John Smith Goes to the Movies, and Other Pop Culture References.

English: McDonalds' sign in Harlem.

One of the reasons I am so happily rooted in the idea of medieval-style fantasy is that outside of a small list of universally known guidelines, I make the rules.  Sure, that means that when Jessica in Fate gets hungry, she can’t swing by McDonalds and grab a quick McDouble, but also puts me at ease – referencing name brands and labels, and items of pop culture can be tricky in writing.  From what I understand, there are a few ways to go about it.

1.) Tactfully
Writing a piece set in modern times, it’s difficult not to thrown your own opinion out there in your writing that will negatively affect the way your readers perceive your work.  If John Smith goes to the movies and muses, “Gee, that Breaking Dawn film makes Harry Potter look like a little girl’s movie!” then chances are you’re going to aggravate any of your readers that are also Potter fans.

2.) Timelessly
Too much pop culture in a piece of fiction can lead to a dissociation for later generations.  Every time a chain company goes out of business, shazaam!, suddenly any mention of that company makes your book feel outdated.  The only possible exception to this that I can think of is the Piggy Wiggly (a grocery store chain) because I’m pretty sure everyone who hears of it just assumes it’s in a different part of the country.  Same thing goes for recording artists, actors, and athletes – they may be spotlight now, but in twenty years, chances are nobody will have ever heard of them.  Honestly, a lot of people don’t even know who Jim Morrison was, anymore.

Star wars me3.) Carefully
Believe it or not, there are a lot of rules that go with the use of pop culture in writing.  A favorite that I see is song lyrics.  A common misconception is that you can use as much as you like.  Nope!  Those words belong to the recording artist, and not to you.  Additionally you cannot just make Artemis Fowl pop up in your book and solve a magically crime for you.  That, known as fan-fiction, is considered non-publishable material, because that character is copy-written.  Which makes me wonder a bit about all those Star Wars books that are lying about out there – I guess George Lucas really doesn’t mind.

That said, I love reading books where I see something I recognize, and I feel like the author and I have a little secret together, as though anyone in the world who has not seen Beetlejuice or who doesn’t wear Converse All-Stars will be left in the dark.  Use of pop culture in books set in modern times is an excellent way to build a bridge to the reader, as long as your story does not because reliant on these details.

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5 thoughts on “John Smith Goes to the Movies, and Other Pop Culture References.

  1. To my knowledge, the expanded universe Star Wars books are, while not canon, written under an amount of officiality (which should be a word, dangit).

    For some reason, pop culture references even in modern books see to “date” them in a way; how they’re used, typically just in passing, makes it feel more like the author’s trying rather than doing.

    1. As I was writing this blog post, I was having a difficult time coming up with examples of references being used non-objectionally, and all I was coming up with were things like “iPod”. I think that the best of writers tend to use a general noun as opposed to a proper one.

      1. And they allow for imagination, so when the author says “fast food restaurant” the reader can think “Yes! Taco Bell! I love tacos!” as opposed to “Pfft. McDonalds burgers suck.

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