We are building a religion. We are making a brand/We’re the only ones to turn to when your castles turn to sand
~ Cake “Building a Religion”
For one thing, you have a central theme to work from with a religion. A sun god will have sun-centric tenets and symbolism, for example. Obviously, you have to add more twists and texture to that to make it interesting, but you have a skeleton to hang that meat off of.
Not so with pop culture, because it runs the whole gamut of genres and media, with wildly divergent themes. You don’t have a starting point, you just have to put it together piecemeal. So it’s no wonder that most works, even expansive ones, usually limit themselves to one or two shows within the show.
Some of these are shining examples by themselves; Watchmen had the Tales of the Black Freighter comic, pages of which served as a back-up story to the main series and uses it to draw parallels to the story in addition to showing some insight into the culture the characters live in base don the entertainment they consume.
More interesting to me, however, is when a work takes idea and applies it to world building. In The Simpsons, we don’t get to see that yes, there is a show called The Itchy and Scratchy Show (itself a segment of The Krusty The Clown Show the same way The Simpsons was part of The Tracy Ullman Show), but we see characters wearing the merchandise, meet the talents behind them (in universe) and visit Itchy and Scratchy Land. We here the characters discuss it and see their various reactions to it.
It is an element that helps make The Simpsons more true to life (to the extent that they’re meant to be).
And I think it’s a shame that more shows don’t do that. Especially in modern day settings, the best most works muster are references to actual pop culture, which serves the same purpose, but will also date them terribly in the future. As much as I love Castle, the title character talking about twitter is going to sound like nonsense in ten years.
The worst case scenario is a blank void; all billboards and ads are mysteriously blank (or just missing a brand name, completely defeating the purpose), or we get what TVTropes.org calls Bland Name Products. BNP is what happens when a writer or whoever is in charge of filling out all the ads and labels in a shot can’t be assed to come up with either a parody name or one that sounds like a real product.
You can spot these by labels that just say a name amid colorful swirls, or a characters ‘favorite show’, which even if named will a) not be shown, or b) show up in a far shot so all the audience sees are vague, moving figures. You will never learn what’s so good about the product or interesting about the show.
I would call this lazy, but to be honest, not every show wants or needs world building. Buffy the Vampire Slayer had enough in-universe lore that it’s really asking too much to learn more about, say Xander’s favorite band or Willow’s favorite show. Adding more would just bog down the show with clutter in a series that already cluttered itself more and more as seasons went on.
So I’ll admit it’s not necessary. However, I do appreciate it when a show displays a bit of world building and internal continuity.
Because of this, I did a lot of work designing pop culture items in The Descendants. There is a folder on my computer right now dedicated to these, from lists of band names (including their genre, and gimmicks) to plot synopsis of every single television show, comic and movie described in the series from Volume 2 onward.
Part of this is because I feel just having a favorite show isn’t enough for making a character realistic. Most people don’t just say ‘yup, that’s me fave’ and go on about their lives. They talk about the show, about the characters and plot lines and what they think will happen next. Bigger fans will know trivia and discuss behind-the-scenes events. Merchandise wouldn’t just be a picture and a logo, it references fan-favorite moments.
And I can’t reflect any of this if I don’t know these things.
Now, I’m not saying I obsessively map out everything about these works, but whenever I create a reference, I do add the name and a blurb to the file, plus any bright ideas that come with it. Then later characters will refer to these and in writing the scene, I’ll add more, which of course, goes into the file. Except for Malady Place and Imago, which I’ve started writing, they’re all generated very organically.
The Descendants issue ‘The Gremlin and the Game’ was a special challenge for me because of this approach. Up until that point, I had a very small stable of items: Malady Place, Imago, Taskforce: Earth, Deathgate, Ladies of Armageddon, and SB and the Fountain of Soul to name them off the top of my head. The problem was, tGatG took place at a convention, which had to be absolutely stuffed with them.
What ended up in the story was about a quarter of the stuff I actually developed for it and I’m still seeding the world with the fruits of that session of brainstorming.
And what will I use them for? Well the fans have spoken and I’m now obligated to write an episode of Cooking With Awesome, for one. For another, I’m fairly certain that an issue will put some characters on the set of Live Metal. We’ll probably see Warrick and JC (among others) in some Deep Immersion Gaming sessions of the pirates game, and even with the anime series, I can see Juniper having some sort of daydream incorporating them. If nothing else, they’ll show up in conversations and in set dressing, hopefully adding some texture to the world.
As for other writers looking for some take-away from this article, all I can tell you is that this is something that works for me and that I’m pretty proud of. So next time you have a character watching TV, or reading a book, consider taking a little time to flesh out just a few details about it. You might get a lot more out of it than you think.