It’s no secret that, in speculative fiction, consistent and coherent worldbuilding is critical in helping the reader suspend disbelief. This can be done through thoroughly detailed history or cleverly crafted backstory. Rituals are one such device which help flesh out and solidify the fictional world.
In our podcast episode with Greta Hayer, we speak a lot about how history and limitless possibilities combine in speculative fiction writing, and rituals are a great way to not only create a believable world, but to create a deep one that helps drive the story forward. Rituals can be a whole new way of honoring a real life practice or they can be a new entity, made from scratch, with unexpected twists and turns.
In its most basic form, a ritual is a series of activities that carry out a community tradition. They can also be extremely personal and psychological like how Michael Jordan wore his North Carolina shorts underneath his Chicago Bulls shorts in every game. What they signify are the values by which a person, a motley crew, or a whole community organize and justify their actions and lives; the rituals aren’t “the thing” per se, although they can become “the thing.” Many speculative fiction authors who weave rituals into their storylines start by studying people and cultures, and then extrapolate versions of these rituals to serve the story and provide depth and detail to the world being built.
Take Black Sun, the first book in the “Between Earth and Sky” series by Rebecca Roanhorse for example. Inspired by pre-Columbian indigenous cultures, this story begins with a ritual that binds one of the main characters, Serapio, to the fate of being the Crow God reborn. His mother makes him drink a tea that’s both a poison and a painkiller. She paints his teeth red with dye and carves sacred crow figures on his throat and back to symbolize mourning for what the clan had lost. He’s forced to stare at the sun during a solar eclipse which blinds him and then his mother sews his eyes shut permanently. All this detail, and there’s more in the book, provides so much background for the story, it feels instantly rich. More importantly, it brings up more questions: what happened to the Crow clan, and why are Serapio and his mother central to the fate of the clan? Will all the pain and suffering actually pay off in the way that Serapio and his mother so completely believed it would? This is a wonderful way to create emotional investment for the reader.
Another example, one of our favorites, is in Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula LeGuin. The book focuses on the inhabitants of Gethen, who are ambisexual, in a world that lives beyond the constraints of modern day sexuality. The real-life rituals around formal marriage, child rearing, or relationship roles that lie in the binary of “man” or “woman,” are largely lost on Gethenians while deep connections and bonding remain. The story makes one question how necessary gender and relationship roles are in creating meaningful connections, and if they would be more meaningful if roles were implicit rather than culturally induced. In LeGuin’s world, everyone living on the planet is called "he," but they are neither "he" nor "she" until they enter kemmer, a fertility period lasting a few days a month. Then, depending on the chemistry between partners, one either develops as a male or as a female. But those roles are fluid and changeable. The book’s religion, Handdara, symbolizes the gender dualities as promoting wholeness from opposites, showing both light and shadow as necessary and useful.
Along with Le Guin, Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series has a religion based on science and technology, and the rituals depend on the technology working. "Miracles" done by clergy members reliably happen on demand; "Holy Food" is actually medicine, so it really does cure the sick and dying. The king’s throne is also a flying machine so it can levitate. Asimov’s use of rituals is somewhat satirical.
Writing your own Ritual
If you’re a writer and you’re looking for a challenge, you can try filling out this worksheet to create your own rituals. Depending on what your work entails, most rituals needs goals and motives that depend on the ultimate greater good (in theory) of the people taking part. To quote Joseph Campbell:
“No tribal rite has yet been recorded which attempts to keep winter from descending; on the contrary: the rites all prepare the community to endure, together with the rest of nature, the season of the terrible cold.”
-“The Hero with a Thousand Faces,” (Myth) Joseph Campbell
Jodi L Milner, author of the Stonebearer novels, suggests there are three different levels to rituals.
- Mundane Rituals: Daily routines that add a sense of normalcy/peace.
i.e. brushing your teeth, making a cup of coffee when you wake up.
- Significant Rituals: An important event that can change a person’s life.
i.e. wedding, baptism, getting your driver’s license
- Critical Ritual: Part of an initiation where failure to complete the ritual results in rejection and possibly death.
One of the challenges in worldbuilding is getting carried away with so much detail that it leaves out the characters and their motivations and desires. Balancing that which moves the story forward and that which isn’t relevant is a high-wire act, but one that will make or break your readers emotional investment, and ultimately, attention.