As authors, all of us draw our inspiration from somewhere. Whether it’s movies we’ve seen, books we’ve read, games we’ve played, or all three, the new stories we tell are unavoidably inspired by the stories we’ve consumed and enjoyed. Just as new artists look to established artists to hone their techniques, and musicians listen to bands they love to guide their own development, storytellers incorporate the stories they’ve consumed into new forms that draw upon and pay tribute to the originals.
Most of the time, this works just fine. Even though we might love the original Star Wars, we don’t rewrite it with the names changed. Instead, we take elements we enjoyed from Star Wars, and elements we enjoyed from Babylon 5, and elements we enjoyed from Battlestar Galactica or Robotech, and combine them with our own ideas into a new space opera of our own making. We throw the stories we’ve enjoyed into a blender and create a new story we love, with the hope others will enjoy it as well.
The author’s dilemma, of course, comes with another storyteller publishes “your” idea first.
Most books, shows, or movies are developed over a period of months or, often, years. Even finished books may languish for years unpublished, especially if the author is attempting the traditional publishing route. No matter how original an author’s idea might be, there is always the chance someone else might have the same idea or get the same inspiration … and they might publish their story first.
This has happened to me multiple times, as I’m sure it has to all of my fellow authors. Clever lines, cool ideas, or even complete scenes from something we’ve written appear in a movie, or a TV show, or another book. These fellow storytellers didn’t copy us … how could they, since our work wasn’t published at the time? … but they had the same idea, and their idea was revealed to the public first. And even though we came up with “our” idea independently, we now wonder if we should toss it aside.
For the most part, I accepted the occasional “lost” idea as the cost of being unpublished, until the day one of my friends introduced me to one of my favorite shows ever – Avatar: The Last Airbender. I loved the show at once, but as much as I enjoyed it, it also left a sinking feeling in my stomach. Why? Because it took the core elements of the magic system from my finished book (which I’d started all the way back in 1998) and half of that book’s sequel, and it made those elements even cooler than my existing idea!
At the time I first watched Avatar, my first book was in the process of being edited by a small press. I’d finally gotten a publication offer, 13 years after I started writing my book. I was stoked! Yet here, taunting me, was Avatar: The Last Airbender. Not only did it use “my” idea, but it took my idea and made it better. It took the elements of Fire, Water, Earth, and Air and, instead of making them spells, had characters summon them using martial arts. Seriously! What’s cooler than elemental martial arts?
Granted, the magic system in my first book was far from original. It was inspired by JRPGs like Final Fantasy IV (the first JRPG I ever played) which introduced the spells Fire, Ice, Tornado, and Quake. I loved the themes of elemental magic introduced in Final Fantasy and ended up building my elemental magic around a similar idea: Fire, Water, Air, and Earth. I had built the magic of my world and even its deities around the elemental theme and now, after seeing Avatar, I was depressed. Every time my characters scribed elemental glyphs, they’d be compared to Firebenders, Waterbenders, Earthbenders and Airbenders. So what now? What do I do with my completed, soon to be published book?
I eventually settled on a rather mundane fix. I’d simply change the names of my deities! Rather than Fire, Water, Earth, and Air, my deities would become Heat, Life, Land, and Breath. Yes, my characters still scribed blood glyphs to summon elemental power when they fought, but at least the names of the elements were different. Problem solved, right? Sure it was … until Avatar introduced me to Toph.
By the time I was introduced by Avatar, I had written about 60% of Glyphbinder’s sequel, Demonkin, and was in the home stretch of finishing up its first draft. I was expanding my ensemble with new characters, and one of the first new characters I created was Tania, introduced for a very specific purpose.
Over the course of Glyphbinder (warning: spoilers ahead!) one of my characters, Aryn, is tortured and left blind. As a student of magic, Aryn can summon the dream world (a mental view of the world similar to vector graphics) but that’s an imperfect solution. In the sequel, I wanted to pair Aryn up with a new character who could help him overcome his blindness, and so created Tania. Another student of magic, Tania went blind naturally at a young age, and thus had plenty of time to learn how to use the dream world to replace her imperfect eyes. During the book, she would teach Aryn to “see” again. A perfect companion character!
In addition, my original cast had covered most of my existing magic disciplines. I had shown off the powers of a Lifewarden (Kara), a Bloodmender (Sera), a Beastruler (Byn), an Aerial (Jyllith), a Firebrand (Aryn) and a Soulcaller (Jair). But an Earther? I didn’t have an Earther, and, just like when my favorite comics introduced a new mutant to the X-Men, I wanted the new addition to my ensemble to have a power that was unique on the team. If you’re an Avatar fan, you know where this is going.
To fill the hole in my ensemble, I made Tania an Earther – a blind woman who uses earth-based glyphs for attack and defense – and, because my other two female characters were heroic (Kara) and shy (Sera) I decided Tania should be snarky and humorous. And then, of course, with Tania well-established as my favorite new character and my second book over 60% done, I watched Avatar … and met Toph.
Toph and Tania remained different characters – Tania is much older than Toph (24), secretly a member of an order of assassins charged with hunting Demonkin (more spoilers!), and has far different motivations than Toph does in Avatar. I wrote Tania as a combination of Aeris (from Final Fantasy VII) and Stick (from Daredevil). Yet here Tania was – my blind, confident earth-wielding mage – and I was seriously considering altering her magic discipline, even changing her entire personality, because my favorite new show, Avatar, had introduced a confident, blind character who was an Earthbender.
Fortunately, this is where I caught myself. I considered the pros and cons of rewriting or removing Tania, and the cons outweighed the pros. Tania is central to Aryn’s character arc and the window into how my magic schools, monarchy, and world at large treat Demonkin. Removing her or changing her would require significant rewriting. After a week of handwringing, I kept Tania as she was, and even though people may inevitably consider her a “copy” of Toph, I haven’t regretted it.
Looking back at what I know now, I don’t think I would have even changed the names of my deities in Glyphbinder, if I had it to do again. Plenty of stories have centered around the elements of Fire, Water, Earth, and Air before Avatar, and plenty of stories will do so after. I got worried about being labeled “derivative” rather than telling the story I wanted to tell with ideas that interested me. Yet scrapping a fully developed character, because I’d just met one very similar, was where I drew the line.
Now, had I seen Avatar before starting Demonkin, would I have built Tania’s character the way she is? Probably not. Yet I created Tania before I met Toph, and decided I shouldn’t toss her on the junk pile just because someone else had independently developed a similar character (and I ❤ Toph). Rewriting Tania didn’t feel fair to her, my story, or myself. Avatar might have gotten published first, but Tania remained my character.
As I’ve been exposed to more and more media, I’ve grown increasingly cognizant that there are no truly original ideas out there. Every story, character, and idea we might have has, in some form or another, been created somewhere by someone, even if we haven’t encountered it yet. All we can do, as authors, is tell the best stories we can while using the ideas and themes that pop into our heads. We should obsess less about whether someone uses one of “our” ideas first, and instead focus on how we, as authors, can create an original story with the ideas that excite us.
Star Wars exists. Does that mean we can never write a story with laser swords? Harry Potter exists. Does that mean we can never write a story where students learn magic at a school? Walking Dead exists. Does that mean we can never write a story where heroes fight zombies?
As an author, forcing yourself to scrap one of your cool new ideas, just because someone has the same idea and publishes it first, is silly. We all draw from the same pool of inspiration, and it’s inevitable more than one of us will sometimes end up at the same place. Storytellers tell stories, and those stories are influenced by stories that came before. We should spend less time worrying about “has someone else done this?” and instead focus on “how can I make this element unique in my story?”
So authors, keep your laser swords and your zombies and your magic schools. Keep them and write the coolest story you can with them. You don’t own that idea, but neither does anyone else. Yes, people may sometimes assume you’re copying others and call you “derivative”, but that’s not a reason to junk your best ideas. Worry less about being labeled derivative and more about telling the story you love.