Monday, 5 November 2012

Stealing Good Ideas Is Okay

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. 

If you found this post useful please give it a retweet or leave a comment, or both.


Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Take a part and not the whole - check!

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Oh, and Mal was a much better scoundrel.

Michael Offutt, Tebow Cult Initiate said...

For what it's worth, those Cinderella make overs are worth some major money in the bank. I think most people think that's all that matters.

mooderino said...


@Michael-True, sadly.

Gail said...

Good advice.

Rachelle Ayala said...

Good one, Moody. how about those Twilight make overs or all the Fifty Shades ones?

Anyways I think it's more fun to be original than to take another plot and tweak. I wonder what that mirror would show about me?

Botanist said...

When I read the part about the mirror, my mind immediately leaped to Jack Sparrow's compass in Pirates of the Caribbean! Don't know if one idea was lifted from the other, or both from somewhere else entirely?

Elle Carter Neal said...

When I get swept away in another author's story, I always try to go back later and analyse what it was that affected me so much, and then I play with those nuggets. In Robin Hobb's Farseer Trilogy, I loved the concept of an enigmatic character viewed entirely through the eyes of the protagonist, complete with misunderstandings and utter bewilderment at times.


Elise Fallson said...

Always glad when I stop in. I'm working on a new project right now that requires a lot of world building and focus on underlying plot. I don't like blatant rip offs but I know no matter how hard I try, what ever I come up with, someone else has probably done something similar and quite possibly done it better.

mooderino said...


@Rachelle-I think ideas have to come from somewhere, but that isn't always a bad thing.

@Botanist-the heart's desire is a fairly old concept especially in fantasy.

@Elle-Moby Dick and Great Gatsby use a similar approach.

@Elise-always glad when you stop in, too.

Rachna Chhabria said...

I agree with Alex, take a part, a bit and give it an entire new twist.

mooderino said...

@Rachna-still doesn't make him right about Mal.

Anonymous said...

I'll Tweet to that and include a few hashtags too!

Hart Johnson said...

Definitely wouldn't spot Harry Potter, but I like how you've done it. I DID spon in Harry Potter that a boggart is much like Stephen King's shapeshifting monster in IT (until the thing stupidly takes form at the end)--taking the shape of an individual's greatest fear. I've also toyed with the situation of Sirius Black as a character for a real world setting (rebellious son fighting the racists his parents are part of...)

mooderino said...


@Hart-JKR is a good example of someone who takes stuff from all sorts of places. Hunger Games too.

Sylvia van Bruggen said...

This is awesome! I always think that if you take inspiration from someone else, you color it with your own life experience and perception. This way the inspiration is hardly recognizable anymore, because then it's become totally you.

mooderino said...

@Sylvia-I think that's true. People rarely see things the same way.

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