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Making the Mundane Important

Writing about your world can sometimes seem tough. How foes one make their world believable? How do you put your readers into the shoes of the characters? How do you create tension in simple settings?  

Mundane Tasks

Many writers and worldbuilders tend to gloss over the mundane parts of their world. Rituals involving bathing seem to be the one major exception. However, there are major parts of real life tasks that we do mostly everyday that can tell a lot about a character or a people. How dishes, clothes, or the self are washed. How much water is used to clean, or who primarily does the cooking are all great ways to highlight how a culture is different from those of our world. In fact, comparing two cultures in this way is also a simple way to inflict tension between characters.  

What, Who, How, Why, and Why?

When looking at mundane tasks in your world, break it down into five simple questions: What is the Task? Who does the Task? How do they do the Task? Why is the Task done? Why does this person do the Task? By asking these questions, you can be well on your way to making small, cultural details that breathe life into your world.   Let's start by looking at one Mundane Task done in my Household, Washing Dishes, and then look at how that has changed since the 1950's.

Washing Dishes

The PatheticBarrel Household
What is the Task? Simply cleaning, drying, and putting away of dishes used to prepare, serve, store, or eat food.
Who does the Task? Normally my wife during the day, though I will do it in the evenings or on my day off.
How do they do the Task? My wife and I both normally rinse the dishes and put them inside of our dishwasher. Once the washer completes its cycle, we remove the dishes, ensure they are dry, and put them in the appropriate cupboards and drawers. Dishes that cannot fit, or cannot be washed in the washer, are washed by hand with hot water and soap, amd then either left to air dry, or are towel dried and put away.
Why is this Task done? To ensure food deposited on dishes does not mold, and to ensure dishes are clean for future food preparation. Also done to eliminate dishes piled up at sink.
Why do these people do the Task? My wife generally attempts to have a clean house for when I arrive, and it is usually easier to cook if all the needed dishes are clean, in their proper storage, and the sink is empty. I do the Task when I do in order to provide my wofe with a clean, stress free house in the morning, or to allow her to rest during the day.

How does this differentiate from other cultures? If we look at the 1950's in America, we can see some major differences, that tell us a lot about how the world has changed. The What and Why of the Task generally stay the same, but the Who gets massive change. Modern America, Men do as much housework as Women, with some variation. The How also changes, as now we have lovely conveninces like Dish Washers. How does new technology or magic (or the lack of) change the Task, and in turn effect the culture?   How does the availability of resources change the task? How about the presence of children, or the absence of an adult?


Adjusting a Mundane Task

Now lets take a look at how we can use a Mundane Task in our World. We will take a look at my futuristic world of Syphont for this.  
What is the Task? Again, washing dishes. Simple.
Who does the Task? On the Syphont, an interstellar starship, the miniscule Aceir are tasked with the general cleanliness of the ship and its contents, including passangers and dishes.
How do they do the Task? The Aceir are symbiotic parasites, hunting smaller parasites and also consuming dead skill cells, dust and food. Their bodies also secrete an anti-microbial slime, which is safe for consumption after a period of about 3 hours. In this way, they clean and sanitize the entirety of the ship.
Why is this Task done? This again stays nicely the same, as cleanliness is important.
Why do these people do the Task? The host species, the Ka-lur, have always lived with the parasitic Acier, and so provide them a protected status aboard the ship, and in their lives. Putting cleaning to the Acier has allowed the Ka-lur to focus on scientific achievement, amd avoided many pitfalls of gender inequality in the proccess.
  As you can see, diving into the Mundane can give you a fresh look at how your World works, and really drive home the realness of it to your readers.  

Using the Mundane to Incite Conflict

Want to get your simple story going with some drama or suspense? Introduce your protagonist doing a Mundane Task, but be in a postion where they do it wrong, such as continuiously running water in a drought wracked state! Get creative with how a character may not do Mundane Tasks the same as in theor surroundings!

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Author's Notes

A special shout out to Atena Luna for sitting with me as I discussed this idea. You rock MoonBear!   As always, these articles are made possible by my lovely Patrons! If you enjoyed, please drop by the Patreon, Discord, or Ko-Fi links above, or leave a Heart and a comment here!

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7 Dec, 2018 19:57

Great work! Though there are some minor spelling mistakes (a few "b"-drops next to spaces), it really does shed a new light on the topic. I shall remember to come back here when inventing my next culture. ^^

8 Dec, 2018 01:01

This is an amazing guide, and something I thoroughly enjoyed reading. Outside of normal first-draft typos and spelling mistakes, the article is quite readable and intuitive.   What made you decide to turn to a Guide for World Building? I'd have never thought to look for something like this, but it looks like an amazing resource for people.

8 Dec, 2018 04:20

My typos can be frequent thanks to doing almost everything on my phone.   I decided to do a Guide as we had only the Codex started. I felt that worldsmiths would enjoy having a place to read-up on ideas on concepts of worldbuilding. It isn't something covered a lot.

8 Dec, 2018 01:07

Hey, Barrel, here we meet again. I like that you gave some attention to the mundane part of the world and culture, instead of just focusing the new and the exotic like, I guess, many authors (including me, sometimes).   I got a question, however. For me, it seems that "Why is this Task done?" and "Why do these people do the Task?" are very similar questions. What are the main differences between them?

8 Dec, 2018 03:35

The "Why do these people do the Task?" is more about seperating why different membera of a group may or may not di the task.

8 Dec, 2018 03:48

This was super informative and I was having just this issue today with a mundane element of my world. Thanks for sharing. What about specific things such as a minor town? How would you make a town interesting but also mundane, I kind of hit a block with it.

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8 Dec, 2018 04:16

I will think on that! Its a dilemma that may be best done by having one thing be extreme. Think the quiet town in Hot Fuzz, Beauty and the Beast, or the village that Harry Potter was born in (it was Also the home town of Dumbledore). Heck, sometimes, the mundane just needs to be mundane so the rest can be fantastic.

8 Dec, 2018 06:04

This is true lol thanks for the tip

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