For about as long as humans have had any sort of community, we’ve had the concept of marriage. What it means has changed greatly throughout the ages, but the basic idea of people bonding for the rest of their lives has endured. It’s so ingrained in our collective mind that it almost has to be inherited from our ancestors, a “civilized” response to some innate need. But it’s also one of the more ritualized parts of our society, and that has also endured throughout history.
In fiction, however, marriage serves a different purpose. It’s often an event, a set piece, an excuse to move the story along. It can be a time for great upheaval (e.g., the Red Wedding of Game of Thrones), and that’s fine, because the real thing is, too. Just in a different way, hopefully.
For exotic or alien cultures, however, the process of marriage itself can lead to an interesting story arc. From romance and courting to the arranged marriages popularly shown in medieval fantasy, the possibilities for drama are easy to see. Yet the worldbuilding aspects are just as important for marriage in unfamiliar or nonexistent locales. Marriage, like so many other things, is inherently tied to a culture. By making a fictitious culture’s marital wrappings different, unusual, you make that culture unique.
Popping the question
We’re all pretty familiar with the “common” Western marriage. Two people (a man and a woman historically, but it can be just about any two adults nowadays) who love each other decide to get married, for whatever reason. This may follow a lengthy period of dating and engagement, or it can be a spur-of-the-moment thing. One way or another, though, they take the plunge.
There’s some bureaucratic paperwork to fill out, since we live in a society where these things are regulated. Then, the bulk of the work is in planning the wedding. That ceremony can be religious or secular, and it can range from a simple, perfunctory proclamation by a justice of the peace all the way to a lavish church ceremony with hundreds in attendance.
However it works, the core of the wedding is, effectively, a contract. In theory, it’s a binding oath on both participants, a formalization of what biologists call pair bonding. Once this contract is confirmed—the “I do” part—the two are, for all intents and purposes, married.
But it doesn’t end there. Many cultures have ritualized the hours that come after the initial bonding. Most of the scenes we see of dramatic weddings, such as throwing rice, have some significance that has been lost to time. But all of it meant something at some point. The reception, the honeymoon, the “first night”—everything had a meaning, even if it doesn’t anymore.
Answering the questions
Marriage, as we understand it, is built on assumptions. In non-Western or non-modern cultures, some of those assumptions are invalid. So, by changing some of them, we can create a distinct “flavor” for the concept of marriage and its concrete aspects. You merely need to know which assumptions you can work with.
Who gets married?
Until very, very recently, most of the US defined marriage as between exactly one man and exactly one women. The fallout of dissolving that definition is still playing out as we speak, but it doesn’t matter much for our purposes. That’s because, for the vast majority of human history, the formal pair bonding that is marriage has been between men and women. It’s the little details that have changed.
Monogamy is our “default” for marriage: a person can have a single spouse. It’s codified into law in most places, and it’s a cornerstone of the Christian tradition. But that’s an assumption that doesn’t have to hold. A few societies in the past have embraced multiple spouses; this is traditionally called polygamy, though the more general term polyamory is appropriate when you’re talking about something other than “one man, multiple wives”. Polygamous sects exist today, but they’re in the minority, and the practice is usually highly stigmatized, if not outright illegal.
In a polygamous society, marriage might be less of a spectacle, simply because it’s more common. For the “lesser” side (the one where there can be many spouses), it may not hold the same glamour that it does for us monogamists. A hierarchy would develop on the “many” side—usually the wives—where some would have more prestige than the others. And, of course, this sort of culture readily accepts the less-savory aspects of marriage.
Besides “how many”, the other assumption we can challenge is “who”. Same-sex marriage gets all the limelight today; it’s as simple as changing “man and woman” to “adults”. But there can be other restrictions on who can marry. If, as gay-marriage opponents profess, the whole purpose is procreation, then are seniors allowed to marry? What about impotent men and infertile women? If sex is the reason for marriage, then are people with STDs condemned to the single life forever? (This last one is not an academic question, especially in Renaissance times.)
And then there are the related questions of age and, well, relation. Our modern age of consent of 18 is a bit on the high side, historically speaking, but most jurisdictions don’t use it as the minimum for marriage. However, “minimum” is just that. Not everyone will get married the minute they come of age, whatever that age really is. Historians can point to data showing that “commoners” in centuries past tended to get married in their early to mid twenties, just like today. To counter that, we have stories of children wedding, but those cases were not the norm, and they were arranged specifically for political or financial reasons, as we’ll see below.
Blood relation (consanguinity, to use the technical term) is another factor. Everyone’s related in some way, if you go back far enough, but it’s only the really close ones that bother people. Broadly speaking, the size of the community will help determine which degrees of relation are acceptable, but other reasoning, such as the need to keep a “pure” bloodline, also come into play. Marriage between first cousins is acceptable in some places, taboo in others, while closer relatives are generally forbidden everywhere. In older days, the bar could be set higher, banning second or even third cousins. This naturally presented a problem among the medieval and later nobility, who became so intertwined that it was nearly impossible to find someone who fit the consanguinity criteria.
Why are they getting married?
Today, we expect people to marry for love or companionship. Historically, that wasn’t always the case. Marriage is intimately associated with inheritance, so when inheritances grow to be very large, it stands to reason that some would want to influence them. Arranged marriages are a common feature of many cultures in many times. Typically, it’s the parents who make those decisions, and the children are expected to follow along out of filial duty. (When they don’t, there’s sure to be drama.)
Other arrangements can also work. In smaller societies, it could be a tribal or village elder who does the matchmaking, or possibly a cabal of the older members of the community. Religious leaders work, too, if the society leans that way. In a fantasy setting, it could even be fate, magic, or the gods.
A looser sort of arranged marriage can happen in clannish cultures. This ties in a bit with consanguinity, in that the arrangement is “no one in our clan”, and clans are arranged along family lines. Depending on the specifics, this can be a little more open than a fully-arranged pairing, in that the matchmakers only operate at a “higher” level. In other words, you’ll marry someone from that clan, but you can pick who it is.
And then there are the forced marriages. Our modern sensibilities associate this with repressive societies, with slavery and barbarism. But then there seems to be a growing subculture devoted to fantasizing about non-consensual relationships, so there you go. In my opinion, it’s hard to disconnect the idea of a forced marriage from rape and plunder, but it’s also closely tied to polygamous cultures. That makes sense, if you think about it. Why force yourself to be forever stuck with someone who likely hates you?
How does it work?
How these people—whoever they are and however they got together—actually get married is the big question. Wedding ceremonies may be the second oldest and second most important of any human festivity. (Funerals are almost certainly first.) I’ll admit that I haven’t studied every culture in the world, but I’ve never heard of one that didn’t do something special for marriage.
Designing a fictional wedding is a massive undertaking. (I do know this one from experience.) The best guides here are the necessities of the story and a few sociological factors that appear to be mostly universal. The ceremony is supposed to be the symbolic joining of two (or more) people in matrimony. Even if marriage isn’t religious in nature—and it probably is, given what history shows us—symbolism will be rampant.
We talk of “tying the knot”, and that’s basically a symbol for the pair bond of marriage. We throw rice as a symbol of fertility and prosperity. The bridal veil, the white dress? Symbols of purity and chastity. Throwing the bouquet is symbolic as a passing of the torch of womanhood. The groom carrying his bride across the threshold symbolizes the support he’s expected to provide as the head of the new family, as well as the threshold itself directly referencing the “new life” the couple has begun.
For worldbuilding purposes, that’s what you’re looking for. You probably won’t want to copy the Western features directly, as they evolved from our peculiar set of circumstances. But the things they symbolize are the things our ancestors considered most important in a marital union. Figure out what your invented culture values most, then find ways to represent those values in the wedding itself.
And finally, since you’re writing a story, remember not to write yourself into a corner. You might need a reason for the prospective spouses to back out at the last minute: “Speak now, or forever hold your peace.” And then there’s the question of what happens after the wedding. But that, as they say, is another story.