R is for Recreation
“My first meal will be held in the festival hall, or in the lord’s garden if the weather is fair. They’ll hang the lamps. My father’s ministers as well as the heads of the more important households will be there to give me their oaths, so I’ll be expected to provide entertainment. There will be music and singing and some sort of dramatics…I’ll have to find out whether or not Uyane has performers on staff, although I can’t really imagine that we don’t.” –The Last Hour of Gann
* * *
“A race! A race!” Rope belts were removed and captured neophytes dragged to opposite sides of the cavern. At one end of the ephebeum’s central space, the collected neophytes were stripped and bound at wrist and ankle with their hands before them. One of the acolytes gaily produced a small pot of ink from his sleeve and began to paint numbers on the victims’ naked backs. No longer trying to escape, the captured neophytes stood for it, shivering with cold and humiliation…
“Does this happen often?” Mara asked.
“What else are they going to do, watch TV?”—The Scholomance
* * *
Admit it, you were expecting something else. Research, maybe, or realism. I’ll bet you never saw recreation coming. I can sense your bewilderment. After all, what is there to say about how we spend our spare time and worldbuilding that could possibly last 1500 words? I understand. So go ahead and ask. There are no stupid questions.
What is spare time, you ask? What a stupid question. A much better one would be when is it? You see, unless you’re an unrepentant slacker like me, most people divide their time between work, sleep and necessities of survival, which back in the day meant coordinating the whole tribe to kill a mammoth and today means eating spaghetti-Os out of the can with no pants on. But enough about me, my point is, there’s not a lot of genuinely spare time. Even when we’re not actively hunting and skinning our spaghetti-Os, we have household chores, personal grooming, and social obligations like paying bills, attending kids’ soccer games and pretending to care about the husband’s day at work. It may not be survival as some would define it and it isn’t work because you don’t get paid, but it sure isn’t relaxing.
Now consider if you will the main characters of the last book you read and you’ll probably discover that they divide their time roughly the same way you divide yours.
So…sleep, work and survive. Is that really all there is in life? Gosh, I hope not, because I have a vague memory that all work and no play make Jack go after his family with an axe. In real life, we all know that stress piles up until psychotic rampages and arrest warrants ensue, so we take a break now and then. In books and movies, we know that if you keep the pressure on full throttle too long, the tension breaks, so it’s important to lighten things up once in a while. To answer your question (remember when you asked a question?), we don’t really have ‘spare’ time. There are the exact same number of hours in the day whether we spend them cleaning the oven or tearing up a barn rave with glitter- and lube-filled water balloons.
Historically speaking, I think it’s safe to say that for as long as Man has had a concept of work, we’ve also had play. How important is it? Well, today, the tourism industry is a multi-billion dollar business and that takes into account only travel and organized recreational activities. Add to this the revenue from the movie, music and gaming industries and we’re talking serious cash, even without taking into account the money that goes into toys, hobbies and pets.
Are all these things recreational? It depends on the individual. As they say, one man’s fun is another man’s personal foray into the very bowels of Hell, or words to that effect. I personally love camping and fishing; one of my cousins loathes it so much she threatened to call off the wedding when her husband-to-be innocently suggested a camping honeymoon. I write for fun, but I also get paid for it; is it work or play? As for pets, I don’t consider my cat a ‘leisure activity’.
Recreational activities merit some consideration when you build your fictional world, even though it’s unlikely to ever figure largely in your plot. The things we do for fun reflect our interests, either as individuals or as a society. Today, I can play mancala and watch celebrities dance the tango before I go to my yoga class, but the ancient world was much smaller and recreation was as unique as the region where it was practiced. Every culture had their own sports, their own festivals, their own music and dances, and many of them are still practiced after hundreds or even thousands of years!
So what do people do for fun? There are a lot of ways to break down the massive list of hobbies people have enjoyed throughout history, but I can think of three categories that just about sum them all up.
First, we have athletic pursuits. These are almost exclusively outdoor activities designed to work the body, but which require a certain alertness and skill as well. Here we find most sports, camping, hunting, climbing, canoeing, skiing and competitive sparring. I think it’s worth pointing out that most of these activities were used either as survival techniques or combat training at some point in history. Cultures whose expansion and power depended on conquest traditionally had games that required strength, agility and strategy to win. These are the entertainments of warriors, in which fun and training are often indistinguishable.
Next we have intellectual pursuits, true leisure activities, which means you can do them largely without moving. Interests include books, music, art, dramatics, philosophy and meditation. Note that with mental pursuits, you can participate actively or passively. One can read a book or write one; play music or just listen. Think aristocrat: when the idea of sweating and grunting and making a public spectacle out of oneself is distasteful, there is a distinct appeal to a ‘sport’ where you can be world-renowned and never mess up your hair.
Finally, there are trophy hobbies. These reflect more individual quirks than cultural standards, although you do occasionally see examples of species-wide obsessions, particularly in sci-fi. They can be either indoor or outdoor activities and often require some manual dexterity and extremely specialized knowledge. They include collections (stamps, postcards, shrunken heads, coins, etc), needlework, animal husbandry, model-making, and that obnoxiously fascinating thing kids today do with cups. There’s little direct competition; the goal of these pursuits is not to ‘win,’ but to create a product that earns the admiration of others—a scrapbook, a ship in a bottle, a champion show dog.
Inventing an alien sport or game can be tricky. It has to be unique to that world or race, yet relatable to your human readers. It should also have a recognizable element of fun, enough that readers can understand why anyone would do it to relax. Most importantly, use your editing eyes when it comes to description. In my Arcadia series, I made up a game called Castles for my horsemen to play. It makes an appearance half a dozen times over the course of the series and I tried to make it a natural and unobtrusive part of the scene, but in my first draft, I had a detailed explanation of the pieces, board and rules, and wrote out every move complete with score progression. The first game alone took up almost five pages. Fortunately, between the first and final draft, my sister talked me into reading the Harry Potter books and upon reading Rowley’s exhaustive description of Quidditch, I realized what a spectacularly bad idea that would be. Five pages of game play turned into just a few lines and it didn’t hurt the book at all. Hurt me a bit, though. I’d worked hard on that game’s design, but in the end, I just had to come to terms with the fact that no one was ever going to be reading my book because they wanted to learn a new board game. (No one’s reading it to learn how to cure hides either, but I haven’t decided to care about that yet.)
Introducing alien games to humans (either your readers or your other characters) is one thing, but don’t forget it works just as well in reverse. Try looking at familiar activities through non-human eyes and see how you’d react. I love going to the fair myself, but when Daria takes Tagen to the fair in Heat, I knew at once he’d see only safety concerns and suspect food. It was no more dangerous than any fair I’d been to in real life (except for Kane killing people behind the 4-F tent), but through his eyes, every rickety ride and deep-fried candy bar took on ominous overtones.
If I haven’t managed to convince you yet, let me say again that worldbuilding is not about the broad strokes, but rather the fine lines that add detail to an otherwise blurry background. Your characters shouldn’t have a lot of time to kill while waiting for that dragon, zombie or alien invasion—
—but there will be quiet moments now and then, and even a throwaway remark can add new insight about your non-human character and the place he or she came from. So use them! Old songs and poems are great at delivering expositional legends that might seem too clunky or narrative in dialogue. The violent games of childhood rivals can serve to foreshadow their final battle when they meet again. And the heroine’s knowledge of horticulture may allow her to craft a paralytic toxin at a crucial moment. A collection of unusual human skulls, however, is just creepy (which doesn’t stop the author from having one).