Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Secrets of Kidlit: It's Tradition!

Traditions are a powerful part of who we are, making them an equally powerful writing tool. They help shape our lives by influencing some of our decisions and beliefs. They can run bone deep - they affect how we worship, how we vote, what teams we root for, and maybe even which pickup truck we buy.

Other traditions don't grip our psyche quite as deeply, but still play a powerful role. For example, a group of kids who regularly go out for pizza after school on Friday would think of it as a tradition. Just as watching scary movies on Halloween is traditional. Technically, these are called customs since they aren't passed down from one generation to another, but let's face it - the word 'custom' just isn't a cool as 'tradition.' No one's going to yell, "This is our Friday custom!" and get away with  it.

Traditions can also play a role in the stories we write. They inspire, ensnare, challenge, and define our characters. Consider the start of Luke Skywalker's journey. After his ties to his home planet are severed, Luke abandons his original plan to go to the academy and tells Ben Kenobi, "I want to learn the ways of the force and become a Jedi, like my father." This resolution to follow the traditions of his father, leads Luke on an epic soul-testing and galaxy-saving quest.

But traditions don't always spur a character into action. They can hinder them too - just ask George Bailey. In the movie, It's A Wonderful Life, George is trapped by the traditional constraints of society. The bonds of family and managing his father's business force him into an internal journey in which he discovers his true self-worth.

Traditions also lend a hand when it comes to setting. The Harry Potter series is a prime example. Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry is bursting with traditions including Houses, Tournaments, a Sorting Hat, and Deathday parties. But there are also traditions that help round out the wizarding society at large. For example, on Harry's seventeenth birthday, The Weasley's gave Harry with a watch. Not only was it a traditional gift for a wizard who has just come of age, but it was also a family heirloom. This signified that the Weasley's considered him fully grown, and most importantly to Harry, a part of the family.

Traditions are also important because they form community. Whether it's the celebration of a holiday, the ritual of a Japanese Tea Ceremony, or singing Take Me Out To the Ballgame during the seventh inning stretch, it brings people together in a common activity or belief. There are three ways this can help your story.

1) People love to belong to things. We need a sense of community to thrive so it's natural so seek out like-minded people. Those kids who go out for pizza on Fridays, people who drive Jeeps, and even writers (like me) who participate in NaNoWriMo every year, they all have a sense of belonging to something. It often strengthens their self-identity and helps influence the decisions they will make. Will they go along with what their peers want them to do? Or not?

2) Traditions can break. Or you can get kicked out. Think of the beginning of The Incredibles when all of the Supers have to live in hiding, pretending they are ordinary people. It was depressing and difficult for them to deny their true selves. Characters can also be set adrift from their old traditions when they move away from friends and family. Separating a character from a strong tradition creates instant tension.

3) Rules (traditions) are meant to be broken! Not everyone fits into the roles they are expected to play. Katniss Everdeen and Peeta Mellark, Bilbo Baggins, Tris Prior, Scarlett O'Hara, and Maximus Decimus Meridius (a.k.a. Gladiator), are all good examples of characters who did the unexpected and challenged the rules of their society. In the Hunger Games, Peeta bucked the tradition of the games by refusing to think of Katniss as an enemy. He lied, manipulated the audience, and fought to ensure her survival - even if it meant the cost of his own.

As you write, consider the traditions your character might have. Do they give your character a sense of family or community? Are there traditions in the character's society that help develop the setting? How do traditions help or hinder your characters as they struggle through their journey? Your story will be richer for the traditions you choose to bring into your character's life.

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