Why do people clink their glasses when they raise a toast? Historically it was to ensure a drop from your mug of ale or wine landed in mine and vice versa, and if you poisoned my cup, then your cup would also be tainted. Says a lot about how people took breaches of trust seriously.
You’re walking down the street in medieval England, and you notice men missing their index and middle fingers. What does that tell you? Have they been caught pick-pocketing? Some sort of accident at the smiths? At the time, it meant they were archers, and they were captured by an enemy who cut off those fingers so they couldn’t draw a bow.
Now, take those two missing fingers and place them in another society and the meaning changes completely. In another culture, say one where healers use their index and middle fingers to check the energy or meridians of a patient, having their fingers cut off might mean they were banned from practicing because they angered the queen or that an occupying force is stamping out the knowledge of the practice by targeting the healers.
Context. Everything your characters do happens in a context. Your book might be contemporary, an alternate history, or occur in a second-world. Wherever they are, they have rules and norms that are known to the character. Sometimes, they follow the norms, sometimes they break them. But the norms exist and define what is acceptable and not acceptable in the world. And how your character interacts with them shapes the problems they face, their internal conflicts, and how they interact with others.
Take for example a man in medieval Britain with his fingers cut off. Members of his community might view him as brave and worthy of help getting back on his feet. But, in the context of a second-world, where pick-pockets have their fingers cut off, another community will not be as inclined to welcome and support the person because of the connotation of the missing digits.
Having a ritual or a behaviour without attaching meaning to it drags on the story. Why did that character go to that shrine and pray and not another shrine? Why do those characters clasp at the elbows in greeting? What’s the seating arrangement at the dinner table and what does it suggest that mother sits at the head and father sits to her left?
To bring out the world you’re shaping, pick 2-3 norms that your character bumps up against. Maybe one cultural expectation works in their favour and empowers them, and the other two disadvantages them or causes problems for them in one way or another that they have to overcome.
Building meaning into your norms enriches the world, characterisation, and adds layers to the conflicts your characters face.
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