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Celebrations in Story—Marking the Special Days

December 18, 2011 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill
last modified December 18, 2011

We’re deep into the holiday season in much of the world. We are and we have been celebrating religious holy days, social holidays, and national and cultural holidays.

Holidays and celebrations mark years (birthdays and anniversaries) and milestones (graduations). They help us mark days and events important to us as individuals and families, as citizens of nations and as members of cultural groups.

Celebrations help us remember. They tell us we’re important. They keep us tied to those who’ve come before.

Celebration reminds us of joy, it reminds us we’re part of a bigger group, of something outside our own minds and problems and lives.

And what is true for us is no less true for our characters.

Characters, like other humans, have much to celebrate. The arrival of a baby, perhaps the long-awaited heir, is often anticipated with great joy and celebrated with unimagined fervor. The start to a marriage is honored. The day a boy becomes a man in his father’s eyes, in his tribe’s eyes, in his own eyes is a day for celebrating. For marking with ritual. For remembering.

The victories of a country or a people-group deserve remembrance. Religious events deserve acknowledgment as well.

So . . . As we celebrate, mark the passage of time, and join friends and family members to honor others, let’s remember to allow our characters to do the same.

While your story might not touch on holiday issues, you can still introduce celebrations—and all the emotion and conflict that accompany them.

A teenager’s sixteenth birthday? What can be done with it to advance your plot? What if the birthday is forgotten? Ignored? Overplayed by one parent at the expense of the other? What if this teen gets a party to rival parties of the last 50 years and her brother, sixteen just last year, wasn’t allowed to celebrate his birthday in any special way?

What trouble can be stirred up at a holiday meal? On the way to a religious service? On the way home from a graduation party?

What emotions or yearnings could be revealed by the woman putting on her make-up as she readies herself for the big bash celebrating her twentieth anniversary? What if she no longer loves her husband? What if she never did? What if she loves someone else and always has? What if her husband is an abuser? What if he’s Mr. Perfect, but she still loves another?

What can the celebration—the setup, the event itself, and the aftermath—do for your story and your characters?

Allow me to suggest that you consider adding celebrations to your novels. Don’t limit yourself to only personal events but think about national events—a Fourth of July picnic or parade, for example—or religious observances.

Use a boy’s bar mitzvah or confirmation, or a girl’s quinceañera, to mark not only the occasion for the teen, but for the mother or father.

A man with a son on the brink of manhood may be proud and at the same time disappointed, disappointed that at this stage of his own life he hasn’t accomplished anything of note, anything that matters to anyone of importance, anything that he himself considers worthwhile.

As his son, excited and eager, nears the day he’ll become a man, the father may become anxious. Depressed. Withdrawn. He may feel weak and feeble. Useless.

What marvelous tension you could stir up from adding a simple celebration to your story.

Of course, the father may be proud of his son and just as proud of his own accomplishments. He may be so proud that he brags of his life enough that he alienates his son, has him dreading his father’s speech on the day the boy finally reaches manhood.

The son may love but fear his father, hate him, or admire but not understand him. He may constantly strive to be like him. To be unlike him. To be himself in his father’s shadow.

So many options . . .

If you don’t want to give a holiday flavor to your story, one that would forever tie the story to a particular time of year, use a birthday or anniversary for your celebration. Or allow your characters to celebrate their holiday outside the typical holiday season for a reason unique to the story.

Perhaps a couple is separated by their jobs or war or other unbreakable commitments. Have them celebrate their anniversary on the one day they can both be in the same city for twelve hours. You don’t have to identify the day or even the month.

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Think about ways to use celebration in story, in a particular story. How will a character act at a celebratory event? Will he hide his pain, putting his own needs aside so others can celebrate an event or heroic moment or national holiday? Will he disrupt the event? Is the disruption accidental or for a purpose? What consequences will come with the disruption?

Will a character embrace the celebration or shun it, agree with it or try to diminish its importance for others?

There are dozens of ways to use celebration and holiday in fiction. A few options to get you thinking—

Give your characters rituals for their celebrations. Let them be nostalgic with traditions handed down from grandparents or excited over new practices that a child wants to try.

Give your rituals meaning. Tie them in to the rest of the story through shared emotion or repetition or memories.

Let one character uphold ritual to the exclusion of all else while another turns his back on that same ritual without compunction.

Have one character dream of getting lost in ritual or dream of forever escaping it.

Let parents remember celebrations they shared with a now deceased child.

Use ritual and celebration to explain a character’s tightly held opinion on a matter.

Give characters and stories foods and games and dishes peculiar to the holiday or celebration.

Use the high emotions of celebrations to reveal character personalities and stir up resentments and jealousy, maybe envy, between characters.

Think in terms of both joy and solemnity, celebration and remembrance. Think of both public and private ways for characters to enjoy their celebrations.

Use props—a candle, a shawl, a love letter—so characters can touch the celebration. So the celebration touches them. Use scents to overwhelm characters with the reality of a celebration, its deep meaning. Use mystery and uncertainty to link characters to the unknown in ceremonies and religious events.

Use color to signify the unique nature of an object tied to your story celebrations. Then repeat the use of that color throughout the story to link back to the emotions you stirred up at the celebration scene.

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Keep in mind that characters bring more to the story world than their reactions to current events. They bring to the present all they’ve done and dreamed of and wanted in the past, even if the story doesn’t once mention a character’s past. Characters are not absent a past life. Use what you know of that life to color the story events you do share with the reader.

Characters will know all about celebrations and what those celebrations mean to them and to others in their sphere. Tap into the rich possibilities of these holidays and celebrations for your fiction.

Take what you know of real celebrations and make your story celebrations just as real. Just as authentic. And just as troublesome for your characters as they can be for you.

Put holidays and other celebratory moments to work in your fiction.

Use celebration in story.

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