I had another guest post lined up for today about building languages, but it’s been delayed, so here’s the post I was intending to post after that one, instead. So if you’re looking forward to the final post in my conlang series, stay tuned for next week! And in the meantime, enjoy this post on developing courtship and marriage customs.
What is the Purpose of Marriage?
Really, this question should be answered from two angles. One: What is the fundamental purpose of marriage in this world? Where and why did marriage originate, and what is the inherent design for it? Two: What does this culture believe is the purpose for marriage? As always, this will connect back to the culture’s core values. A combat-centric culture might see marriage as solely an opportunity for the procreation of strong offspring, while a growth-centered culture might see it as a means of furthering family for its own sake, while a religious culture might see it as a way for their faithful to serve their god(s) more effectively as intentional family teams. Or, as is most likely, they’ll see some combination of purposes as important.
For example, there are multiple biblical purposes for marriage: godly companionship, an opportunity to reflect God’s relationship with the Church, and the proper context for godly offspring.
We see some of these purposes lived out in part even in secular marriages: companionship and a desire to build families, most notably. And there can be other considerations in marriages of either kind.
There can (and even should) be as much variation in your own culture’s perception of marriage.
Regardless of what purpose(s) your core culture sees for marriage, its expectations for marriage will reflect that purpose (or mix of purposes). If the most important thing is to bear strong offspring, homosexual couples may well be taboo given their inability to reproduce, and couples seen as physically weak may be equally taboo. It might even be frowned upon for a couple to marry if one party is seen as physically weak, even if the other potential spouse is seen as physically strong.
If the purpose is to pair couples with similar goals for the purpose of more efficient and enjoyable work, there may be stronger expectations about the vocation of a prospective suitor.
In a religious culture (or household), religion will play a large role. Characters may only be allowed to marry within their own religion, or there may be limited religions considered similar enough to pass. These may be hard-and-fast rules, or simple taboos.
What Are the Terms of Marriage in this Culture?
Alongside the purpose of marriage, there’s also the question of what qualifies as a marriage and what the terms of marriage are. Is it monogamous ’til death do part them? Do men have multiple wives because the women wouldn’t be legally protected otherwise, or because their families can grow faster that way, or because women are viewed as property? Is faithfulness to one spouse not even an important concept in this culture at all?
Do marriages last until death, or do they dissolve after certain terms have (or have not) been met? Are the wives of a king required only to bear them an heir before the wife is discarded? Are they put aside if they fail in this task? In cultures where family is highly valued, are couples with an infertile party considered null or are they called upon to adopt? In cultures where faithfulness is valued highly, are marriages dissolved on the basis of infidelity?
Answers to both of these questions will depend on the perceived and practical values of your culture.
Who Decides Who Should Marry?
This, too, will be influenced by the values and other core elements of your culture. A culture that values family might have traditions of arranged marriage or courtship. A culture valuing physical strength might have senior military commanders make matches among their ranks. Cultures with more prevalent individualism are more likely to allow the couple themselves to choose with little outside input.
There might also be factors to this decision that are unique to the culture you’ve developed. For example, courtships in my Piradi culture are nearly always initiated by the women, which is due more directly to their origin myth than to their resulting emphasis on peace-keeping. They’re related through the myth, but I wouldn’t have gotten “courtships initiated by women” from “culture that values peace.”
There is, of course, a spectrum as to who makes marriage decisions. Pairings in two different cultures might be presented by religious leaders, but whether or not the potential couple is free to refuse might differ from one to the other. Likewise, a couple might choose each other themselves but still seek counsel from their families or other authorities around them, and how critical that counsel is might differ from culture to culture. In one culture, the couple might have the final say, while in another some other authority may have veto power. (This could also differ from household to household or sub-faction to sub-faction within a single culture.)
What is the Purpose of Courtship?
The purpose of courtship will hinge on the previous two points. A culture with arranged marriages for the sake of complementary work will have a very different purpose for courtship than a culture in which couples choose each other and marriage is for the purpose of building families.
Courtship might be intended to allow the betrothed to get to know each other, it might be to give them time to discuss marriage-specific topics they hadn’t ventured into prior to betrothal, or it might simply be to prepare for a marriage celebration. Perhaps there are particular rites or rituals that the couple must go through (together or individually) in order to be considered ready for marriage, and these are practiced during a courtship period. Or, of course, the betrothal period could serve multiple purposes.
This is also the place to ask what courtship customs look like. What practices are set apart for betrothed couples? Are particular gifts given? Are there cultural preparations to be made? Do couples receive counsel from older and wiser members of their community? Are there particular practices that are considered inappropriate until a couple is betrothed (kissing, holding hands, perhaps even seeing each other’s faces)?
My favorite courtship custom of those I’ve developed so far is the Virilen custom of making the bride’s wedding dress. Not only does this involve a trip to Upper Virilia for Lower Virilen families, which provides a great opportunity for showing the difference between the two, but the process of making the wedding dress is a long one that involves the bride’s female friends and relatives coming together to work on the dress and (in the case of older relatives) share wisdom from their own marriages. Virilia’s dress-making custom emphasizes the culture’s emphasis on family and community, which is one of my favorite things about Virilia as a whole.
(No one get your hopes up for a wedding in Calligraphy Guild; but I would love to write a sequel story centered around a wedding between two of those characters.)
To sum up: What is required of couples between betrothal and marriage, what is allowed in that window but not before, and what is still not allowed until the marriage is official?
How Are Marriages Officiated?
First, who has the authority to officiate a marriage? Are marriages overseen by family elders? Military leaders? Religious leaders? Political leaders? Do they require any oversight at all?
Then, what is a marriage ceremony like? Are there legal or religious elements as well as a celebration? Is only one or the other involved? Are marriages considered a joyful affair or a solemn one (or both)? What values would this culture find critical to reflect in their marriage ceremonies? For example, does that family-centered culture call down blessings on the couple for the growth of their family? Does the combat-focused culture feature a choreographed duel between the spouses as a means of showing that they’re well-matched?
How are the terms of a marriage communicated and agreed to in the marriage ceremony? Are vows taken? Are legal documents signed?
Are there practices unique to marriage ceremonies as opposed to other celebrations or legal/religious proceedings? For example, do the attire of the bride and groom reflect anything specific about the culture’s view on marriage?
What Are the Signs of Marriage in this Culture?
What reveals to other characters that a particular character is married? Or is there any such thing?
Are rings exchanged? Do wives start wearing their hair a particular way? Do men start growing beards? Do one or both spouses start wearing a different style of clothing? Are tattoos given? Is a telepathic link created between spouses?
What about non-physical signs? Are there certain behaviors that married men and/or women are no longer allowed to engage in once they’re married? Or are there things they are allowed to participate in that they weren’t before?
Have you considered your world’s courtship and marriage customs before? Have you ever written a character wedding? (I actually don’t think I ever have, except in a roleplay where there was a cross-universe wedding between one of my characters and one of my best friend‘s characters. But that may change soon.) What’s your favorite fictional courtship/marriage custom?