Required Reading and the Worldbuilder

One thing that just about everyone seems to gripe about with regards to their own schooling is required reading. There’s just something about a body of literature that people are expected to go through that makes them not want to get anywhere near it. But books aren’t the only thing this happens with, just the main thing that the school enforces: we also seem to have cultural required viewing for popular movies, and required playing within the video gamer subculture, and probably a number of other things depending on what sorts of people you hang out with. Every culture carries expectations that you’ve looked into a certain body of its creative/academical work. Heck, as far as I can tell every branch of the military has a required reading list, none of which is 100% about military strategy (I can guarantee you the Marines and the Navy, anyway).

We-as-worldbuilders can use this. Not only does it further characterize our societies, but it also allows us to distinguish between subcultures by showing where one declares one piece the larger society requires ‘optional’ but insists on another that the larger society ignores.

How do we express it, though? It’s not just occasionally dropping names or describing the title and author of something found on one’s bookshelf, though that rarely hurts. It’s also realizing just how much this sort of thing permeates day to day life. For instance:

  • Slang and jargon. Did you know that the term robot was derived from a word for drudgery found in a number of Slavic languages by the brother of the science fiction writer who originally popularized it? (Then there are the writers who rather deliberately reference other writers this way: one of Robert Asprin’s Phule books referenced a robot’s “Asimov circuits”, presumably the ones that enforced the Three Laws, and a short story I wrote for class not long after my first encounter with The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress included the term “Mycroft threshold” for the point at which the computer’s connections reach critical mass and it gains sentience.) Have you ever referenced Big Brother or talked about something as a Catch-22? Discussed kissing a lot of frogs to find a prince? Check it out—it’s the cultural reading list talking.
  • Analogy. From what I’ve seen in the real world, this one’s more common with fictional works than with nonfictional, presumably because people are more enthusiastic about identifying with characters than with abstract situations. I’ve had sociology professors explain things in terms of The Matrix (an awkward situation for me, since my closest encounter with that movie before that point had been a philosophy book I’d read while prospying at Pomona), have spent more time than I care to think of hanging around other role-players who put things in terms of shows and movies I’ve never seen and video games I’ve never played, and had a character who at one point was ready to summarize a situation in terms of an epic poem that hadn’t even existed until I was looking for an analogy to use.
  • Direct reference. Sometimes, it’s all in the quote. The armchair general quotes the famous strategist, the member of a cause quotes one of the books that set the cause’s adherents off (or quotes someone the cause is opposed to; nobody ever said that because a book was mainstream meant that everyone agreed with it)… they’re all over the place. People who have a higher authority of any sort often love getting use out of it—as far as they’re concerned, it makes them right.
  • In-jokes. With more obscure media, this is likely to be used as a way for members of sub-cultures to recognize each other. In other cases, it might be a way for someone who’s in other senses an outsider to reinforce points of connection. And of course, there are the times when the objective is to, well, make a joke. (One of my biology professors once based a sequence of genetics problems around the odds of a certain match producing a serial-numbers-removed Geico gecko, with genes for coloration and accent. Connection? Reducing tension? Both? I never found out.)

So what are your characters supposed to read or listen to? Who expects it of them? And how does it show through in the culture?

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