Writing Wednesday — Using tradition to shape plot and character

Vase painted by my paternal grandmother; photo by my cousin, mystery author Laura Childs

This is a season that is particularly shaped by tradition. We celebrate some of our most important holidays and holy days in the last quarter of the year, as autumn becomes winter and we turn the page to a new year.

But this year, traditions are dramatically changed. Travel is harder, public events are limited in size, individual gatherings and celebrations are being reshaped.

And that has me thinking of the role of tradition in story. Think about it in the story you’re working on. How do traditions influence your characters? How guide or frustrate their choices? How create—or recall—tensions between characters, or within them?

Which character assumes the family will always gather at her home? Which character resents that, resists it, has always tried to change it, and finally circumstances allow the change—but what now? Whose help does she need? Who refuses to give it? What does she feel compelled to do, but unsure that she can succeed?

Who absolutely will not hand over the star that always goes on top of the Christmas tree, because it’s always been on her tree because we’ve always gathered at her house.

Who tries to interject new traditions? Who feels rebuffed, rejected, relegated to the kids’ table?

Tranquility, oil on canvas, Tabby Ivy (collection of the author)

I’m speaking both literally and metaphorically here. Traditions aren’t confined to the holidays and holy days, or to family gatherings, and you needn’t be writing about the pandemic to ask your characters these questions. Think about how your characters respond to traditions and to changes. Consider how the usual ways of doing things have influenced the interactions between spouses, sisters, business partners, or rivals—and how changes in the traditions affect those interactions. What ripple effects occur when one person decides to think or feel about “the way things are” or “the way we’ve always done it”? What does that character do as a result, and how does another respond?

And if you find yourself singing a particular song from a Broadway musical, go for it.

2 thoughts on “Writing Wednesday — Using tradition to shape plot and character

  1. “Any thing you can do, I can do Better!” is from one of my fav Broadway shows. ( I was one of Annie Oakley ‘s little sisters in a local production when I was 11). Thanks for this great idea, Leslie. You helped me form some ideas for scenes in my MG novel about families and secrets kept from relations. Traditions can cause conflict between sisters and others.

    • Beth, I am SO GLAD my post spurred a few ideas for you. Traditions bind us — in both senses of the verb. My questions are just a start — sounds like you’re asking your characters even more questions, which is always A Good Thing.

      And I’ll be singing Annie tunes all day!

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