While there’s nothing new under the sun, somethings are blatant rip-offs. And although it's perfectly possible to successfully repeat an established character or familiar story concept, those successes are fairly rare (not that it stops people trying).
The problem is most people steal the wrong bit of a story. The superficial, obvious stuff isn’t what makes a story work, it’s just the easiest to copy.
It’s Cinderella, but she’s a vampire who has to leave the Prince’s Ball before dawn...
I see a lot of that sort of cosmetic change. Cinderella is an android, it’s Princess Charming, it’s set in Nazi Germany... I could do you a hundred variations.
The plot's already written, people are comfortable with the familiar and plenty of other writers get away with it, so why not you?
And that’s perfectly fine. If you’re happy working at that level, I certainly have no issue with it. But there is a way to take what you find engaging about a story and make it your own.
Take Star Wars as an example. Sure, turning out to be a Jedi is cool for Luke, but that born to be king set up has never impressed me. Han Solo, on the other hand, too cool for school. But he’s a criminal so why is he so loved? I think because even though he doesn’t play by the rules, he takes on far superior opponents.
If we’re having a race, and you’re in a car and I’m on a bike, people are going to be rooting for me. Even if I cheat, you’ll be treated like you deserved to lose. But Han Solo will not only take that race, he’ll sit on his bike and let you and your Ferarri have a head start. There’s something very appealing about that.
That idea of the confident underdog is probably not how other people would see that character. But once I have it in my head, anywhere I take it won’t feel like a Star Wars knock-off.
Or Harry Potter. Kids and magic and boarding school, those are the things most fan writers focus on. This leads to a school for druids, a college for witches, etc. But if you narrow your focus and choose a specific moment, that can inspire you far more than the overall idea. Anything in a favourite story that makes you feel something or sticks in your mind.
In my case, I find the idea of the Mirror of Erised interesting. It shows you the thing you desire the most, and dead parents are obviously emotionally compelling (although in a world where ghosts exist and often stop to chat, the impact is a little lessened). But the thing I find compelling is the idea of having a definitive answer to the question of what we want most, because in most cases people don’t really know. And having no doubts about what you want can give you a whole new way of looking at things.
If I take that idea and run with it what I end up with is a President who is shown a computer that can work out from choices inputted the likely outcome. Meant for the battlefield it can also predict more mundane things. When the President inputs silly suggestions, assassinating opponents, lying to force through legislation, banning media outlets, the predicted outcome is a utopian America. Heinous acts would lead to a paradise on earth...
Now, I’m not saying that’s a good idea for a story, what I’m saying is if I told you that’s what my story’s about, would you go, “Harry Potter, right?”
The trick is to take that bit you like and start ascribing reasons and motivations that have no basis in fact. My view of what the mirror represents probably isn’t JK Rowlings’s. And that’s a good thing.
1. Narrow your focus.
2. Look at it through your own filter.
3. Create a premise.
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