by Keith Morrison
©2007 Keith Morrison
It was a brilliant idea, really. It struck you in the middle of the night, making you sit bolt upright at the pure genius of it, so striking, so original, that unlike so many things that your brain comes up with when you sleep you dont forget it in the morning. Thats how breathtakingly awesome the idea was. You dont even have to write it down to remember it: it sits there, in your brain, percolating and metastasizing into a monster of a great idea. My word, when you write it down publishers will be fighting each other to publish it! People will proclaim your greatness! They wont bother to wait for the scheduled time to hand out the Pulitzers, the Nebulas, the Hugos, theyll just give it to you right now because obviously nothing better will come along to match your work. Hell, theyre even thinking of making a special ruling that you cant win them again next year because your story would clearly have no competition again, its just So. Damn. Good.
Smiling to yourself at the magnitude of pure fictional magnificence you are about to unleash, you decide to chill a bit by reading a book. And then reading some more, the smile becoming a frown. You glance at the cover. No youve never read it before, never seen a discussion of it. The frown becomes a teeth-grinding grimace as you realize in abject horror that this writer asshole stole your idea by publishing it three years before you thought of it. Bastard!
It happens to everyone who writes. I bring it up because it happened to me just the other day. I had a great idea, actually started writing out the character descriptions, thinking about the background, knowing that some things in it bore a resemblance to fiction that was already out there but I was prepared for it, already having a scene where characters lampshaded that what they were doing was like out of a TV show. Nothing too close, so I was okay. And after Id spent a few days doing this, just before a business trip, I bought and downloaded some ebooks to read on the plane. I settled into my seat, turned on my PDA, and had the realization of horror that I described in the second paragraph. Damn you John Ringo, damn you to hell!
The resemblances were uncanny: The MacGuffin of the setting caused by a particle research experiment gone awry. Members of the military who were science fiction fans being at a premium to deal with this. Travel to other worlds through gates caused by the accident.
At first glance, were my outline next to Ringos, theyd look like near copies. On the other hand, the differences do start piling up fast once you get into the details, and once you got further into the fiction it would be quite clear that despite the surface similarities the two are different stories going in different directions. The initial coincidental details were just that, coincidental.
Well, perhaps not entirely. Not based on my copying him (as Id never heard of the novel before I browsed around and decided to try it), but more on convergent evolution. I needed gates to somewhere else, I needed for them not to be natural, and I needed for them (at least initially) not to be intentional. Okay, so theyre an accident. What kind of accident would do it? Something with particle physics, given the weirdness existing at that level of theory, would do nicely. I cant speak for what Ringo was thinking, obviously, but I suspect it went along the same lines. In other words, we needed roughly the same thing and came to roughly the same rationale.
The point of this is the old writers (and readers, and reviewers) rule: There are no new ideas. If you write it down, odds are someone else did it first somewhere else. Trying to be totally original is a fools game; its inevitable that someone will be able to point out similarities to an existing work that may be entirely coincidentalas in my exampleor may have influenced you subconsciously. An example of the latter is Larry Niven having it pointed out to him that Ringworld is almost The Wizard of Oz in an SF setting.
And you know what? Theres nothing wrong with that.
Its a tradition as old as writing. Noahs Ark is a retelling of the older Sumerian legend of Utnapishtim from the Epic of Gilgamesh. The Roman gods were blatant carbon copies (with some smudging) of the Greeks, who themselves picked up stories of older gods and incorporated them into their own myths and legends. Theres a good possibility Christianity picked up aspects of the Mithras cult, aside from all the other bits and pieces that were adopted in, Islam incorporated older Arabic mythological elements, and so on and so forth.
In modern times there are deliberate retellings of the same story, or stories obviously inspired by something else. Just off the top of my head (and these are only a very few examples):
|The Wizard of Oz
|Wicked, Tin Man
|Last Man Standing, A Fistful of Dollars, Lucky Number Slevin
|The Magnificent Seven, Samurai 7, The Three Amigos, Battle Beyond the Stars, A Bugs Life, etc and so on
|Too many TV episodes and movies to list
|The Dracula Tapes, pick a vampire movie
At this point I have to stop and point out the obvious fact of how influential Kurosawa has been. Not just in direct remakes and stories, but in plot elements. Seven Samurai, for instance, was one of the first films to have the recruiting of heroes to deal with a problem which as been a recurring element in not only the remakes and parodies of the film but in other films like Oceans 11 and every roleplaying game ever made.
Then, of course, you get some of the other, perhaps less homage to or remake of than outright copy with the serial numbers filed off. Yes, Im looking at you, Eragon, a.k.a. Star Wars with dragons and a Mary Sue protagonist.
The point Im making is that just because its been done before doesnt automatically make a new version illegitimate. Oh, sure, if you get too close to looking like you photocopied the original script and changed a few names people may point out the similarities and call you a hack (*cough*ChristopherPaolini*cough*), but that in itself doesnt mean that your story is automatically bad.
Like everything else, context is everything. Similarities dont necessarily mean that its the same story. A ragtag group of people fighting an evil government, in space can cover everything from Star Wars to Battlestar Galactica to Blakes 7 to Firefly.
So dont be afraid of writing and using an element thats been used before (or having a similarity pointed out after the fact). Everyone does it. Everyone has done it, and everyone will do it.
Of course, it still has to be good