All good fiction writing is about life, about characters suffering some sort of crisis. It might be a failing marriage, a zombie attack, an unsolved murder or something more subtle or crazy, but it will be about a life or lives the reader can believe in, turned upside down by events. And believability is important because from it comes sympathy for the characters, and maybe even empathy.
Rituals are an important part of believability. They are the padding of life. They make us comfortable. They’re taught by our parents in the form of manners to enable us to socialise successfully, or by the state to embed a sense of national pride and social standing; they’re learnt from our peers and religious leaders. They’re everywhere. Many are so ingrained we don’t notice them—until they’re not there or out of place.
It was in Topsham, an affluent town on the edge of Exeter, that I first encountered cheek kissing (both cheeks) as a greeting ritual between friends. Now it’s fairly ubiquitous in middle-class circles. If I were to include that ritual in a fiction about a working-class family in Sheffield in the 1960s, I’d lose most of my readers because I’d lose believability.
Sheffield in the early sixties was a place where class difference on a Sunday showed itself in the pub. The bosses took off their smarts and relaxed in casuals over a glass of wine in the lounge, whilst the workers put on their only suit and sunk pints of frothy-headed ale in the bar. If your novel was about that period and place, including social rituals like these would as useful for characterisation and setting as a beer belly and Ford Prefect.
Rituals also provide opportunities for conflict and intrigue, the essentials of any fiction. Take for instance a convict, alone in his cell, scratching and burning away the tattoos ritually placed there to mark him as a member of a particular gang. I’d certainly want to know what happened next.
I'm not saying swamp your work with ritualistic behaviour, a little can go a long way. Worth keeping in mind too is that what seem like rituals are sometimes games, and that can add suspense and aid plot development. Take the police insider in an Islamist terrorist cell saying, ʿalayhi as-salām’ for example. He knows it's a ritualistic expectation and he plays along, but it's not ingrained. What if he forgets?
The internet makes research on ritual easy, but the best research is people watching (because it’s fun). Go forth and gawp is my advice.
Book review/recommendation: The Dubliners by James Joyce
First published in 1914, The Dubliners is a collection of short stories about—you guessed it—Dubliners. Required reading as part of my English Literature studies, it turned out to be an unexpected pleasure. At the time of writing, Dublin had suffered generations of economic decline. The place and people were going nowhere but down, and this sense of hopelessness pervades each story. There are no great tales of ambition. Characters drink to escape or devise ways of getting money to buy drink to escape. Love is dysfunctional. Life is shit. Pleasure is a plate of peas.