Well, it’s been a while since I last wrote about the 1990s. So, I thought that I’d take another look at 1990s-style storytelling today. This is partly because I read a novel set in the 1990s recently and partly because I’ve been thinking about this topic slightly more than usual.
Although I wrote some short stories set in mid-late 1990s Britain and made a “time travel” comic set in early-mid 1990s California last year (and wrote two short stories set in mid-1990s America earlier this year – which can be read here and here), the 1990s is a notoriously difficult decade to tell any kind of stories about. This is, in part, because it’s still a relatively recent decade – so, there’s marginally less popular history and nostalgia about it out there for writers and comic makers to draw on.
So, how can you tell stories set in the 1990s?
1) Early or late 90s?: Generally speaking, the “type” of 1990s setting you want to use depends a lot on which part of the decade your story is set in.
This also varies somewhat from country to country too, but I don’t have time to go into the subtleties of this too much here (and I’ll just be focusing on Britain and America – since I’m British [and grew up in the 1990s/early-mid 2000s] and because I’ve watched a fair number of movies and TV shows from 1990s America).
But, for the early-mid 1990s (especially in America), try to make everything a little bit more “retro”. After all, the 1980s had finished a few years earlier and a lot of trends from that time were still lingering around during the early-mid 1990s.
However, since the decade was starting to come into it’s own, these trends were a bit more subtle, gloomy and understated than in the 80s. So, if you’re including an early-mid 1990s setting, go for a somewhat more “understated”/”gloomy” version of the 1980s.
For the mid-late 1990s (especially in Britain), make everything a bit more “modern”, but in an understated way. For example, compared to the late 1980s/early 1990s, mid-late 1990s fashions were even gloomier and more understated/generic – but also very recognisable as “modern” too.
The main difference between mid-late 1990s settings and the present day is probably the technology. So, just include a few VHS tapes, CD-ROMs, CRT televisions/computer monitors and maybe some very basic “small” mobile phones and your setting will instantly be more “late 90s”.
But, regardless of which part of the 90s your story or comic is set in, try to make your 1990s location designs fairly “ordinary”. After all, buildings don’t change that much over the years. However, if you want to include some more stylised 1990s-style interior design in your comic or novel, go for things like geometric patterns, gloomy lighting, more bookshelves etc… Kind of like in this stylised mid-late 1990s-style painting of mine from last year:
2) Tell an “ordinary” story: The 1990s is in that weird twilight zone between “retro” and “recent”. As such, it can sometimes be a good idea to make your story fairly “ordinary” (with relatively little “90s nostalgia”) if you’re trying to tell a more dramatic or serious story.
A good example of this can be found in a modern thriller novel (published in 2016, but set in 1996) that I read recently called “Night School” by Lee Child. If it wasn’t for a few references to the Millennium Bug and the fall of the Berlin Wall, then the story could almost be set in the present day. In fact, I got about halfway through the novel before I even noticed that none of the characters were using mobile phones. So, yes, just telling an “ordinary” story (with a few subtle differences) can be a good way to tell a story set in the 90s.
The thing to remember when telling a “serious” story set in the 1990s is that, to the characters, the setting is just ‘ordinary’. It’s just the ordinary, mundane, everyday world. And, aside from a few technological, social and political changes, it isn’t that different from the modern world. So, just try to tell an ordinary modern story with a few subtle changes to the technology, politics, trends etc…
3) Culture and politics: I’ve talked about this before but, in general (more so in Britain than America), the 1990s was also a little bit more of a laid-back and cheerful decade than the present day.
In America, this often manifested itself as a sense of optimism about the future. After all, the Cold War was over and 9/11 hadn’t happened yet – so, the future actually looked fairly bright. Seriously, even the cynical punk music and stand-up comedy of the time often sounds joyously innocent compared to the present day. So, try to reflect this in any stories, comics etc.. set in 1990s America.
In Britain, this often manifested itself in a much more hedonistic way. So, if you’re setting your story or comic in 1990s Britain, don’t do the typical “1990s American TV show” thing of making all of your main characters teetotal, celibate, non-smoking, salad-eating gym members! If you don’t believe me on this point, just watch a few classic ’90s sitcoms like “Absolutely Fabulous“, “Spaced“, “Men Behaving Badly” or “Bottom“.
Likewise, politics in the 1990s were a bit less polarised than modern politics. So, if you’re including politics in your 90s-style story or comic, then try to be a bit more subtle and nuanced about it.
Remember, you are writing about a world where things like Twitter thankfully didn’t exist. You are writing about a world where strong political opinions – of all kinds – were more likely to be laughed at than taken seriously. You are writing about a world where politicians, on both the left and the right, at least tried to appear more moderate. You are writing about a world where it was more ok to be “liberal about this, but conservative about that” etc… In short, you are writing about a very different age to our current one.
Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂