We just started another round of the Blog Chain, and I'm the second in line. Annie has this question for us:
Do you ever get inspired by a real-life event or news story and fear you're ripping off the story too much? Do you ever get inspired by a song or poem or line from a book and worry you're stealing that original person's idea? What if your research is overtaking your originality?
Given some of the prominent lawsuits involving plagiarism, I can see why Annie is concerned. After all, no one wants to be sentenced to wear 70's fashion the way George Harrison was after being found guilty of unconsciously "borrowing" from "He's So Fine" when he wrote "My Sweet Lord." (Here he is in "This Song," which was written in response to the lawsuit.)
On a serious note, you can't copyright an idea, only the expression of an idea. This means, for instance, that anyone can write about teenagers going to wizard school or falling in love with vampires, and Rowling and Meyer can't complain. However, if your characters are too similar to those in the Harry Potter or Twilight series, then that might be a problem. And if you lift lines from those books, expect to have one thrown at you. However, you can give an old story a new spin by telling it from a different character's perspective or using it in a new way. For instance, Wide Sargasso Sea tells the tale of Bertha, Mr. Rochester's mad wife in Jane Eyre. Jasper Fforde plays with the plot of Jane Eyre and many other famous books in his Thursday Next series. I've read several short stories that offer a new twist on classic fairy tales, and I own anthologies that feature SF/fantasy twists on Shakespeare or Sherlocke Holmes.
I've mentioned before on this blog that the Beatles have inspired my Season Lord and Paul Harrison books. In my Season Lord series, the Beatles inspired my quartet of young magical women, but Gwen, Jenna, Ysabel, and Kay have their own unique histories and attitudes. Things do become more tricky with my Paul Harrison stories. The prequel to Across Two Universes was called "Move Over Ms. L.," which is the title of a John Lennon solo song. I did quote some lines from the song in the early drafts, so if I'd ever gotten it published, I would have had to seek permission to use them, probably paying a hefty sum for the privilege. Ultimately, I chose to reword the lines to avoid that problem. I've also mentioned that the first drafts of ATU used real historical people (John Lennon, Yoko Ono, and Sean Lennon) as characters. Granted, they were in an alternate universe, so technically they weren't the same people in ours. I was worried about possible lawsuits, so I decided to change the names and some other identifying characteristics. (For instance, "Yoko" will now be Filipina instead of Japanese.) I think this change is for the better, as I have freedom to create my characters the way I want instead of being forced to use the real ones. Although I'm changing the details of John's death, I'm still using my research as a model for my fiction. Across Two Universes is a mix of several ideas, so even if quest stories, cloning, rock stars, and Hamlet aren't original, the combination is unique.
Annie said in her blog she was so worried about these questions that it inhibited her writing. My advice for her is to go ahead and give yourself the freedom to write without worrying if it's original. The more you write and hone your skills, the better you'll be at finding your own way of telling a story. Besides, stories may change so much from draft to draft that what started out as being about one thing may turn out to be something else instead.
That's all I have for now. Archy is up next, so head over to her blog for her unique ideas on this topic!