Doing References Right

You’ve probably seen yesterday’s riff about things that can go wrong with dropping references. But they’re such a useful tool that they shouldn’t be dismissed outright, so how do you do it right?

I’ll start with humor, since that’s where I see most of my references, and that’s where it’s easiest to go sour. The biggest problem I see with referential humor is when people are making it extremely obvious that the humor is indeed A Joke. At that point the reference becomes potentially divisive; if you’re not in the know, all it does is emphasize your out-group-ness. (In games, this can also happen with a standard reference when everyone else gets it. I was in one of those games once; GM had a scene in which we met with the individual who was serving as that world’s god, and when one of the party members attacked him, he turned different components of that person’s gear into waffles. Funny on its own, but when asked why, he explained that a fellow a few universes over had managed to nearly take out a foe with a soggy waffle, and he found it amusing. This was a reference to an earlier incident in my game, one all the players except one had been present for. That one was less than amused.) The key here is to make the reference more subtle, glancing; to make understanding it not necessary, but amusing.

Then there’s the borrowing character concepts. In moderation, particularly among newbies, I’m actually all for drawing inspiration from existing characters; I myself have NPCs whose influencing factors include Captain Ahab, Calvin and Hobbes, various anime characters (mostly antagonists), a PC played by one of my cousins…. there’s a lot for me to draw from. But none of them are a direct clone; you have to look carefully to see the similarities. That, I think, is what people who want to draw from an existing character need to do; take a few features from said character, then blend them into a concept of their own. So you might have one character’s appearance but a different personality, or an item reminiscent of another, or another’s favorite quote—but the character as a whole is a concept in his or her own right. For instance, the character based on the cousin’s old PC borrowed his name and bits of his prankish nature and toted a curtain rod, reference to an OOC prop use that had become an IC joke in the original game.

Oftentimes, I’ve seen people explain concepts by using references as shorthand. You have a character who’s wearing the costume of such and such character from such and such show, you get a series summed up as an older story with a similar plot, “with [whatever makes it different]”, or something ends up riding on symbolism borrowed from something else entirely. This is one of those ones where “know your audience” is exceedingly important; if the group just plain doesn’t get it, or comes to the wrong conclusion, then the reference is only making things worse. So make sure they know what you’re talking about, or at least find a way to provide visuals if it’s a visual image.

Another thing to be careful of is the interpretations of your references. Just because you view a reference in a certain way doesn’t mean everyone else is going to; one person’s pop culture role model is another’s sworn enemy, and crossing connotations can be dangerous work. It’s a good idea to make sure you’re operating from parallel views when utilizing a reference, as this can happen easily. So think about the other possible connotations of the work you build from, and make sure that your reference appeals to as many people as possible while not tripping over said connotations.

Keep these tips in mind, and you too can slip your refs seamlessly into a game, story, or similar medium. Have fun!

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