As a result of last week’s post, I ended up in what I thought an interesting email exchange about worldbuilding, and stealing ideas. What’s stealing when it comes to ideas? It’s clear that though the text doesn’t change, we don’t all read the same book, so what about our understanding of, and use of, ideas? And does ‘ideas’ include people, events, and paradigms, whether real or fictional?
Such a broad question, I thought it might be fun to look at it from a few perspectives.
James D. Macdonald of Yog’s Law sometimes jokes that one of his other Laws is: If you are going to steal, steal from the best.
By that he means, use the tactics and strategy of the Battle of Salamis Bay if you’re going to posit a naval attack on a coastal city with a narrow access. He means, use the myth of Orpheus if you’re thinking of playing with themes of death and rebirth. Read up on Genghis Khan and his Mongols if you’re thinking of forming a story around a bunch of fast-moving space pirates who strike asteroid outposts and run.
So that’s deliberate adopting—taking some sort of historical fact, person, situation, cultural idea, and reshaping it for fiction.
Adoption also seems to extend to tropes. These appear to go in waves of popularity. Urban Fantasy in particular; for a time everyone seemed to be doing elves and the Sidhe followed by everyone doing vampires followed by everyone doing demons.
One question I’ve found cropping up is: Is there such a thing as unconscious stealing?
In a discussion of favorite books a year or two ago, someone commented about how a current popular writer had developed a clever twist on elves (“can’t create”), but some of us oldsters pointed out that the twist was introduced by Elizabeth Marie Pope in The Perilous Gard back in the mid-seventies.
It was suggested that the author in question had probably read Pope as a kid, and forgot the book in subsequent reading, so when she came to write her book, the twist seemed to be hers. When we’re kid readers, we can get so passionate we’ll read a book over and over, then move on. The book sinks into unconscious memory rather than conscious, and becomes part of one’s creative landscape.
How many writers here have written something—fictional or an idea of some kind—that leaped into the brain as whole, unique, individual. . . . and after you chance to reread an old favorite, ooops, you discover your nifty idea right there in print? The original may even read badly now—very different—but you still recognize the source.
That’s happened to me with some of the stuff I read before I was ten, then didn’t look at again for decades. Like Enid Blyton’s Adventure series. Rereading the books forty years later (and squinting to try to recapture that pulse-pounding joy of my nine year old self) led me to scenes that laid unsettling palimpsests behind my eyes, scenes from my stories overlaid on these old books. I don’t even know if these brief moments would be recognizable to anyone but me, but I recognized the source. . . bringing me to conscious borrowings of paradigms, characters, or plots—AKA—
Filing off the serial numbers
Readers sometimes exclaim about this or that book, “This is Trek with the serial numbers filed off!” Things I have recognized in various forms: Star Trek, Star Wars, Lord of the Rings (epic fantasy of the seventies and early eighties), Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles (not the Niccolo ones), and more recently, Patrick O’Brian, just to name a new.
Homage? Pastiche? Sometimes the project starts out as fanfiction. But then in developing the side-characters, or the world, or both, the writer begins to feel that her story is changing so rapidly that to try to confine it to canon is to stifle it. So she looks at it, realizes that if she changes Frodo to a woman, Gandalf to an ancient tiger-lizard, and Middle Earth into the desert-archipelago of Snaeb Eefoc, with Evil Z’y’or off to the west instead of the east, hey, new story, entirely her own . . . except readers still recognize the familiar shape.
Some writers have changed superficial details of familiar stories and made tons of money doing it. For many readers, knowing exactly how the story is going to go is a feature, not a bug.
But even in these, the writer is bringing his or her own experience to the tale, or commenting on it in literary form. Sometimes the reader can find hints of what the writer found fascinating in the original tale and inspired her to delve deeper into some aspect of the story that the original writer left open. Or dealt with, but unsatisfyingly. The new story, if successful, is engaging with the original.
It’s interesting to look at reader responses to fictions that seem to be in conversation with another piece of fiction. Like Maguire’s Wicked and the Oz stories. There are some who never read Oz (but who saw the MGM film as a kid) who loved Wicked as a clever story on its own. And there are Oz readers who said, “In spite of the familiar names, this has nothing to do with Oz.” Same text, but reads radically different.
The same has been said about Lev Grossman’s The Magicians being a postmodern, college-age Harry Potter. The reviews at Amazon are interesting for not only the spectrum of reaction but readers’ patterns of engagement with the inspirational material. Would The Magicians have been written without Harry Potter appearing first—or been as successful?
Extending ideas, or fanfictions
Whenever I’ve heard someone say that fanfiction is merely bad rewriting of someone else’s work, I ask if they’ve actually read any. Most of the time I get an answer that boils down to “I don’t have to—I know it’s bad,” but once in a while I get a sneered “One was enough,” or the like.
Which is fine—fanfiction varies in quality like everything else, and even if a piece is universally proclaimed for its excellence, not everything is going to please every reader. I’ve heard Shakespeare derided as a plagiarist of medieval ideas.
Part of fanfiction’s draw is how the fiction brings to it all the hidden power of the canon. The stories assume that you know canon—they are not written in a way that brings you into the world. It’s not that the writers aren’t capable of it. But a person writing a Harry Potter fanfic will not pause the story while Snape lectures the Slytherins about what a Horcrux is. The characters know what it is as well as the reader.
Fanfiction can also work against a writer (see Harold Bloom on The Anxiety of Influence), if the fanfiction does not strike the reader as true to canon, or disappoints the reader in some way. The best ones, though, either seem to extend the canon for readers, or they are transformative, that is, they create a literary dialogue with the canon.
One still needs the canon for context. I saw this illustrated when I looked at some popular fanvids. The vids from unfamiliar films and shows were just rapid-fire pretty actors in provocative poses, with a succession of objects that made as much sense to me as does the placement of seemingly random, sometimes eerily peculiar decorative motifs in Mannerist portraits, all of which symbolized a great deal to people of the time. If I saw the film or show and came back to the vid, the now-recognized scenes and symbols hyperlinked me into layers of meaning.
I don’t mean to overlook the vexing aspect to fanfiction, which is that it is legally unpublishable for money, as it trespasses on copyright. Though I myself wish to protect my own copyrights, I am also aware that copyright is actually a very new concept, flashily modern if one looks at the history of literature. A thousand years ago, everybody who was everybody in the fiction world was writing Arthuriana.
The idea of copyright is taking increasing heat as publishing on the Internet becomes easier than ever. It’s watched anxiously by those of us who try to earn our living by the pen, just as has happened for centuries.
However, this riff is not about copyright so much as the caring and sharing of fictional ideas. Aristotle pointed out long ago that historians talk about what happened, and poets talk about what might happen. If one takes the long view, literature is nothing more—nothing less—than a centuries-long conversation mirroring the evolution of civilization, each generation taking certain ideas, toying with them in might-happen fashion, and reflecting them back for the next generation to take in, and engage with in turn.
There are so many forms of influence, and dialoging with influential fictions, and with one another, and it has been going on for a very long time, some say since humans first took up some ash from a fire and drew with a forefinger on a rock. To shift from scales to quills, Shakespeare was indeed a magpie, ‘stealing’ bits and bones from older sources and refashioning them into such effective fictions that he not only reinvented playwriting, he reinvented us.