How seasons affect your fictional world and its story
Mark it on your calendar: today we’re talking about seasons in worldbuilding.
Winter time comes with many traditions and holidays in our world. Take a moment and think about how seasons shape your fictional societies.
What seasons do they have? What's the climate like? And what activities do your characters partake in depending on the season? Is winter a time for reflection or a time for celebration?
Consider your fictional beings' physical bodies as well. For example, do they hibernate through the winter? How does this change politics and power in your world?
Maybe only the rich get to hibernate while the poor are forced to work through winter against their natural inclinations. Or maybe it's the opposite and those on top use the time when everyone else slumbers to secure their power.
Is it unusual for a particular season to happen, or is it always the same every year? Consider what kind of weather affects your peoples' health and physical development, and how you can use these conditions to your advantage. Consider seasonal conflicts or clashes, and how these could play out in your story.
Consider the seasons and their effects on your characters and the wider society.
First of all, is your year an even interval each time? Or does it have to play “catch up” by adding a leap day? In real life, the calendar you’re likely most used to throws in an extra day at the end of February every four years. This day has become associated with the “Sadie Hawkins” tradition wherein women can propose marriage to men. This, of course, originates in a time when harsher rules applied as to who was and wasn’t allowed to take the lead on these things.
But you can still find inspiration in an extra day that is associated with turning the rules upside down. There are other real-life calendars that utilize leap days and even leap months. Do these exist in your world? Are there special traditions associated with them?
For you sci-fi writers, remember that our year is how long it takes the Earth to do a lap around the sun. If your story takes place on another planet whose orbit may be different, what changes? It may be as simple as making your fictional year longer or shorter, but that’s assuming your planet exists in isolation.
What if your planet is in regular contact with other worlds that all have different years? Is there a standard that they all must follow for general communication? It’s like scheduling a meeting across many different time zones, but worse.
If your worldbuilding is for a planet (or a group of planets), it all relies on the sun. Or suns. Does your story take place in a binary star system or across multiple solar systems? Keep that in mind.
However, what if your story doesn’t take place on a planet at all? If your worldbuilding is for a lone spaceship, wandering the cosmos, the concepts of years and seasons and maybe even a daily schedule doesn’t really apply. In such an artificial environment, everything is a construct. Consider how that affects your characters’ day-to-day life.
Do they wake up to the lighting in their quarters imitating a sunrise? Maybe they’re at a disadvantage because their circadian rhythms have yet to evolve to catch up while their coworkers are all mole people who don’t need no stinkin’ sun.
The point is, if the day/night cycle is based on the sun and the months are based on the moon, one early worldbuilding factor to consider is what your sun and moon are.
Consider years in your world. Is a year even your classic measure of time? For example, Tolkien’s elves used a unit of 144 years to be their main measure of “a bunch of time.” They use it the way we use a single year. It makes sense for them because they live a lot longer than we lowly humans do. So consider what your character needs to measure. Maybe a year isn’t relevant and they should use a different base for measuring time.
Once you’ve figured out your “big unit of time”, your year or whatever is equivalent for your world, let’s have a look at the seasons.
As on Earth, most places experience four seasons; two extremes and the transitions between them. But some places have only two seasons; hot and cold, rainy and dry, dark and light. The nature of your world determines how people experience living in it, what they must prioritize for survival, and perhaps even how they relate to concepts of their world. Many real and fictional cultures have their pantheon and mythology based on that last point.
Is winter a harsh harbinger of death or a fierce protector? Does rain elicit a “meh, that’s gloomy,” an “oh no, we’ll die in a monsoon,” or a “thank goodness, we’re saved from thirst and despair!” That depends primarily on your climate, but affects everything from seasonal festivals to the harvest to mythology to language. You’d be hard pressed to find a desert-based culture using “rainy day” to mean something negative.
Another interesting real-life example here is that of earthquakes. Of course, those are not seasonal nor based on atmospherics, but bear with me. In ancient Greece, there arose the myth of the minotaur, a terrifying monster trapped in a labyrinth underground. When he butted against the walls of his confines, the earth would shake, leading to terror and destruction in the city overtop.
In ancient Polynesia, there were tales of the goddess Pele. Pele’s domain was fire, lightning, and volcanoes. She was impulsive and destructive, yet still a creative force. Sure, Pele started trouble with her sister and got into fights with… okay, everybody. But she also caused the islands of Polynesia to develop and grow.
So how come in Greece, when the ground shakes, it’s a monster, but in Polynesia, it’s a goddess with complicated issues? Because in Greece, the earthquakes were purely destructive. Buildings collapsed, people died, everything was a tragedy. It makes sense to personify that with a monstrous force. But in Polynesia, when a volcano erupts, it eventually brings about renewal. The erupting lava nourishes the earth and allows plants to flourish. Destruction is followed by rebirth.
Therefore, in your world, when nature does its thing, do people find that to be something good, bad, or a mix of both? Figuring out your seasons opens the door to worldbuilding for culture, gods/goddesses, mythology, holiday traditions, and language.
And remember, this is just for the evolution of one culture. What happens when you have different cultures interacting?
In Terry Pratchett’s Discworld, there are multiple calendars in use. This makes sense, because the settings range from urban to rural and daily practices range from ancient to high-tech. Multiple societies need multiple ways of navigating the seasons, especially those who work the land or cast nature magic.
This gets as complex as a 64-part zodiac used for documenting the (individually named) centuries and as simple as time in the small farming town of Lancre where people don’t have use for time measures shorter than an hour.
Not only are there diverse ways of measuring time, but diverse intensities in engaging with it. The scientific wizards at Unseen University and the witches in the Ramtops have completely different views of the passing seasons. The wizards study and lounge through the school year while the witches live and work in the natural world. It’s all based on what the characters engage with in day-to-day life.
Scribe Forge encourages you to ask what your characters actually need out of the world they live in. That determines what they need to know, which in turn tells you what systems will be in play.
That said, once you’ve built those realistic reasons for how and why your characters engage with their seasons and months, there is still lots of room for creativity. Consider Ursula K Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness. True to the theme of everything being relative and basically artificial, the Hainish calendar takes the tactic of saying “this is now, so just count backwards or forwards from here to get to where in the past or future you want to imply.”
A little odd to us, perhaps, but if your MC is awakened by a lamp every 24 hours to run a spaceship with their mole-person colleague, maybe there are a lot more arbitrary constructs going around than we think.
For more worldbuilding help, including detailed worksheets, check out the Essential Worldbuilding Blueprint and Workbook.