3 Ways Numbers Can Enhance Fictional Cultures

I’m terrible at math. But I love numbers. It might have to do with growing up in a society that values them so much. Counting is an essential principle in school. We keep track of dollars and cents, days and years, months and centuries. A simple system of ten possible digits (0-9) is able to be sorted and mixed and calculated and computed into a seemingly infinite number of ways.

Impressive, considering that writers in English get to play around with 26 letters and a whole lot more vowel and consonant possibilities!

So, on the eve of NaNoWriMo (where 50,000 is the number of choice), October 31 (Halloween and also the ‘birthday’ of the Protestant Reformation), and the time change from Daylight Savings Time to Standard Time, here are some fun facts about numbers and ways to incorporate them into your writing:

1.) Lucky and unlucky numbers. A lot of cultures have their own particular numbers that they consider significant or fortuitous. Chinese culture, for example, favors the number 8 so much that the opening ceremony of the Summer Olympics in Beijing began on 8/8/08 at 8 seconds and 8 minutes past 8 pm local time. In the United States, there is the idea of “lucky number seven.” Some years ago, Psychology Today offered seven more or less serious thoughts about this, which you are free to take with a boatload of salt. But the idea of attaching significance to numbers remains. For world and culture builders, what numbers are important in your realm?

2.) Significant ages. 6 means kindergarten. 16 signals a driving permit for many teenagers. 18 is graduation, 21 is the legal drinking age in America, and 25-27 is the less auspicious ages of being able to rent a car. From then on? We go by round decades: 30. 40. 50. And so on. Many of these numbers have significance because they are attached to important ideals or limitations. Others, such as 40 or 50, seem more arbitrary (why not 41 or 51?) What are the significant ages for your characters? If you’re writing realistic fiction, many stories orient around characters facing certain milestones. If you’re writing speculative fiction? Feel free to make up your own significant milestones!

3.) Time keeping. Time measurement varies by culture to culture, and even person to person. A lot of humor is mined out of sticking a time-conscious character with a character who seems to operate in their own temporal universe. Playing with this balance can be a great way to add tension to any kind of fiction. For speculative fiction? How about making up your own time system? Granted, it might take the readers a little longer to get with the program, but it’s a neat way to add a sense of otherness and difference to your story. Maybe you could even pass on the  “time zone switching” that we have in over 70 countries on earth–or else make it more arbitrary, having some locations follow a time switch, and others opt out (like Arizona, which never switches, or Brazil, where only 10 states out of 26 observe Daylight Savings Time-more cool facts here).

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Thanks for taking the time to read this post! Can you think of any other ways numbers can enhance fiction writing? Please comment below! 🙂

(For more helpful culture tips? Check out my eBook, Culture-Building From the Inside Out, Available this week for only 99 cents! Or try some free worksheets here–scroll to bottom).

5 thoughts on “3 Ways Numbers Can Enhance Fictional Cultures

  1. Ahh, this is fun! 😀 A significant age in my Kraesinia is 15, when young people become adults (complete with driving, drinking, and all the associated privileges of adulthood). But it’s not *really* 15 by Earth standards, because years in Kraesinia are as long as a year and a half on earth – so a Kraesinion comes of age at roughly the equivalent of 20 in Earth years. Their days are the same length, but they divide up the time differently – 20 “on hours” (divided into 4 hour chunks) and 4 “off hours” in the middle of the night where all businesses are definitely closed and disturbing the peace of the night is deeply frowned upon. Time systems are fun to play with. 🙂 Thanks for some more ideas!!

  2. Numbers. In my current world, I have the numbers of years it takes to become a guardian. The currency and how 5 pieces of dlaqui equal one jatu. But I think what’s been given me the most trouble is figuring out the proper numbers for the army of each nation. I hadn’t thought about the superstitions of certain numbers. That’s a good one. Time keeping I’ve researched a lot, but it’s been challenging, since my world is based on our world’s technology advancement of the 14th-15th century.

    1. Thanks for joining the conversation! Ahh, that’s a tricky time period to deal with! Often superstitions come out of religions or association. For example, the Chinese believe the number 4 is unlucky, because it’s a near-homophone for their word for ‘death.’ Another idea would be a historic battle that was lost during a certain year so the numbers of that year are unlucky or the numbers of that date are unlucky. Or if they won the battle, lucky?

  3. This is really interesting! I hadn’t thought about this. I’m also not a fan of math. Another interesting about numbers if the Japanese believe the number four is a cursed number and it signifies death.

    storitorigrace.blogspot.com

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