Writing Historical Fiction: Etiquette and Mannerisms

Updated: Sep 14



Hello, my fellow eggs!


Before reviewing this, please make sure you have read the first and second lessons as this one contains references to those lessons. This third lesson is designed to help you with character interactions. By the end of this lesson, you should be able to determine how the characters in your story will interact with one another and how their actions may be viewed in society.




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Table of Contents

➵ Overview of Etiquette

➵ What Does Etiquette Include?

➵ Formal vs. Informal Interactions

➵ Other Cultures

➵ Consequences of Poor Etiquette

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↠ Overview ↞

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You may have heard of "netiquette" in online classes. It is the same idea except for the method in which etiquette is being shown. Netiquette refers to acceptable behavior conducted online whereas etiquette relates to a more public setting. This is behavior is deemed acceptable by society.


Each society has different rules of etiquette from the use of honorifics in Asian languages to the act of chivalry in medieval times. This is important to understand whenever you're writing

character interactions because most likely, everyone will not act or speak the same way to everyone else.




Example (Eclipsed Deities series)

You will notice characters greet other citizens in the Isles of Aithne as "Aries Sees You." This is a traditional way of saying hello to someone.


Example (The Secrets of Tarot series)

Characters from this world often greet each other with a humble bow and acknowledge using honorifics.


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↠ What Does Etiquette Include? ↞

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Etiquette covers a variety of topics and similarly to tradition, things may change or be added over the course of time.


(1) Conversation: We will go over this in more detail in a later lesson. However, I will say that etiquette and conversation go hand and hand in that a person may speak differently to individuals depending on their relation or status. This can be expressed through honorifics/formal speech, tone, and conversation topics.


Some topics may be inappropriate to discuss around certain individuals because it may offend or shame them or it may even go against what the law dictates. So it's important to think twice before writing your character's dialogue to avoid offending their speaking partner. However, if the intention is to offend or create some sort of conflict, it is important to incorporate potential consequences because there always is at least one consequence.


(2) Table Etiquette: Within this topic, we can consider whether cutlery is used, and if so, what type and in what order. Some cultures may use varying types of spoons and forks to designate how far they are into the meal.


Another thing to consider is what a person may do to demonstrate that they're enjoying the meal. Some cultures think that it's a good sign to eat soup loudly because it means that it's delicious. Whereas in other cultures, it may be seen as rude and improper.


(3) Attire: We will discuss beauty and physical appearance in the next lesson, but I'd like to mention that attire is an important factor in etiquette. There is a time and place for everything and this includes attire. One of the notorious examples of an inappropriate demonstration of attire would be for a wedding guest to wear a white dress. This is considered inappropriate because there is a firm belief that only the bride should wear white on that day.


One's attire can send a message about the person, whether they are professional, outgoing, etc. It can also say whether they've put any effort into their consideration of what is appropriate to wear for certain events or times.


Example (excerpt from Chapter 1 of Dance of the Dragons)

The humans need to be dealt with, Bìxià. See how they repay you for providing them refuge in our land? They curse your name and spread falsehoods about our people. To make matters worse, they're in cahoots with those damn mages. They ought to be punished for these acts of insubordination," Councilman Liu Luoyang argued.


The Emperor is referred to as "Bìxià," which is a formal way of addressing a Chinese Emperor.


(4) Body Language and Actions: How a person acts while another person is conversing with them is extremely important because it shows whether or not the person is truly attentive. Typical good etiquette would include maintenance of eye contact and nodding every now and then to show to the speaker that you're listening. Acknowledgment is important unless your character is outright ignoring someone for legitimate reasons. In that case, you would need to explain why.


It's also important to consider how a person carries themselves. For example, if a person were to stand with their arms crossed or with their hands on their hips, it would come off as unapproachable, territorial, or even disrespectful.


(5) Hygiene: Hygiene is important because it demonstrates that you care enough about your appearance to make yourself presentable to the public by doing basic self-care. Hygiene can also include health. For example, if a person would be to sneeze or cough, they may turn away from the individual to do so or cover their mouth with a handkerchief. Or they may limit their interactions so they don't get other people sick.


(6) Common Courtesy: These are basic forms of etiquette and society's expectations. Most, if not all, individuals expect others to regard each other respectfully. In this case, the other individual's feelings are taken into consideration. It's essentially the "treat others the way you want to be treated" mentality.



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↠ Formal vs. Informal Interactions ↞

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The use of informal or formal greetings and speech can impact relationships and how society views them.


An individual may act informally with friends, immediate family members, or individuals that are the same age or status as them. They may also use slang native to their area. Each culture is different and researching methods of communication is a surefire way to understand this.


If a character is speaking to a stranger, a person of higher status, or elders and adults, they may speak formally. Typically, formal conversation, without slang/colloquial terms, is used to show respect. It can also be seen as a manner of comfort. Formalities can be expressed with the use of honorifics, formal verb conjugation, bowing, vocabulary, or any other tools.



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↠ Other Cultures ↞

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Another thing to consider is that depending on the time period, individuals may not speak or act boisterous around strangers in the middle of a formal social gathering. It ultimately comes down to where they are, public or private settings, and the individuals that they around.


(1) Case Study: United States

In the United States, we typically greet strangers or acquaintances verbally or with a handshake. Intimate gestures like hugs or kisses may be reserved for family members, significant others, or close friends.


(2) Case Study: Asia

In Asian cultures, it is customary to bow to individuals or accept a handshake with both hands as a show of respect. The degree of bowing depends solely on the status of both individuals involved and their relationship to one another.


Since we've only reached just the tip of the iceberg, I highly recommend that you check out this website on your own time. It explains cultural etiquette around the world and may be a good tool to help you figure out how you want characters in your story to interact with each other.


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↠ Consequences of Poor Etiquette ↞

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There are several possible consequences if an individual or even a group of people demonstrate poor etiquette. However, we will only be covering three.


(1) Shunned by Society: Individuals that act or speak out of turn may be shunned by society. Other people may refuse to acknowledge their presence and exclude them from social events. Others may gossip or spread rumors behind their back.


In pre-modern times, it was extremely important to be aware of things one said, acted, or the people they associate with. The people that one associate with can often transfer over to all parties involved. Thus, if a woman or man has had improper intimacies prior to marriage, it would be difficult for them to find a person willing to marry them out of fear of society's retribution.


Example

Leo Tolstoy's 1877 novel, Anna Karenina. In this story, the titular character is a married woman that ends up having an affair with a man who is betrothed to another woman. This relationship, though unconventional, only damages Anna's reputation.


Example

In A Celestial Requiem, Shen Mingxia is shunned because she physically attacked the village leader's daughter, Zi Xieren. Considered a yaoguai, she is excluded from her village activities and struggles to find her place in the small town.


(2) Disownment: In some cases, if a person has done something dishonorable, the head of the family will renounce them in order to preserve the remaining honor. The act of dishonor can manifest in a variety of ways: 1) inability to provide a male heir to carry on the family name, 2) improper intimacies prior to marriage or adultery, 3) offending the sovereign or a person of high status, and many others.


Example

In The Sins of the Serpent, Zheng Liu Wen is threatened with being disowned by his father because he's gay. His father is against his homosexuality because he's concerned about the future of Wuzhen and who would lead their people if Liu Wen cannot provide an heir.