Last week I started talking about how to flesh out a people group, and discussed the nature and necessity of religion and belief. As I said in that post, everyone believes something, and those beliefs fundamentally shape who we are and how we interact with the world. Every culture also has customs and traditions. These are two very similar ideas, but for the purpose of this post I’m going to define them fairly particularly. When I say ‘custom’ I am referring to practices that are common place in a culture but not necessarily important beyond being expected (for instance, shaking hands is an American custom). When I say ‘tradition’ I am referring to practices that have ritual significance in a culture, and thus are very important to that culture (for instance, communion is a Christian tradition, tea ceremony is a Japanese tradition). Violating a custom is considered rude (refusing to shake someone’s hand), but violating a tradition (a non-believer taking communion) is considered wrong, and often carries some kind of cultural or sacred penalty to it (in scripture the impure are warned not to participate in communion). Custom and tradition are essential is determining the nature and age of your people group.
Every custom or tradition will have its own degree of importance. For instance, in America (and most places) both weddings and funerals are traditions. However, while it is rude (perhaps even wrong) to crash a wedding, it is unthinkable to crash a funeral. This is because of both the importance that we put on these traditions, and the nature of the tradition itself. A wedding is (generally) a happy occasion, and while crashers are not appreciated, they are not surprising. A funeral, on the other hand, is generally a time of solemn grief, and interruption is far beyond unwelcome or rude.
Certain behaviors also exist somewhere between custom and belief. Bowing in Japan (most of the Orient actually) is a good example of this. While bowing has specific rules (unlike handshakes) and meanings (for instance the lower you bow the higher your respect for the person you are bowing to, and if the person is of lower rank the lower they must bow to you). However, these rules and meanings are not always observed, so while bowing could be considered a tradition (and is often treated as one), it is sometimes treated as a simple custom and the rules become unimportant. This can lead to problems when a person who puts stock in the tradition of bowing interacts with someone who sees it as a mere custom. The person who sees it as a custom (unless he/she is very careful) will inevitably offer insult to the person who sees it as a tradition.
The nature of your customs and traditions, and the interaction between them will say a lot about your culture. In this it isn’t a bad idea to borrow from other cultures. For instance, the Longminjong (from Avnul) are a very oriental culture, and so bowing is an important tradition to them. They are also an extremely martial culture, and so many of their customs and traditions are borrowed from the martial arts. The Neshelim, on the other hand, are not an Oriental culture, and so their customs and traditions are very different. More of their customs and traditions are borrowed from the Middle East, and because they are an exceedingly religious culture, many of these customs and traditions reflect their religion.
It is important to understand that, with a few exceptions, customs and traditions are little things that add a hint of reality to your people group. For instance, maybe before a meal it is customary for your people group to spit on their eating utensils (perhaps this originated as a means of cleaning those utensils and has devolved from there). This may or may not show up in your story. If it does appear it will almost certainly be unimportant, barely receiving a mention (Aroz picked up his knife and spat on it, wiping the saliva across the blade, before he started cutting his food). However, details matter. Small things like this lend character and realism to your world, and that makes it more believable. The best compliment I have ever received on my writing was when a man told me that when he finished my book, he felt like the Neshelim were still out there, doing what they do. The world came alive for him, and even when the story was over, the people kept going. It is the little things like this that make that possible.
The way you treat custom and tradition will also tell your readers how old your culture is. Remember that every custom and tradition begins for a reason (many people believe that shaking hands started as a means of proving that one was unarmed, a peace offering), but overtime they take on a meaning all their own, and the original reasons are often lost. So, if everyone in your people group knows the reason for a custom or tradition, then it probably hasn’t been around for very long. If everyone knows the reasons for all their customs and traditions, then the culture hasn’t been around very long. A culture that is old is going to have lots of meaningless traditions and customs that are followed just because… that’s what you do. Only a few people (maybe no one) will know why they do it, and some people will refuse to do it because it is obviously stupid and pointless. Very old cultures will have customs and traditions that have been lost and revived, and perhaps are in the process of being lost again. This isn’t uncommon in real world cultures, and it’s something that you should pay attention to in your own world. Other cultures will have intentionally changed their customs and traditions (for instance, I am in the process of writing Rise of the Neshelim as a serial for Lantern Hollow Press, and part of the story is the Neshelim’s rejection of all of their previous rituals, customs, and beliefs as they convert en masse to a new faith).
So, suffice it to say that Custom and Tradition are always going to be little things that will probably never have a profound impact on your plot, characterization, or story line. However, a good use of them can have a profound impact on your readers, and leave them wanting more.