PSA: Using references in your fiction.
We all do it. Because we all love other things and want to let people know about it. So when writing [fan]fiction it’s tempting to slip in little references to those things. What’s important to remember is that there’s a right way and a wrong way to do this.
To explain, I want to take a bit of a detour to provide some context:
In high school (and before), I remember in English class that whenever we had to write an essay, it was always stressed (beaten into us with a mallet, really) that we MUST use at least X sources and we MUST cite them correctly or else it’s plagiarism and that is a major no-no. And if you don’t believe me, here are 14 copies of the school’s ZERO TOLERANCE ACADEMIC INTEGRITY POLICY. ಠ_ಠ
But nobody ever explained why it was important to have sources in the first place. Can’t I just speak for myself and let my own ideas stand on their own? Then I wouldn’t need to use citations at all!
The problem was that the pedagogy was being lost in the rhetoric: our teachers were too caught up in making sure we understood that plagiarism is bad, they missed the point of teaching us to use sources in the first place.
It wasn’t until my freshman year at university that I had an English teacher who actually got the point across. In his words you want to “own” the other person’s words. Make them yours and provide a citation because their work lends credence to yours. In short: no, you cannot speak for yourself—your ideas cannot stand on their own. Such a simple concept but it took that long to find someone capable of conveying it to me. After I learned that I wrote some essays I was honestly proud of and I credit that professor with being a major inspiration in my life.
So what’s this have to do with making references in your [fan]fiction?
Everything. It does nothing for your own work to simply quote your favorite tv show or movie or to allude to the events of someone else’s story. If you’re simply throwing in a line to make people say “I see what you did there” or to say “hey! I read/watched X too! look how cool I am!” then you’re doing your own work a disservice by including something that serves no purpose. You also imply that for lack of any creative efforts of your own, you’re just filling it in with someone else’s work.
You’re also insulting the source material by doing nothing with it. If you really want to pay homage to your favorite media, then use it! Have something to say about it or inspire your readers to think critically about what’s being alluded to. Own it!
~Your friendly neighborhood reader/writer/reviewer,