Being a Better Writer: Is It Original or Copying?

So, you’ve just finished your first manuscript. You’re excited, maybe even a little ecstatic, because at long last, you’ve finished the darn thing! You pass it off to someone to read, probably a friend or family member, and then they say a phrase that strikes terror down on your heart.

“Oh,” they say, staring at your work. “I get it. This is like The Lord of the Rings, isn’t it?”

It doesn’t have to be The Lord of the Rings. Nor do the words they speak need to be “Oh, it’s like this.” They might say “This reminds me of the stuff from Star Wars.” Or start talking about the similarities between your work and another author they read recently.

Regardless, you’re probably hearing and thinking only one thing: That this person is saying your work isn’t your own at all, but someone else’s. And now the panic is starting to set in. Maybe they’re right. Maybe your work is nothing more than a cheap rewrite of someone else’s. How could you not see it before? After all, your main character is an orphan boy who is taken to a strange place to learn magic, and that’s totally the plot of Harry Potter! You’re a fraud! All your work has been for nothing!

Or has it? Maybe it’s time to take a deep breath, let it out, and cool those racing thoughts. After all, your story does star a young orphan who lives with his aunt and uncle who’s about to be taken away to a strange place to learn magic. That was Harry Potter, right? Wait, no … That was Star Wars … Hang on a moment; who are you copying again?

This is the conundrum that a lot of young writers (and even older, more experienced ones) can often find themselves in. There’s nothing more disheartening than handing your work over to someone you know, a work that you’ve spent hours upon hours carefully crafting and developing, only to be told in return that it was “a lot like insert-media-of-choice-here.” And usually, especially for a young author, that’s a hard bit of feedback to swallow. We were building something that was our own. To be so casually compared to something else stings.

But the truth is, it probably shouldn’t. Or, at least, not as much as it does. Because usually, what’s going on in the writer’s head and what’s going on in the reader’s head are two different things. The reader might say “This reminds me of Star Wars,” but the writer doesn’t hear that. Instead, what the writer hears “You’ve ripped off Star Wars.”

But this wasn’t what was said at all. Usually, when someone makes a comment like this, what they’re really saying is something like this: “Star Wars is good. Lots of space Science-Fiction action and spaceships and the force and stuff. This also had space, and in reading it I felt a bit like I did when enjoying Star Wars. Thus, this writing of yours was like Star Wars because it had similar stuff—space and spaceships—and I got a similar vibe out of it.”

But of course, the writer doesn’t hear this. They’re too busy panicking and hastily compiling a mental list of all the things they need to change so that they’re no longer “copying” Star Wars, when in fact there was never any copying to begin with.

Look, I’ll be blunt. If someone is reading your stuff and feels like you’re outright copying or retelling another, more popular story, they’re most likely going to tell you in clear simple words. None of this “reminds me of.” They’re probably going to look at you and say “This was just a rewrite of insert-X-story-here.” Either way, there’s nothing preventing you from asking “In what way?” and getting a little more detail on how exactly your work does or doesn’t resemble someone else’s.

But even if it does a little bit, should you really be worried?

Today’s topic, original or copying, is an interesting one, and one that comes by way of request. A lot of young writers, especially those who are just getting started, have a well-placed fear of being told that their work is an expy of someone else’s. After all, we’re supposed to be creating original content, right? Something completely new?

Well … yes and no. As it turns out, the real answer is a little more complicated than that. Which is why I led today with the example I did. Not only is it a case of something that will happen to you as soon as you put your work out there, it was also a case of showing that sometimes when we’re told how our work resembles another it may, in fact, not be something we should be worried about.

Hence the question of which work was being “copied,” Harry Potter or Star Wars. Because both of them have a similar premise, that of an orphan boy being taken away from his aunt and uncle to learn magic (aka the force) and embarking on an adventure in a larger world. You’ve got an ancient evil to defeat, a rag-tag group of friends (the slightly roguish scoundrel, the woman who starts out slightly stuck up but relaxes a bit after getting rescued) … the list goes on.

But does that mean that Harry Potter is nothing more than a copy of Star Wars? Of course not! No more than it means that your own work is a copy of either of them.

Now, obviously, you could make your own work a copy of them. Make your book about an orphan boy who lives with a horrid aunt and uncle before going to a school to learn about magic and then make his name David Planter, and you’re on the right track to rewriting a story we’ve all read before.

But even then, you might not be. And this is where the whole question of copy or original comes into play. What if David Planter, our primary character, uses the magic of alchemy? What if the ancient big bad isn’t someone that he’s destined to face, but rather the calling of another that David gets shoved into when the weaves of fate go haywire? What if his aunt and uncle are horrible to him not because they hate him, but because David is just a genuinely crappy teen and an unstable narrator who needs to come to grips with himself before he can really aspire to anything greater, and the aunt and uncle are trying to get him to see it?

Is this still a copy of Harry Potter, or is this a story going in completely new directions? I’d argue it’s the latter. But all the same, if you hand this book to someone who is familiar with J.K. Rowling’s work and primarily familiar with it, that person is, especially if the book is well-written, tell you that it reminded them of Harry Potter. And that’s not a bad thing.

Alright, we’re tackling a lot of overlapping concepts here all at once, so I’m going to step outside of our narrative structure at this point so I can tackle them one at a time. First of all, and I want to stress this point, just because two works are similar does not mean that one is a copy of the other. Once again, this goes back to the idea of the meta-myth, the lone hero story that has been told and passed down from generation to generation. Standing closely with the logic that just because something is a trope doesn’t mean that it’s bad to use it, there are elements of storytelling that are, when distilled or simplified, are always going to sound similar to one another. Because they’re following the tenants of a story, following designs that have been part of storytelling for years.

Your character is an orphan? I’ve seen this used as a slight before, and not because it’s a way for an author to avoid the character interactions of parents, but because it’s a cliché. But let’s be honest for a moment: How many other options are there? We’ve got main character has parents … and oh, yeah. Doesn’t have a parent or parents.

Same with “The young boy goes on an adventure.” So you want a middle-aged man? Old man? Dead man (seen it done)? Are you complaining about the gender? Well, you’ve got male, and you’ve got female. Take your pick. Age is kind of a constant too, and it’s much harder to have an older, more established character go on an adventure—not that it’s impossible by any stretch, but it’s easier to explain the world and establish a character arc with a younger, more blank-slate character.

The point is, if you want to tell a story, there are going to be elements of similarity to other stories no matter what. You simply cannot extricate all of them, no matter how hard you try. Nor should you. These are elements of storytelling that work, that’s why they’re still around. A good way to think about it is to take a spin on the old adage of it’s crazy and it works, then it’s not crazy. If it’s old, but it works, then it works for a reason, and you shouldn’t stop using it because it’s old.

Now, with this in mind, quickly I’d like to tackle another adage that gets tossed around quite frequently by young writers (or advice givers): that there is “nothing new under the sun.”

Bull.

You heard me. I call bull. Complete and utter nonsense. The arrogance of that statement, the ridiculous of its assertion … Well, it makes about as much sense as when the US Patent Office almost closed in the early 1900s citing that ‘everything that could be invented has been invented.’

There will always be new stories. Not in vast, overarching scope, but in the worlds and details we create. Those who argue otherwise—that there is nothing new at all, so don’t worry about it—are shortsighted, simplifying the stories they read so heavily as to miss all detail and uniqueness. Look around at some of the books you’ve read lately, look at some of the works that gave come out recently, and ask yourself how many people have told stories like this before. Sanderson’s Allomantic magics, where the users consume and then “burn” different metals in their guts to produce magic. McClellan’s powder mages, who snort gunpowder like cocaine to gain gunpowder inspired magic and control over explosions. Novik’s alternate history novels where the Napoleonic wars are fought with air forces alongside the ground troops—and that air force happens to be sapient, intelligent dragons.

Nothing original under the sun? To say that implies a complete lack of imagination. There’s plenty new out there for you to come up with.

But even then, that isn’t to say that you aren’t going to see comparisons to other works. One Drink, to choose something from my own stable of works for an example, garners comparisons in almost every review to Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files. But at the same time, most of those reviews are quick to point out that the two are similar but far from identical, with very different rules, worlds, and characters. What many of them are saying is that if you liked the Dresden books, you’ll most likely like my Unusual books. Does it mean that one is a copy of another? Of course not.

Right, so again stepping back—and using the above comparison as a stepping stone—there’s another aspect of this that I want to talk about when it comes to the question of “Original or copying?” What about when you have similar technology, events, or elements of world/plot in two stories?

For example, I’ll use a case from one of my own drafts. Upon finishing the first draft of Colony, one of my Alpha Readers told me that they loved the design of the neural skinsuit armor and the offshoot dive suits (this makes sense when you’ve read it, but if you know my love of power armor, you can probably guess). In particular, they told me that the neural skinsuits really reminded them of the powered armor from … I think it was the Mass Effect series, though I’m not positive that was it, while the dive suits reminded him quite a bit of the EVA suits from Dead Space. The way he described them, you could almost think I’d copied them.

I hadn’t. I’ve never even played Dead Space, and the nueral skinsuits were a lot closer to, in my mind, the Spartan armor from the Halo series than whatever Mass Effect uses. But does that mean that I’d copied Halo’s iconic look and design for my book?

Of course not. No more than you could argue that Honda copies Toyota for having four tires on their cars.

There’s a rule of design, one that applies not just to books, but to movies, games, and flat out the real world, a rule I like to call The Universality of Design Similarity.

Sound complicated? Okay, maybe it’s a little verbose, but it has an important point: sometimes things end up looking or sounding similar not because people want to copy one another, but because some things just make logical sense. Sort of like how most airplanes have two wings and a tail section. Or most cars have four tires. Or most sets of armor, even sets of armor conceived by different, disconnected cultures on opposite sides of the world with no contact, will end up covering the same vital areas and serving very similar design functionalities. Because when we sit down and come up with something, if we’re acting off of  logical thought processes and trial and error, we’re going to wind up with some similar designs.

Ever seen a car with six wheels? They’ve been made. And it turns out, it’s not the best design for a car. It’s awkward, involves a lot of extra gearage … The point is that four tires works perfectly fine and is functional. And when you’re writing a story about people in space, using spacesuits of your own design, well, regardless of what Sci-Fi elements you choose to include, you’re still going to have a lot of similarities between your spacesuits and those used by astronauts today … especially if you do your research on what it takes to create a working spacesuit and what works for that kind of environment.

So, was the neural skinsuit armor in Colony a copy of the body armor worn by the characters from whatever game it was my reader had played, and the dive armor a copy of Dead Space? Not at all. But they were similar, but not because one had inspired the other. Rather because both sets of armor—my creations and the ones from the games—were tasked with providing and achieving certain goals of design, goals that were met by following certain conventions of design based on real knowledge and practicality.

Keeping this rule in mind, then, is helpful when someone draws a comparison between something you’ve created in one of your works and something from another work, either fictional or real. If both you and the creator of that other thing similar to yours followed a similar line of actual, practical design, then of course your stuff is going to wind up looking or behaving similar. That’s the Universality of Design Similarity: you want the same result? You might wind up with something that seems quite similar.

Now, there’s one last thing to discuss here. What if you are actually copying? Not directly or one-to-one, but you get to the end, and once it’s been pointed out to you, you can’t help but see that your reader is right. You really did rewrite the story of … oh, let’s say The Lord of the Rings (mostly because there are published books out there that are pretty much straight retellings of this fantasy classic). Your reader isn’t just reminded of Tolkien’s classic, but flat out expresses that you’ve retold it, and upon looking closely you find that you agree? What do you do then?

Well, there’s no easy way to say this, but you’re going to have to rewrite it and change a few things up. And not just small things, either. If you’ve rewritten someone else’s story, you’re going to need to make some substantial changes and probably a full rewrite to avoid falling into the trap of being either a rewrite or being seen as a “remake of X with a few things changed.”

If you’ve fallen into this trap, step back and ask yourself ‘What story do I want to tell?” Now, if your answer is “The Lord of the Rings” or whatever it was you just rewrote, then you probably need to step back even further and ask why you just want to write that. But if your answer is “An adventure like what Tolkien wrote,” then there’s a direction for you to take things. Brainstorm a little and ask yourself what story you want to tell. What will be different? What elements of a grand Epic-Adventure Fantasy do you need to incorporate, and how will you weave them into your narrative. What sort of characters do you want to have? What story do you want to tell? What story can you tell with the characters you’d like to have? What if you start to tweak the characters slightly? Does it change things?

The point is, if you find yourself in the position where you have copied or rewritten another story, this is not the end. You’re going to need to work on it when you put your fingers to a keyboard once more, and make it a goal to not make your next work a piecemeal rewrite … but that’s what practice and determination is for.

So, in conclusion, while it might be tempting to panic the moment an early reader says that your work reminds them of something else, don’t. That reader may be giving you an honest compliment rather than identifying a possible flaw. Just because there are similarities between your work and another that someone has enjoyed does not mean that the two are inherent mirrors of one another. And, in that vein, just because there are similarities between the two also doesn’t mean that your work is not “original.” Or that you can’t create other, original works with new things, new ideas, and new spins.

Also, as you write, don’t feel that you’re copying another simply because elements of your world or parts of your design end up similar. Don’t forget the rule of Universal Design Similarity. If you sit down and create a spaceship from scratch, based on aerodynamic and engineering principles, and it ends up being similar to another ship out there, well … congratulations, you arrived at a similar solution to the same problem.

Lastly, if you have copied another work or retold a story we’ve seen before, don’t panic still. You can fix it. Yes, you will have to step all the way back, far enough that you’re examining the basic underpinnings of your story, and you’ll have to change so much that you’re going to be rewriting the whole thing … but along the way you’ll grow as a creator. You’ll make a new experience, a new story, as you work at fixing your mistake, and at the end of it all, you’ll be the better for it.

So go out there and get creating. Create the new, the next, the upcoming. Craft with the image in mind of another young writer, years from now, handing their book off to a friend to hear the words “Hey, this reminds me of your name’s book!”

Write. Create. Enjoy.

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3 thoughts on “Being a Better Writer: Is It Original or Copying?

  1. […] This’ll be a short one today, guys. I’m actually still sick, but I really feel bad about missing last week’s post (in truth, my whole week went by in a blur of “ack, bleck, cough cough cough, can’t think, play Sonic Mania/X-Com 2). So you’re getting a post today. Not the one I’d planned (my brain’s not quite functional enough for the more in-depth companion piece to Horizontal and Vertical Storytelling), but a post nonetheless that instead serves as a sort of semi-follow-up piece to this one, instead. […]

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