pass the Ring of Power down to his "nephew" Frodo, which is actually the inciting incident of the series, Frodo's inheriting the Ring.
    Fourthly---well, I as a reader was so excited about the party, as excited perhaps as any Shire's Hobbit, so Mr. Tolkien certainly did a wonderful job there as well.

    My apologies if this comment has turned out incoherent and full of spelling errors... I am feeling a little dizzy today.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. You're so smart! We most definitely need to choose the holidays that best show off our stories.

      Delete
  2. I can't remember titles off the top of my head, but I like books that use the concept of celebrating the new year. It gives a sort of hope, usually halfway thorugh the story, but it really shows what people think of beginnings and sometimes the calm before the storm.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Love this! Great points. New Years are fun to explore as well. Even in our own world, each nation celebrates them in their own way.

      Delete
    2. In one of my lands, the new year begins on the spring equinox... New year, new life. Yes, there is certainly something exhilarating about a new year's opening, even (especially?) if it occurs a while after the story begins...

      Delete
  3. Like Kelsey, I can't really remember any books other than Hunger Games which has the Games (an obvious one, although I'm not sure if it totally counts as a holiday). I want to use this in my current WIP, so thanks!

    ReplyDelete
  4. J.K. Rowling frequently uses holidays/events to move the story forward. Other than that, definitely The Hunger Games, and probably hundreds of others that I can't think of right now (I think I'm in shock from doing CIT all week...). I'm considering using an annual rite of passage type thing in my NaNo novel this year to kickstart the story. I have a thing for stories about outcasts, apparently.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. JK Rowling does use holidays to great advantage. Almost without fail, Christmastime takes up a chunk in the middle of her books.

      Delete
  5. In my tentative story idea, my heroine is having to look forward to/dread, a Rosh Hashanah without her older brother, since he's fighting in France. But she looks forward into the new year of 1945 in hope that the sabbath year will bring her brother home.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. That sounds like a wonderful story, Michaella!! :) I love it!

      Delete
    2. Love it! Holidays are incredibly emotional for all of us. I imagine being immersed in war would only heighten that feeling.

      Delete
  6. I actually thought about this on Independence Day 2013 and wrote a post on it, haha! I tried to do this in one of my recent WIPs, but I think it totally failed because I never found a good reason to have a holiday...so yeah. Sadness. Good point about the emotion, though. I'll have to try this again sometime. :)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Great minds think alike, Amanda!!! It's totally true that the holiday MUST serve a purpose. It can't just be another moment in time. I wish you luck as you give it another go.

      Delete
  7. Matched was a great example! It starts with Cassia going to her "Matching Ceremony" a banquet where the "Society" matches every 16 year old (or 17 i can't remember ) to their future spouse.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Oh yes, Matched! I forgot about that one. And really, THERE ARE OODLES of similar matching ceremonies in YA right now. I think of Red Queen and The Selection. It's interesting to see how each author makes the moment unique.

      Delete
    2. I have heard of the selection before, maybe I will have to give it a read:)

      Delete

Home