September 6, 2016

Pros & Cons: Referencing the Real World in Our Story

Carnival costume with text: Mixing Fiction & Reality

I’ve often mentioned that I appreciate questions from readers (even though I can’t answer them all, especially with my health issues this year). Every question gives me ideas for potential blog posts, and today I’d like to thank Lee Green for the idea for this post (and Julie Sade for encouraging me to write it). *smile*

I’ve run into the issue Lee mentions within my work as well, so I’m glad her question forced me to think deeper about the pros and cons. As with many things, we might answer one way at first glance but later discover a different angle that changes our opinion.

Lee asked:

“In a WIP, is it OK to have the lead female reading and maybe referring to a book written by a real life current author and naming that author, title of book and maybe a sentence from the book?”

That is a fantastic question that got my brain spinning in multiple directions. On the surface, it’s a question about copyright (and maybe the right to publicity), but deeper down, it’s a question about the relatability of our story and character. Let’s take a closer look…

Can We Reference the Real World in Our Story?

In the vast majority of cases, we can include real-world references in our stories. We can name real cities, landmarks, cars, clothes, stores, people, movies, books, etc.

However, naming a thing as an off-hand reference is different from including details about it. Once we include details, we’re opening ourselves to multiple issues.

A few examples of where we might run into trouble:

  • Copyright—Such as for Song Lyrics: Authors often want to include song lyrics in their books, but because songs are so short, it doesn’t take much to cross the line of fair use (which doesn’t have a clear line anyway). So it’s generally considered best to avoid song lyrics unless we receive permission from the copyright holder.
  • Defamation—Such as for Companies or People: If we include a reference to a real-world thing and then proceed to bad-mouth that thing, chances are someone’s not going to be happy. Imagine a scene where a car breaks down and we name the type of car, the car company could come after us for falsely contributing to a negative quality reputation. Ditto for including a scene with a bad experience at a real restaurant, with a real person, etc.
  • Right of Publicity—Such as for Celebrities: Related to the above issue, Scarlett Johansson famously won a lawsuit against a French author who wrote a book with a character who looked like her. She won on a claim of defamation (because the lookalike character had affairs) and not her second claim of a right to publicity (exploiting someone’s name or image without consent), but in general, avoiding even potential lawsuits is preferable. *smile*

For Lee’s specific situation, I suspect simply naming a living person, a recent book title, and a sentence from a book might be considered fair use as far as copyright (but don’t quote me on that—I’m not a lawyer). However, the other two potential problems would depend on context:

  • Does the character think positive or negative thoughts about the author and book?
  • Would the mention lead to a reader’s impression of the other author endorsing this story?

Add in the issue of trademark for many companies and products, and it’s easy to see why some publishers are leery of real-world references. Certain genres, such as chick-lit, have been known to wallow in product mentions, but it’s far more common for publishers to encourage their authors to avoid them unless they’re important to the story.

Much of the legal landscape surrounding these issues is unsettled as well. Like many, I include a disclaimer paragraph on the copyright page of my work, but they’re no guarantee of protection.

The global publishing industry creates other complications. Authors in U.S. courts have often been given a high benefit of the doubt in defamation cases (compared to say, the French courts where Scarlett Johansson won), so it’s hard to state definitively what our risks are.

From a perspective of minimizing risk,
avoid references without a purpose and
ensure the reference helps the story.

Should We Reference the Real World in Our Story?

That brings us to the second half of our decision path. Just because we can include a reference to the real world doesn’t mean we should. We should first step back and ask ourselves why we want to include a reference.

Some reasons, such as including a reference simply for voice, might come across as a “darling” we should later cut, depending on our genre. Other reasons have story-related justifications that might change our view of whether it should stay.

Does the Reference Help Readers Relate?

In many cases, the reference is meant to make the story or a character more relatable.

If our story is supposed to take place in the real world, a reference to a made-up big city (such as Gotham) will create a different reader impression than a reference to New York City. One will feel “not quite of this world” and the other will feel more tangibly real. Only we know which impression is best for our story.

Similarly, if we want to emphasize our character’s wealth, we might reference the specific names of their luxury cars or clothes. Talking about a hero’s Armani suit is a shorthand way of describing their style and income priorities. Product names can anchor the reader in the character’s life.

In some genres, those references or shortcut descriptions will feel at home, and in others, they would be seen as lazy writing. Again, only we know which approach is best for our story and genre.

Does the Reference Add Layers?

Another reason we might want to reference real-world things in our story is to create a meta moment. For example, a romance might mention the movie Pretty Woman during a similar plot moment.

Or as Julie Sade commented on Lee’s question:

“a zombie movie where the characters mention Night of the Living Dead or George Romero.”

Mentioning a movie or story with a similar theme, character, or situation can act as an homage or add layers to our story if done well. However, if not done well, the attempt can come off as cheesy or lazy writing.

Does the Reference Hurt the Story?

We also have to watch out for problems with references from a “should” perspective as well:

  • Will the reference date the story too much?
    Just as technology changes can date our stories (what? no cell phones?), so too can real-world references. Companies can go out of business or merge with others, etc.
    If we’re trying to make our character look trendy by mentioning current hot music bands, that reference will create the opposite impression two years from now. (I’m talking to you, YA and NA stories. *grin*)
  • Will our target audience understand the reference?
    This question is especially a problem when writing for younger ages. We might reference an actor, TV show, toy, etc., and a young adult reader might not have any idea of who or what we’re talking about.
    As Julie replied to me, we can easily assume that what we know, others will too. But even though Star Wars seems as mainstream as can be, some people have never seen the movies. Narrower references will only be more of a potential issue.
  • Will the reference pull readers out of the story?
    Some readers enjoy connecting to stories through the real world, and other readers don’t want reminders of the real world interrupting their escape into fiction. There’s no cut-and-dry advice for this issue, but we should consider both perspectives and decide what would make the most sense for our story.

For Lee’s situation, I suggested that referencing a specific book and author might be a bad idea for these reasons. Chances are—unless the book was a bestseller—many of her readers wouldn’t be familiar with the author or book, so some of those layers she wanted to create would fall flat. Or her readers might have come away with a very different impression of the book. In addition, the reference would date the story.

How Should We Reference the Real World?

All that said, we often do have reasons for including real-world references. Helping readers connect to our stories and characters or creating layers in our work can be good things. So how can we minimize the problems?

As I mentioned above, I’ve run into this issue in my work. I’ve referenced car companies, magazines, stores, cereals, TV shows/movies, etc. My developmental editor often flags them for me to ensure the reference makes sense for the story.

As I write romances with fantasy elements, my stories already have a strong “fairy tale” feel. Yet at the same time, they’re contemporary, set in the real world.

If I didn’t include any real-world references, the fantasy aspects might overwhelm the story, taking away any sense of connection to the real world in the series. Other authors might come to an opposite conclusion and avoid references that break the fairy tale feel. Only we know what balance we want for our story.

Even so, I often ask myself the following questions to see if the reference should be cut:

  • Does it fit the character? Is the reference something they would know and think about?
  • Do the specific reference details matter, or would it be better to summarize?
  • Does the context make the reference clear even if readers aren’t familiar with it?
  • Would it be better to show descriptions rather than tell with shortcuts?
  • Does including a reference fit with the tone and style of the story, or will it throw off the balance we want?
  • Will the reference date the story within 5-10 years? (Beyond that time period, technology will likely date our stories no matter what. *smile*)
  • Is there a reason to include the reference other than just trying to appear trendy or take a shortcut for description?
  • Does it add to a reader’s enjoyment, connection, or understanding of the story?

For example, in Treasured Claim, the heroine compares the hero’s morals to Lex Luthor’s. Yes, that’s a shortcut, but it also illustrates her character, specifically her quirky knowledge and gaps. Similarly, in Pure Sacrifice, the hero references a specific car model he finds amusing from his paranormal perspective.

Along other lines, in Ironclad Devotion, the heroine references a real-world biker organization (Bikers Against Child Abuse) that inspired my story and her whole character—so of course she’d belong to the group. In my upcoming Stone-Cold Heart, the heroine’s favorite movie leads to her epiphany for her relationship with the hero, and another movie reference foreshadows events—adding layers to the plot and character arc.

In short, I included the references because they meant something to the story and characters. I tried to avoid including references “just because.” Also, in each of those cases, I made sure I included enough context so readers who weren’t familiar with the reference would understand.

From a perspective of connecting to readers,
avoid references without meaning or context and
ensure the reference helps the story.

The Final Word…

There’s no right or wrong for every situation. Some references will fit our story, and some won’t. Some genres find grounding in references, and some should avoid them at all costs.

More importantly, by looking closer at why we want to include a reference, we’ll have a better idea of whether that’s the best way to accomplish our goals for the story and the character.

For example, in Lee’s case, she wanted to provide a vehicle for the hero to learn something about the heroine. Great! That’s a reason that matters to the story. However, is it the best way?

  • A reference might require so much explanation and context for readers that it’d be just as easy to make up details.
  • If a reference is important only for what’s learned as a result, it might be easier to skip ahead and summarize the knowledge learned without being specific at all.
  • (Or as Julie mentioned in her reply…) A change of scene that creates more action or conflict to reach the same story point might be better.

Whatever our goals, before including a reference to the real world, we should examine whether we can make the reference we want, as well as whether we should make the reference. We should also listen to feedback from our beta readers and editors to know when we’ve misstepped. And at all times, we should keep what’s best for our story in mind. *smile*

Do you enjoy seeing real-world references in stories you read? Does it depend, and if so, on what? Do you include them in your own work? What types of references have you included, and how did you make sure they worked for the story? Can you think of other issues we might have to watch out for?

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Comments — What do you think?

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David Olsen
David Olsen

Hmm. Now you put me in a quandary. My WIP is a paranormal story set in the San Bernardino mountains of southern California with real world references to stores and products. Do I keep all or delete most? Going to be busy rethinking this. Though I am leaning towards keeping about half, but a few can definitely go. Thanks for stimulating my brain cells, they need it.

Laurel Garver (@LaurelGarver)

You’ve covered well so many issues that can crop up when one wants to bring real-world details into our work. I got caught in a “gotcha” moment when I discovered a London train station where I set a major scene in my first novel had changed significantly in preparation for the 2012 Olympics–the scene could no longer happen as I wrote it. I decided the “easiest” thing was to undertake a revision to set the story in 2007, close to when I’d done my initial research trip.

When one writes contemporary fiction, this is a special danger. I find that taking a “recent historic” approach–close enough to feel familiar, but without the pressure to be up to the minute on every trend–is a bit less stress inducing. And so much of aughts culture (even weather) can be verified with Google searches.

Serena Yung
Serena Yung

It definitely depends. Some stories make a lot of references that I don’t get, and that feels alienating. On the other hand, some other books make nerdy references that I do get, which makes me quite happy because it feels like I know a lot. One book even referenced the Transformers and Pokemon, which was a mega delight to me since I adore those two fandoms!

So I think that references to the real world are a risk to take. You may make some readers feel disconnected or discouraged, but you may also make some other readers feel MORE connected to and pleased with your story!

Serena Yung
Serena Yung

Oh I forgot to mention that some recently published books referred to Frozen and Finding Dory. I was very happy when I saw these allusions!

Kerry Gans

The Percy Jackson books (and the other two Riordan series) are great examples of mixing real world with fantasy elements. I think they destroy one or two major historical landmarks per book, LOL!

In my own work, my first published short story, To Light and Guard, featured a Kinderglo Angel nightlight figure. I wanted to use the figure on the cover, so I obtained permission from the company for use.

One of my current WIPs is a historical that takes place in Philadelphia, so lots of real references to places and brands that were around in 1922 to help set the mood. But not too many–don’t want the kids wondering what I’m talking about!

Julie Glover

Such a great topic! Interestingly enough, my latest project includes a main character obsessed with musicals, so there are lots of references to those. But when I decided what musical her high school was performing, I made one up rather than deal with any copyright issues or attaching myself to one particular show. That way, I even got to write my own lyrics and quote them in the novel.

Laurel Garver (@LaurelGarver)

Love it! I ended up doing a similar work-around when dealing with song lyrics. I wanted the two characters to do “car karaoke” (though I don’t call it that), singing along to the duet “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart.” Instead of singing copyrighted lyrics, they make up their own on the fly that fit the original rhythm and rhyme scheme but better reflect their unique relationship than the right lyrics would have. Win/win.

Glynis Jolly

I like references in settings. They anchor me into the scenes. Other references, however, if not done well, will give me the impression that the story is a little more generic than I’d like it to be.

I use real-world locations in my stories, including street names, store names, and the such. Other than that, I change things at least a little.


[…] entangled in our fictional worlds—which can be great, or it can fall flat. Jami Gold discusses the pros and cons of referencing the real world in your story, and Sophie Masson explores using real-world places to inspire fictional […]

Clare O'Beara
Clare O'Beara

There is no copyright on titles, as they are deemed too short to be copyright.
Song lyrics and book quotes are a different matter and I advise only using out of copyright ones. For instance Disney copyrighted the names it gave to the Seven Dwarfs so if your school puts on a play about Snow White, you should use different names, or risk being sued.
Naming an item or brand should be done sparingly because nobody wants to read ads. If a character would be obsessed with brands and labels the names can come out in his/her words or thought processes. But as balance, other characters would not think of brand and may not even have heard of them.

Robin Bhan
Robin Bhan

what about referring a real-life crime case in a fiction novel?

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