To Pop or Not: Pop Culture References

I have a writing dilemma I want to share with you, my blog readers, and a question for you at the end. You didn’t know there would be a test, did you? 🙂

In my WIP, the main character is a bit of a nerd, and she has a snarky sense of humor. The same is true of some of the other characters she interacts with. As is usual when people who share interests and experiences get together, they often talk in shorthand, using references to their common experiences to represent ideas they don’t have to explain in detail. This means that there are a lot of pop culture references and nerdy science ideas tossed around in my story. Here are some examples (all from early in the book, so these aren’t significant spoilers):

  • Kay (my narrator) is unhappy with her tendency to avoid challenges, choosing to escape rather than face trouble. She thinks to herself, “I could be the lamest Doctor Who companion: The Girl Who Runs Away a Lot.”
  • When Naia, another character, sees Kay’s beloved ’76 Gremlin, she says, “You came in that thing? You’re braver than I thought.” Kay glares at her to acknowledge the joke.
  • When someone brings up magic, Chass, the scientist of the group, says, “Magic, or whatever. Any sufficiently advanced technology.” Then he goes on with his discussion of the topic at hand.

These three examples show different ways to use pop culture references, and may not all be equally successful.

  • The first one explicitly mentions Doctor Who, which will almost certainly be recognized by anyone who reads fantasy as a BBC science fiction/fantasy TV show. It goes on to say that she’s labeling herself as a lame companion and clearly describes why. Even those who’ve never seen the show will have no trouble understanding what she is thinking.
  • The second is a bit more subtle. It explicitly labels Naia’s statement as a joke, and its meaning should be pretty clear even for those who don’t recognize it as a Star Wars quote (said by Princess Leia the first time she saw Han Solo’s space ship, the Millennium Falcon).
  • The third one is subtler still. Chass’s statement about “Any sufficiently advanced technology” is a reference to the third and most famous of Arthur C. Clarke’s Three Laws: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” It seems to me that this reference has a pretty high probability of being recognized by someone from the general public (though I may be wrong about that), but it’s placement is subtle in that it’s not explicitly labeled in any way as a joke or an intertextual reference. Someone who is not familiar with Clarke’s law or who simply doesn’t recognize it in this context might simply be confused by what Chass said. That would be a failure of my writing.

I find myself dancing on this fine line a lot. I want my characters to express themselves the way I and my nerdy friends do, which includes nearly constant references to familiar ideas in nerd culture. However, I don’t want to leave behind those who don’t happen to have the same set of references, and I don’t want to be shrill or annoying in how often I bring these ideas up. This is where my critique group can be both a help and a trap. Everyone in the group writes some form of science fiction or fantasy, so they are the audience that will most appreciate these kinds of references (in fact, in my most recent review with the group one member pointed out a missed opportunity to throw in a Dungeons and Dragons reference, which I gleefully added). On the other hand, if I ladle it on too thick for other readers I’m not sure this group will spot that. For now, my decision is to keep these references in but try to make sure that people who don’t catch them will still understand what’s happening and how people are responding. It’s always easier to cut out this kind of thing than to add it later.

Now for the test: Did you get these references before I explained them? Do you think this kind of reference enhances the things you read, or not? Do you use pop culture references like these in your work, and if so how do you make sure they are successful?

Answer any or all questions. Please show your work. 🙂