Homes & Hospitality in Fantasy

The topic of hospitality is one I’ve wanted to touch on in a worldbuilding context for a while, and it seemed particularly appropriate to tackle now that I’m newly married with a home of my own that I’m able to invite guests into. So let’s look at homes, hospitality, and how these things can be portrayed and approached in fictional worlds.

The Physical Home

The first step to shaping hospitality in a fictional setting is to determine what that setting actually looks like. What is the physical context for hospitality in this culture? So we first have to look at what homes look like in your world, and there are a lot of details that can go into this depending on what your culture values and what sorts of resources they have at their disposal.

To get started, consider whether homes in your culture are separate by household or if they’re more communal–like duplexes or apartment buildings. Cultures emphasizing family might be more inclined to build large but separate houses where extended families can live together, with some space from other families in the community; while a culture with more of an emphasis on external community or one without a lot of extra physical space might lean more toward apartments or some other form of communal housing.

Another question to ask would be: what is the focal point of a home? Does the home center around a living room or parlor for entertaining guests? The kitchen where food is prepared, or the dining room where people feast together? Maybe there are religious rooms or shrines within people’s houses that form the centerpiece of a home. Or perhaps houses are built around courtyards, greenhouses, or gardens where residents can appreciate growing things and the natural world despite their artificial walls. There are a lot of different options for this depending on the values of your culture–and its individual members; not all homes must look alike–and these differences can have an impact on hospitality.

You might also consider whether everything is inside the main house or if there are necessary outbuildings attached to a property. Perhaps bathrooms or kitchens are kept separate, whether for sanitation or safety–or even distaste for a job like cooking, viewing it as less-than. Maybe those residential shrines are given a separate building that’s considered holy, while the house itself is too common to contain such a thing.

Some other questions to consider:

  • How many rooms are common to a home? Is everything in one room? Is there perhaps a common room/hospitality room and a bedroom? Or are multiple bedrooms prioritized for the sake of hospitality?
  • What room(s) are guests expected to see and utilize? Are there living rooms/parlors? Are guests permitted in the kitchen? Is the dining room a place for hospitality, or are there multiple dining areas so that family meals can be kept separate? Are there special guest rooms, or are bedrooms used for whoever needs them at a given time?
  • How are residences heated and/or cooled? Are certain rooms prioritized over others?
  • How many floors does a residence generally have? And are these floors all residential or are there attached floors (or rooms) intended for business–e.g. apartments over top of a shop?

Work & the Home

That last question brings us to an entire point I want to touch on, and that is to consider the relationship between work and the home. In some cases, perhaps work is wholly separate from the home, kept outside of it, in which case this will be less of a consideration (though, in that case, you may need to consider work hours and how characters working outside of the home are expected to interact with and take care of their guests according to those hours).

In other cultures and contexts, however, it may be more appropriate to have characters who work from home–or have a business attached to their home. In this case, the question arises of how distinct the two do or don’t remain. Are there established areas of a house where business is to be done? Do your characters have home offices or whole shops attached to their homes? Are they literally attached, or are they on the same property yet separate?

Then, of course, there will be those who work in the home for the home’s sake, whether stay-at-home wives, maids, cooks, butlers, gardeners, etc. Which of these roles are appropriate will depend not only on what your culture values–a culture with complementarian values may foster more women who tend to their own homes and see fewer maids and the like, while a culture valuing more industry or individualism may require more supplements to a home with wives expected to work as much as their husbands–but also on your class system, the culture’s view on servitude and slavery, and even the general size of residences. After all, it takes a lot more work to clean a mansion than an apartment!

I’ve talked about developing the vocational structure of a culture before, so check out that post if you’d like to dive into that topic more and pair it with what we’re discussing here about homes and hospitality.

Expectations for Hospitality

Once you’ve laid the physical groundwork of housing, you can turn to the foundational expectations for hospitality in your culture. In some cultures, maybe there is no such expectation; maybe some cultures are too individualistic to value hospitality, or at least to value personal hospitality, and thus it’s considered weird or at least excessively friendly to have someone over for dinner or board them for a night.

In other cultures, however, perhaps it’s a sign of status to board guests on a regular basis. For example (according to a Tumblr post I read, so I don’t claim to know for certain that it’s fact), the wealthy owners of large homes were historically expected to use their spare rooms for the sake of hospitality, to board both friends and people of influence who were traveling.

Beyond your culture’s overall attitude toward hospitality, consider how this might differ based on class. Are the rich expected to extend hospitality because they have the means (e.g. using their myriad spare rooms to put up travelers)? Or are guests foisted upon the poor because it’s seen as a lesser task to serve foreigners? How does this impact the economy and living conditions for whoever is responsible for housing travelers?

Ask, too, whether characters are expected to know the people they board or if it’s considered normal to house strangers. This, too, may differ based on context. But in general, are guests taken based on familiarity, status, need, or simply because it’s the right thing to do and/or the means are there? In the case of hospitality being frequently extended to strangers, what consideration is given to security, if any?

Expectations not only apply to what characters are expected to do, but also what they are expected not to do. Are there circumstances under which one could turn away someone seeking hospitality–or simply not extend an offer in the first place–or is that considered highly rude? Are there reasons considered inappropriate for turning someone away? Perhaps one can never refuse a family member wishing to visit or, as a means of curbing prejudice, it’s never permissible to turn someone away on the grounds of their belonging to a particular group. Perhaps it is permissible to turn someone away for bringing a pet–or perhaps that’s considered too petty a reason (no pun intended) to refuse hospitality.

These expectations can also differ depending on the duration of a stay. Perhaps it’s uncouth to turn away a friend with a dog if they’re only staying a night, but if their stay lasts more than a week it becomes permissible to ask them to leave. Perhaps a family member can’t be refused a visit of 12 hours or fewer, but if they overstay that welcome there’s no recourse. Perhaps it depends on the closeness of a relationship, the status of the guest, or the time at which they’re asked to leave. Perhaps you can turn someone away after a certain number of hours, but asking someone to leave after ten p.m. is considered rude as they then have to find lodging elsewhere in the night.

There are a lot of options when it comes to expectations and etiquette, so play around with it and see what works for your culture and your story. Have fun with it!

Communal Areas & Broader Hospitality

Personal residences aren’t the only place where hospitality can be extended. Let’s zoom out for a moment and consider how hospitality may work on a more town- or city-wide basis. First, your towns will presumably have areas that are open to the public: markets, courtyards, parks, gardens, etc. Are these areas welcoming to foreigners, or is this a culture that keeps to itself and is cold to visitors? The overall attitude of your culture toward outsiders will be reflected in these public areas.

Even if your culture doesn’t generally like visitors, however, it may have establishments specifically for the sake of hospitality–if only to keep foreigners separate from its own people. Taverns may be more hospitable to outsiders, inns might be established for the sake of giving visitors somewhere to sleep, campsites may be clearly established and marked, etc. Of course, a culture that isn’t fond of outsiders–or simply values profit more–may hike its prices for those visiting. In which case, consider the effect on personal hospitality; are more individuals called upon to board known visitors because they’re expected be more fair in their prices? Are there more welcoming individuals who open their homes voluntarily to grant visitors a cheaper option? Do these individuals have the means to open something like their own competing inn?

Hospitality may also be shown in workplace environments, though this will greatly depend on what sort of culture you’re building. In Calligraphy Guild, one of the characters doesn’t have a place of her own and is thus housed by the guild in a spare room of their guildhall. The community surrounding one’s work is highly valued in Virilia, leading to solutions for those who are lacking in housing or anything else. There may be similar arrangements within workplaces in your culture, or other characters in a similar culture to Virilia’s might instead join other coworkers as roommates in their own homes.

Long-Term Hospitality

As one last point, I want to talk about long-term hospitality–situations like that of rooming together, fostering or adopting, way-stations and halfway houses for those still finding ways to provide for themselves, etc.

First, think about what problems your culture does or doesn’t have that would lead to these needs. Is there a lot of parent death or abandonment, or a system that removes children from abuse in a culture where that’s common? Are there high crime rates handled with an eye for rehab and reintegration into society? Is there a shortage of residences, or are housing prices exorbitant?

For each issue, your culture’s attitude toward it and solutions for it will shape which of these long-term establishments are found in that society. For a society that doesn’t see these issues or doesn’t care, maybe street urchins are common and have to band together to fend for themselves, or criminals often relapse or even die in the streets, or there’s a high homeless population due to simple poverty. On the other hand, maybe your culture is aware of these issues and has constructed orphanages, boarding schools, halfway houses (which may be simple residences or may be more like ranches to work on, monasteries to learn in, workshops to craft from, etc.), boarding houses, boarder matching systems so it’s easier to find a roommate, etc.

As you can see, there are a lot of considerations and a lot of options when it comes to thinking about hospitality in a fictional culture, and I think it’s a pretty fun topic to look at. But I want to hear from you. What do you find most interesting or exciting about this topic? What intimidates you about it? Is hospitality something you’d thought about incorporating into your world, or was this a new consideration for you? Comment below!

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