Holy Pop Culture Reference, Batman!

Let’s talk about pop culture reference in fiction. For the purposes of this article, I’m going to refer to romance, as it’s my genre. I will define pop culture references as any references to movies, t.v. shows, commercials, music, slang, current events & public figures, etc, that are happening or have happened during the generations of the target audience or reader. IMHO opinion, authors tend to handle PCR’s in one of three ways:

1) The entire story is inundated with them, and they are essential for mood and characterization. I’ll use J.R. Ward as an example of this method because most are familiar with her Black Dagger Brotherhood series. The characters are each developed with their own set of slang and references (i.e. how Lassiter likes Maury). I think it adds to the character development, because when a character exists in multiple books in the series, but isn’t necessarily the MC, it helps us identify that character’s voice without too much explanation.

2) Another way PCR’s are handled is much more subtle. Movies or t.v. shows, etc are referred to through quotes or jokes that the reader may only identify with if they are familiar with what is referenced. I think references like these enhance dialog and allow the characters to interact more realistically. Larissa Ione does really well with this. Reading her books was the first time I ever heard the term “made of awesome”. Now I say it all the time. 😉

For example, my husband and I, and a lot of our friends, prefer the same types of movies and t.v. shows, and often will pull out quotes from those in appropriate situations to get a laugh. We tend to lean towards sci-fi, fantasy, horror/zombie stuff, and techie comedies. You’ll often hear me throw out a “Where’s Carl??” at inappropriate moments (there’s one for you Walking Dead fans!). So these are the types of references I use in my novels.

Marduk, one of the characters in FIRE ON THE ISLAND, was only exposed to visual media much later in life, so he is fascinated by television and movies, and takes a lot of his dialog from such.

3) Lastly, the other way I’ve seen PCR’s handled is in a dry, narrative way, which I do not identify with personally. “Jane was listening to ___ song by _____.” “Billy sat down to watch a popular t.v. show.” These may seem like exaggerations, but I’ve actually read ones like them. In this case, the references don’t engage the reader or add to the character. They are just added as an ineffectual way to enhance the narrative.

Personally, I really enjoy pop culture references as a reader. It makes me feel like I’m in on the joke, so to speak. It helps me identify with the characters, especially when it’s a more obscure reference (the dorkier the better!) and I know exactly what they’re talking about. It makes it fun!

I’d love to hear everyone’s comments on Pop Culture in fiction. Do you like pop culture references? Who do you think does them well? Have you come across any examples of them being handled badly?

Until next time:

2 thoughts on “Holy Pop Culture Reference, Batman!”

  • I may have–or may not have used the occasional Star Wars line in a book or two. 🙂 Just don’t tell my husband, he’d never believe it.
    Jennifer Crusie uses tons of PCR’s in her writing. The book “Welcome to Temptation” is loaded with them. The main character quotes movies when she’s nervous, and she’s nervous a lot. The hero doesn’t watch movies or TV so he never gets the quotes.
    It’s truly funny.

  • Great post, JK, really thought-provoking. I’m afraid I’m on the fence regarding PCRs. When I write, I tend to slip them in. Not massively so, just as I would if I were talking with friends. When I edit, I tend to tone them down where I see fit (although not as extensively or clumsily as the third option you desribe) (I hope!). One, there’s always the thorny issue of copyright and I err on the side of caution. And two, I worry that these references will age, or will not apply in different cultures. To me, this is actually one of the biggest challenges and headaches at the end of the writing process. I am encouraged to see that people use PCRs freely; perhaps I shall be more adventorous.

Let me know what you think!

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