We touched on superstitions last week, when the idea of lucky or unlucky numbers came up. But superstitions go well beyond that — and they’re a weirdly under-exploited concept in speculative fiction.
Or maybe it isn’t so weird. As I mentioned back when we discussed folk magic last August, I think there’s a tendency in fantasy to try to systematize magic and treat all of it as Definitely Real. Once you’re operating in that mode, characters will only do things like cross their fingers or toss salt over their shoulders if it has a measurable effect on the plot. And in science fiction, of course, the story frequently assumes that humanity will have outgrown all such silly habits in their march to the stars.
But as has probably become apparent, I don’t really buy that idea. I think human beings are human beings, and we’ll keep these little habits and unfounded fears until we stop being human. They may not be as pervasive as they once were; it’s true that most of us go through our daily lives with much less concern for the small-scale metaphysical ramifications of our actions and surroundings than our ancestors of a thousand years ago. But they’ll still be around — especially in times of crisis, when people clutch at any straw which offers even the illusion of control.
And we spec fic authors tend to write about times of crisis a lot.
Mind you, the hard part here is writing superstitions well. A lot of academic ink has been spilled over trying to figure out where they come from, and a lot of it is inconclusive. Do they arise out of religious ideas, and you shouldn’t walk under a ladder because you’re disrupting the triangular shape which suggests the Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost? Or are do they have their basis in practical considerations, and you shouldn’t walk under a ladder because something might fall onto your head? Is breaking a mirror bad luck because mirrors are expensive and the superstition helps remind people to be careful around fragile objects, or is there something more symbolic at work? Both? Neither?
In many cases we don’t really know. We have lots of theories, but it’s often difficult, if not impossible, to prove them. (Even if the people who practice a superstition say “here’s why it exists,” that may or may not be the whole story. Like folk etymologies for words, some of those explanations are post hoc.)
So what you’re left with is a collection of random-seeming practices. And unfortunately for us writers, fiction isn’t allowed to be random; it has to make more sense than the real world. Why are rabbits’ feet lucky, but not the feet of other animals? Why is a bride supposed to wear something old, something new, something borrowed, and something blue? Why is it bad luck to wish an actor good luck, and instead you should tell them to break a leg? In a story there’s a subconscious expectation that eventually things will make sense, and if you just drop in random actions like your character slapping the top of their head for good luck or braiding their hair to forestall bad dreams, the reader may get hung up on the question of why.
To some extent you can mitigate this by remembering that in the real world, “superstition” is often a pejorative term. And not just in the modern day, where it tends to connote irrationality and beliefs that run counter to science; it’s been a way of dismissing things for hundreds of years. What my people do is religion; what your people do is heathen superstition. Or even within a faith: superstition has sometimes been referred to as “excess of religion,” an overheated tendency to inject spiritual significance into everything around you, or an attempt to control the actions of the gods through your own behavior.
Which means it’s easy to put superstitions into a piece of fiction if the intent is to make the people practicing them seem in some fashion unlettered, excessively spiritual, or foreign. Then it doesn’t matter whether the reader can see logic behind their actions, because the whole point is to create a feeling of distance between that and whatever is being positioned as “normal” within the story.
But of course there are problems with that, too. It is quite literally Othering: it marks out the people practicing that superstition, and not in a positive way. Which sometimes you want (because we don’t always write stories about how everyone is understanding and sees the value in other people’s cultures) . . . but not all the time. And it doesn’t help you include such things as something done by your protagonists or the highly-educated people that set the norms for their society.
The answer, I think, is to make sure you highlight the meaning as much as, or more than, the action itself. And not just the significance of the action, but what it means to the point of view character — which might go well beyond that single point. Your heroine has been having nightmares, so she braids her hair at bedtime, remembering when her mother used to do this for her as a child. (Your hero has been having nightmares, and wishes briefly that he had long hair so he could braid it, like his mother used to do for his sister. Or whatever.) If slapping the top of your head is a way to invite good luck, make sure we feel the fortifying effect it has, even if that effect is only psychological.
Or go for the absurd: the character whacks himself too hard, the ring on his hand cracking against his skull, and there’s a brief flash of “so much for good luck.”
This kind of thing is rarely load-bearing, and in fact that’s my point: it shouldn’t be. It’s just a touch of flavor, a little reminder that not everything in the setting exists to further the plot. Some of it is there simply because realistically, it would be there. Such things shouldn’t be a distraction from the story — if you’ve spent three paragraphs describing the somersaults your character turns after hearing a woodpecker tapping in order to turn away the omen of a family member’s death — then unless you’re Neal Stephenson and can turn practically anything into an entertaining vignette, you should probably consider paring it down.
But a few touches here and there? Those are fine.
(And now if you’ll pardon me, I’m going to take the hair-braiding example I made up for this essay and put it into one of the settings I’m developing.)