fictional people referencing pop culture?

Has it become a thing, as they say, to reference popular culture within one’s own fiction?  I know some authors do it, and do it well (Jim Butcher being a prime example — Harry Dresden’s fondness for all things Star Wars is well-known to readers), and I have also seen a few instances of it being done… not so well, and I wonder how common a practice it actually is.

Sometimes such references add verisimilitude to a story:  the characters live in the same world as the reader (or one very much like it), so of course they’ll know the same movies and television shows and books and music (must not forget the music!) as we do.  At other times, those pop-culture references have the opposite effect, jarring the reader (well, me, anyway — I have no idea how other readers react to it) out of the story, as if suddenly the author had appeared to take over from the characters and point out that this is, after all, just a work of fiction.

What if the pop-culture reference is rather obscure?  Does it hurt the story to have it there?  Help it?  Have no effect whatsoever?

Here’s a real example:  The protagonist in a more-or-less contemporary fantasy novel is traveling with a friend.  A song comes on the car’s radio, a jazz tune titled “Caravan,” by Winton Marsalis.  If the reader knows (perhaps from having done an internet search) that the very next song after it on the album it’s from is titled “April in Paris,” and that, the reader may know from having read previous novels in the same series, has some relevance to where the two characters are going… Does not having that information have any effect on whether the reader enjoys the novel, or understands that scene?

Here’s a made-up example:  A character in a near-future sci-fi novel is given the nickname “Felix” by a friend of his because he has some trait in common with the character by that name in one of John Steakley’s stories.  (Take your pick — it isn’t as if Steakley used that name only once.)  Now, perhaps not many people who read that near-future sci-fi novel know who the “real” Felix is.  Does that matter?  Does the reason for the nickname need to be explained?

Actually, the made-up example is closer to home, so to speak.  There’s a character in one story I’m working on who was given a nickname by a friend of his.  He’s not called by that nickname very often, and it doesn’t affect the plot in any way, but… I dunno.  Maybe I just feel like I ought to pay homage to my sources of inspiration.*  It’s something that could be left out, and I frequently consider doing so — possibly because I don’t want anyone tracking it back to its source.  (Why did so much fiction in the 1980s have to be so goddamn campy?  Even the stuff that was supposed to be frightening or suspenseful… *shakes head*)  Too many weirdos out there who believe I got a few of my own ideas from thinking about this actually means I stole everything from this source, and I get justifiably paranoid about that sometimes.

(*There are clues/explanations of sorts in my poem “Nonlinear.”  And in the never-to-be-used story snippet which I titled “Once Upon a Time in Utah.,” and in my blog post titled “Fear, shown actual size.”  I usually go incoherent/nonverbal when I try to discuss this, so you’re on your own.)

Anyway.  If any of my myriad blog followers (yeah, that’s still a joke) happen to have an opinion about characters in fiction referring other works of fiction, I’d like to hear those opinions.

About Thomas Weaver

For several years, I’ve been putting my uncanny knack for grammar and punctuation, along with an eclectic mental collection of facts, to good use as a Wielder of the Red Pen of Doom (editor). I'm physically disabled, and I currently live with my smugly good-looking twin Paul, who writes military science fiction and refuses to talk about his military service because he can’t. Sometimes Paul and I collaborate on stories, and sometimes I just edit whatever he writes. It's worked out rather well so far. My list of non-writing-related jobs from the past includes librarian, art model, high school teacher, science lab gofer… Although I have no spouse or offspring to tell you about, I do have eight cats. I currently spend my time blogging, reading, editing, and fending off cats who like my desk better than my twin’s.
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3 Responses to fictional people referencing pop culture?

  1. Drew Llew says:

    Hmmm interesting question. I quite like the idea of the in-joke or theme as a reward for regular followers (your caravan example) provided it does not detract from the enjoyment of new readers. In other art forms this is done. Apparently many animated movies include reference to A113 as a nod to other animators. If a reference is effective, adds value and progresses the story, I’m good with it. Just don’t be trying to demonstrate your vastly superior music/art/film knowledge by making your audience head to Google to understand your point.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I honestly have no idea if the “April in Paris” thing pointing back to an earlier story was intentional on the part of that author, or if he just wrote it in because he liked jazz music. It COULD have been intentional “information overload” (the use of THAT phrase being a deliberate pun on MY part, because, y’know, it supposedly equals “Pattern recognition” *weird grin*), but maybe not.

      I understand exactly what you mean, though, about not throwing in geek trivia for the sake of showing off one’s own superior geek-ness. I read a story not long ago that was, although pretty good overall, annoying in its frequent references to fiction by other people (especially since the characters making those references then EXPLAINED them to other characters). I was pulled out of the story for a moment, which is not good.

      Perhaps the best reason to be careful with pop-culture references, though, is that it can really date a story in ways that the author doesn’t want.


  2. svrtnsse says:

    I like trying to put in little pop-culture references in my stories, but I’m also really scared of it. I don’t want to make it too obvious or too easy to detect. My stories are set in a different world, but which has many cultural, technological and political similarities to our own.
    Pop music and movies and such are very real things to the average citizen, but they’re different movies and different songs.
    The times I’ve had to come up with songs I’ve used titles that are phrases from the lyrics to songs I like and the artists name would be that of a member in the band or something like that. It’s all very far fetched and I don’t expect anyone to really get it – but I’m worried what would happen if someone did get it. I’m pretty certain it’d break the immersion for them.

    Liked by 1 person

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