My lovely friend Lauryn April (lovely in all senses of the word) recently wrote a blog post about plagiarism and every author’s fear of being accused of ‘copying’ ideas, characters, key situations, etc.
I found it thought provoking; it is excellently written and well worth any author’s reading. It is absurd that readers and reviewers should accuse writers of stealing ideas, characters, etc, for one simple reason – there are no original plots or characters.
Another writer friend, Mari Biella, was kind enough to state recently that she thought that in deliberately using cliché in my e book ‘That Scoundrel Emile Dubois’ I had managed to make the problem of the hackneyed in the horror genre into a strength, and I was immensely flattered.
That is my way of coping with the problem, the sideways wink at the readership:
Lord Ynyr: I would remind you, Lucien, that we are not in a Gothic novel now.
Lucien: That is hard to believe, Your Lordship, down at Plas Planwydden.
However, we can’t always be revelling in the clichéd, and this is a problem that worries a lot of writers, so on this question of originality…
Now, when I started writing this article, I thought I was going to be a wise guy and write down a list of the basic plots, which were famously set out by someone about two hundred years ago and which are general.
I thought I had the list to hand in the one interesting thing in a boring How To booklet from a writing course from a body I won’t name full of sententious advice that I bought years ago, hated, and didn’t finish – but if I do have that booklet, it’s up in the attic somewhere, and the one I have to hand doesn’t list them.
This being so, I’ll have to work them out myself. I think it said, thirteen. Hmm. I suppose, thinking about it, as all the how to books emphasize conflict, all the plots are essentially about different sorts of conflict. (nobody emphasizes that better than James N Frey in ‘How to Write a Damn Good Novel’. he won’t hear me, but thank you, James N Frey; love that attitude!)
Conflict as man loves women, she doesn’t love him.
Conflict as women loves man, he doesn’t love her.
Conflict as though man and women love each other, there are external problems.
Conflict over loss of honour or social status and trying to regain it.
Conflict over seeking honour and social status
Conflict with nature
Conflict with the supernatural
Conflict with other people, family, etc
Conflict over loss of friendship
Conflicts caused by loss and time
Conflicts caused by clashes with authority, the law, the army, etc
Conflict, conscious or unconscious, within the protagonist’s own self
Conflict over unattainable goal
Conflict over goal attained and no longer desired
This is all just off the top of my head, and I’m sure I’ve left important ones out. Now, that just about wore me out; I don’t like thinking too much these days. Anyway, you get the general idea; plots are very general.
Now I’ve got a list from the web, which was the one I thought I had to hand; here it is.
1. Supplication (in which the Supplicant must beg something from Power in authority)
3. Crime Pursued by Vengeance
4. Vengeance taken for kindred upon kindred
7. Falling Prey to Cruelty of Misfortune
9. Daring Enterprise
11. The Enigma (temptation or a riddle)
13. Enmity of Kinsmen
14. Rivalry of Kinsmen
15. Murderous Adultery
17. Fatal Imprudence
18. Involuntary Crimes of Love (example: discovery that one has married one’s mother, sister, etc.)
19. Slaying of a Kinsman Unrecognized
20. Self-Sacrificing for an Ideal
21. Self-Sacrifice for Kindred
22. All Sacrificed for Passion
23. Necessity of Sacrificing Loved Ones
24. Rivalry of Superior and Inferior
26. Crimes of Love
27. Discovery of the Dishonor of a Loved One
28. Obstacles to Love
29. An Enemy Loved
31. Conflict with a God
32. Mistaken Jealousy
33. Erroneous Judgement
35. Recovery of a Lost One
36. Loss of Loved Ones.
Much better than mine, I think, and it inspires you at once; but again, you see what I mean. That is all the plots there are; thirty-six…
What fills them out is characterisation, historical setting, vocabulary, humour, style, etc.
And here the minefield begins. How many original characters are there?
None again. I suppose we MIGHT write about an original character, if we wrote about someone, say, whose only interest in life was keeping a pet spider, who had an obsessive need to count pillar boxes, and who went about wearing a pair of football boots, a grass skirt, and a top hat – but how many people would want to read about such an individual? (On this note, I have to say that I always wanted to read a story someone described to me about a man who did nothing but sit with his feet up all day resting on a door knob; I was never able to track this story down; I don’t think even my friend Thomas Cotterill could, though he located ‘The Outcast of the Family’ for me).
How many original situations are there? Very few again, unless we chose to write about something totally recondite.
So, if we want to write about people who have a reasonable appeal, and write about interesting situations, by definition we must write about something that has been used before – many times; many, many times.
The whole thing is, how this theme is treated.
As Lauryn says – it isn’t plagiarism to use an idea that has been used recently, because almost certainly that idea was explored several times before that recent use of it.
The originator of the vampire story was not Bran Stoker in ‘Dracula’, or Sheridan la Fanu in ‘Carmilla’ or the writer of ‘Varney the Vampire’ J M Rymer, or even Dr Polidori in his novella ‘The Vampyre’ written in a competition with Lord Byron and Shelley. We have no idea who it was – the traditional vampire legends in Eastern Europe go back many centuries.
So I don’t think reviewers should be eager to accuse writers of ‘copying ideas’ too quickly. As Lauryn says, it can’t be avoided.