Fifteen minutes long, because you're in a hurry, and we're not that smart.

19.09: LIVE Recording – Rituals, Rites, and Traditions

Hosts Erin and DongWon are joined by Fonda Lee and Mahtab Narsimhan for a special episode about creating traditions in your fictional writing. In this episode, we’ll explore some of the following: 

-How do you build traditions and rituals in your fictional world (choosing what becomes a tradition or ritual and what doesn’t)? 

-How can you use rituals or traditions to advance a novel’s plot, give characters more depth, and create conflict? 

-What are the pitfalls to avoid (depiction of closed practices, over-ritualizing common traditions)?


Pick a ritual or tradition that you are very accustomed to and make it the center of a fictional scene. You can change its meaning or impact, but the content of the tradition should stay the same.

Thing of the Week: 

Shanghai Immortal by AY Chao (especially the audiobook version)

Liner Notes: 

This podcast episode idea was inspired by ReaderCon 2023, where Erin Roberts was a panelist.

Credits: Your hosts for this episode were DongWon Song, Erin Roberts, Fonda Lee and Mahtab Narsimhan. It was produced by Emma Reynolds, recorded by Marshall Carr, Jr., and mastered by Alex Jackson.

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As transcribed by Mike Barker

Key Points: Rituals, rites, and traditions: making beliefs tangible as practices. Building the rites helps you discover a little about your characters, about what they believe, and helps make them more real. Incorporating them into our fiction makes characters more believable, realistic, vibrant, and tangible. Births, weddings, and funerals are what make a culture work. Do you work from culture to tradition or ritual, or start with the ritual, and then work out the culture? Start with an existing culture, but add elements and tweak it. Start with the premise of the story world, and then think about the implications of that. When you’re working from a real culture, what can you take or not? Be respectful. Don’t dip your quill in somebody’s blood. Use characters, individuals, who are resistant, lack understanding, or are trying to understand as buffers for the culture. Rituals, rites, and traditions can do so much heavy lifting for you. One takeaway? Show how communities come together. Remember that rituals, rites, and traditions reflect how people relate to the world, community, and each other. During revision, go for depth, and work out the rituals. Remember that rituals and traditions are not just something that other cultures have, we have them too!

[Season 19, Episode 09]

[Mary Robinette] This episode of Writing Excuses has been brought to you by our listeners, patrons, and friends. If you would like to learn how to support this podcast, visit

[Season 19, Episode 09]

[Erin] This is Writing Excuses. Rituals, rites, and traditions.

[DongWon] 15 minutes long.

[Fonda] Because you’re in a hurry.

[Mahtab] And we’re not that smart.

[Erin] I’m Erin.

[DongWon] I’m DongWon.

[Fonda] I’m Fonda.

[Mahtab] I’m Mahtab.

[Erin] We are going to talk today about tradition. We’re going to be talking about what happens when you take beliefs in a world and make them tangible by turning them into practices. This happens in our real world, and it often happens in our fiction. I’m wondering how do you all do that? Have you done it, are you interested in doing it, how do you tackle it?

[Mahtab] It would absolutely… I think it is definitely a very important, I would say, a part for worldbuilding, because that is how people… Like, first of all, when you develop rites or any kind of rituals, which is… And I’m talking my experience when… Which is what I did for my novel Valley of the Rats. I built up these traditions and these rites that the people in the village go through. That was actually how I discovered a little bit more about my people. It’s what they believe. It makes them a little bit more real. And, it was an aspect of worldbuilding, which made it really interesting.

[Fonda] Same. I love incorporating rituals, rites, and traditions into my worldbuilding. If you think about our own daily lives, we go through the world performing a whole series of rituals, rites, and traditions, many of which we’re somewhat unconscious of. Right? Everything from our day-to-day practices of holding the door open for another person to the order in which your family members talk when they’re gathered together to big scale traditions like our holidays and our societal values and principles, like, those all feed so much into our day-to-day lives that, to the extent that we can incorporate them into our fiction, it will make our fictional worlds that much more believable, that much more realistic, and that much more vibrant and tangible.

[DongWon] Yeah. One of my clients once told me, Kate [Ballahide] said that the 3 things you need to define a culture are births, weddings, and funerals. If you have those 3 parts of a person’s life, you have a strong understanding of what makes that culture work. Because, when I think about worldbuilding, I think less about material physical things that make up that world and more about what are the rules that define this society. Right? That’s important to people, what are the taboos that you can’t break. So those 3 points of how do we treat a new life, how do we celebrate 2 people coming together, and then how do we honor a loss, I think are the things that we really communicate to the audience this is what our characters value, this is what they aspire to, and this is what they’re afraid of.

[Erin] I’m curious, does it come that way for all of you? Like, is it something where you decide here’s the value, here’s the culture, I’m going to create this tradition or ritual? Or are you like, I want to make this really cool ritual, I will figure out the culture that would make it happen? Is it always the same way for you, or one or the other?

[Mahtab] I’m always… Because a lot of my stories have been set in India, I take that… The culture that’s currently exists as the starting point, but then I will try and add a few fantasy elements, or I’ll try and switch it around a little bit, and go against people’s norms of beliefs and just try and make it a little bit more interesting. And, because I love scary stories and horror, I will add a horror element to it as well, which is… Most people are not going to, but the main thing is that I want some kind of a reaction from the reader. So I will take something that’s existing, and then I try and tweak it. I think sometimes, you know what, when you take something existing and tweak it, not only are you showing differences between what people believe, but sometimes you can even show similarities between different cultures or different beliefs and different people. So it’s a good way to play with things and play with the character and the world, and I love doing that.

[Fonda] I start with the premise of my story world. Which, for me, involves some speculative element. Then I go through the thought exercise of what are the implications that that entails for the society and for the individuals that navigate that world. So, the example of the Green Bone saga, I have a coded East Asian society, but there’s a speculative element that doesn’t exist in our world. Which is this magic jade that confers powers. So an entire society has been developed around this one resource and there’s a whole culture that is grounded around the practices and traditions and beliefs surrounding this speculative element that I’ve introduced into the world. So I couldn’t just go and wholesale take an East Asian culture and then transplant it into my story world, I had to create this hybridized world where I was cueing certain rites and rituals and traditions that readers would pick up on as being East Asian in origin, but then just weaving it together with my own imagination based around what kind of world I wanted to create around the speculative element. The more that you can get down to that microlevel of even the things like the idioms, the sayings that people have, the day-to-day interactions that they have around the speculative element and the rich… Religious aspects, the spiritual aspects, social aspects… Hopefully, if I’ve done my job right, it will feel like a very grounded place that’s been built from the starting principles.

[Erin] I feel like you’ve hit on two really, really exciting things. One is, I think, a question people often have when they’re working from something that’s real. They’re working from a real culture, is, what can you take and when can you not take? This is something that I’ve thought about. I’ve used rituals that come from basically conjure, like, folk magic, that come from, like, a black American folk magic tradition, and I don’t want to depict closed practices, which are basically practices only meant, rituals and rites that are only meant to be done by the group themselves. If you’re not in the group, like, don’t do it, and you’ll know if you are. I think, number one, I don’t want to be disrespectful. Number 2, I actually don’t want a bunch of folk magic practitioners mad at me. They were like… That’s not a good group to have on your bad side. So I think that is something that I thought about, is, what is the essence of what’s going through? I think that’s what you’re talking about. What is the core value that is underlying that tradition, which is the thing that that tradition is meant to do. Or what was it originally developed to do. Then, how can I develop it in a different way? What if this same objective was expressed differently? What if it had a different practice, but the same underlying goal? So I think a lot about that in, like, trying to avoid doing things that just seem like I’m kind of using somebody else’s closed practices or, as I like to say it sometimes, dipping my quill in somebody’s blood. Which is not a good thing unless that’s what your story is about.

[DongWon] That is such an evocative image. I love that.

[Yeah. Chuckles.]

[Mahtab] I think one thing that we must remember whenever you do… Whenever you’re writing something like this, is be respectful. Like, make sure that if, one, there is no misappropriation of someone else’s traditions or practices. Use your own, something that you have, but whatever you change it into, whatever you tweak it into, make sure that it’s respectful. If there is a fantasy element or a speculative element to it, that’s fine, but try to make sure that you’re not offending anyone by just making it so egregious that it’s like it’s wow, but it’s really, really bad. So, just respect. Keep that in mind.

[DongWon] I think one of the things that can really help there is, especially in fiction, we’re seeing these rites and rituals and traditions through an individual’s perspective. Individuals have an imperfect understanding of the traditions that they’re embedded in. Right? Nobody fully understands why it is that we do this ritual on this day, or why we honor this tradition in this way. So, having a character that is resistant to it, or doesn’t quite understand it, or is trying to understand, I think are great ways to build a little bit of a buffer between the culture that you are referencing, that blood that you’re dipping your quill in, and what’s actually on the page. When you grounded in someone’s specific experience, I think that does a lot to add that texture and that subjectivity that makes it feel less like you’re just picking something up wholesale from someone else’s culture, even from your own culture. Right? So, just remember that as people are experiencing all of these things that we’re talking about, you’re writing it through characters, you’re writing through individuals embedded in that culture. I don’t know, my experience is a lot of, like, trying to understand how my culture works, both as an American and coming with… My parents coming from Korea, there’s, like, all these different things that I’m trying to puzzle out all the time and trying to get them to fit together. So I think letting that be felt in how your characters experience these moments can be a really thrilling way to go about it.

[Fonda] One of the things I love about incorporating rituals, rites, and traditions in fiction, in worldbuilding, is that they do so much heavy lifting for you. You don’t need to have pages of exposition when you can show your characters living their day-to-day lives and going through the traditions of their society. It just provides this natural in, where you can very seamlessly include the exposition that you need to. For example, if I was to write a story set in the United States of America and it was for an extraterrestrial audience, rather than explaining the origin of this country and how it came to be and etc., etc., I could have my characters celebrate the 4th of July. There’s an automatic in for me to, through the traditions of the society, give a bit of background on where… The origins of the society and how people celebrate it. So, think about that when you are doing your world building. Can you have, as much as possible, these grounded day-to-day experiences of your characters that give you this automatic in, where you don’t have to make an awkward cut to explain something about your world?

[Erin] Which is a perfect time for a tradition of our own, to pause, so that we can have our little break, and so, traditionally, this would be the time for the thing of the week.

[Fonda] Our thing of the week is a debut fantasy novel called Shanghai Immortal by A. Y. Chao. It is a very action-packed, funny book, that takes place in a Chinese underworld that resembles 1920s Shanghai, and I especially recommend the audiobook that was narrated by Mei Mei Macleod. The reason why I’ve chosen this is the book of the week is because it is a great example of how one author took rituals, rites, and traditions from our own world and shaped it for a fantasy world. For example, in our world in Chinese tradition, there is the ritual of burning offerings for ancestors, and in Shanghai Immortal, some of these offerings show up in the underworld in very unexpected ways. So, like the lucky ro… Joss roosters that get burned in our world end up just over populating the underworld…


[Fonda] And there are roosters running amok everywhere and there’s a disaster. Shanghai Immortal by A. Y. Chao.

[Erin] Now that we’re back from the break, I’m going to break from tradition in a little bit, and actually, we’re going to do a quick wrap up section because we are on a ship right now and they are telling us that they want this room for secret rituals of their own. So, if you… We can go down, starting with DongWon, what is the one thing that you wish people knew when they were writing rites or rituals or traditions? One take away, what would it be?

[DongWon] [garbled]


[DongWon] I think the thing that I wish people would really bring to it is really showing how communities come together. I think these are… The opportunities to make your characters feel embedded in a specific place and a specific group of people. Often times, when we see these scenes, it feels very individualistic, we’re so focused on that person’s emotions emotional experience going through it. But a thing that I often feel is missing in stories is a greater sense of a wider cast of characters, even if we’re not seeing them all as individual POVs. That feeling of community, that feeling of connections, I think these ritual moments are such an ideal place to get that in and, often times, people can be very focused on the isolating experience of the character in those moments.

[Fonda] I would say that remember that at its core, rituals, rites, and traditions reflect how people relate to the world, to the community, and to each other. When you incorporate them into your fiction, they are an incredible opportunity to not just world build on a macro level, but also on a micro level, and weave in really tangible details, like food. Food is a part of so many of our rites and rituals and traditions. Dress. Is there special dress associated with certain occasions and traditions in your society? Money. Entertainment. So many of your world building blocks can be put together through the lens of the rites, rituals, and traditions of your fictional world.

[Mahtab] What I would say is try… And the first time that you’re writing it, you may not know how many or what kinds of rites or rituals or traditions you want to, but I think during the revision is when you really need to figure out if you have too many strands, too many things going on, how you can roll a couple of things into one another and deepen your plot and deepen some of the things that you put in there, rather than widen it. Just give it some… Like, I would say during the revision process, go for depth, and really work those traditions out or rituals out, whatever it is that you want to work on. But narrow them down and just really work them out. I hope I’m making myself clear.

[Erin] You are. What I would say is to remember that rituals and traditions are not just things that other people have. I think sometimes we can think of rituals as that is a different culture has this ritual or tradition, but I’m just doing things because I am. But there are so many traditions that we have, like holding the door open or moving to the other side of the elevator or even blowing out the candles on a birthday cake is a ritual that exists in the birthday celebrations in America that may not exist everywhere. 

[Erin] With that, I have the homework for you. Which is to pick a ritual or tradition that you are accustomed to or familiar with and make it the center of a fictional scene. You can change its meaning, you can change its impact, but keep the actual actions of the ritual or tradition the same.

[DongWon] This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses. Now go write.

[Mary Robinette] Hey, writer. Have you sold a short story or finished your first novel? Let us know. We love hearing about how you’ve applied the stuff we’ve been talking about to craft your own success stories. Use the hashtag WXsuccess on social media or drop us a line at [email protected].