I got this posted to the comments a few days ago. My answer got really big so I turned it into another Ask Correia post on writing! 😀
Mr. Correia, like the poster above, I, too, am interested in a career in writing, but I have a bit of a different issue. Back in December, either Ace of Spades HQ or Instapundit (quite possibly both) linked to “An Opinion on Gun Control” and I duly read it. Having never heard of you or your work, I kept poking around your site and then picked up a copy of the Monster Hunters omnibus, partly because the series sounded awesome and partly because there were some vague similarities to a book idea I’ve been working on off and on for a couple years now (work and life have intervened, but I have somewhere between 20-30 pages of outlines and about the same number of pages written).
As I read first three Monster Hunter novels, I became increasingly more horrified over the number of surface level similarities (easily a dozen or so) between your books and the ideas I have on paper and in my head. The meat of what I’m working on is very different, but a good number of points are way too similar for my taste. I’m deathly afraid of accidentally ripping you off, or appearing to do so intentionally, so do you have any suggestions for what to do? I’ve already had to shelve 50 pages of rough draft a few years back when I happened to find a book at my local Barnes & Noble that was too close to that particular idea for my comfort (that book was a Da Vinci Code ripoff and mine was more of a spaghetti western set during the surge in Iraq, but both involved Alexander the Great’s mummified remains). I’m a bit at a loss for what to do, so any help would be greatly appreciated. Thanks.
That is a really good question. All fiction writers, aspiring or pro, are going to run into this at some point. How do you avoid unintentionally ripping somebody off? No real novelist wants to do this. We all want to tell a story, but sometimes we learn that something we thought was new really wasn’t, so then what?
Okay. First off, don’t worry about it. Yes. Plagiarism is bad. But we’re not talking about plagiarism, we’re talking about similar ideas, not outright copying. If you are straight up copying somebody else’s work you are scum.
We are talking about ideas. You don’t want to use somebody else’s ideas. That is a noble sentiment. There is one problem with this however. Anything you think of, no matter how original it might seem, something similar has been done before.
Think of any current book, comic, movie, or TV show that you like. Odds are that there is some element of that story which has been done before. Is this a rip off? Probably not. Far more likely is that humans have been creating stuff for a very long time, and if you have thought of it, one of the millions of creators that came before you thought of it as well.
So go ahead and write it. Just make sure you put your unique spin on it. Give it your voice. Flavor it to your taste. By the time you are done it will have turned into its own original thing.
For example, I’ve seen people post reviews of MHI, and then somebody else will say in the comments, “Well that sounds just like Hell Boy/Buffy/Men in Black/Supernatural/1000 other things where people secretly fight monsters!” Yes. And the fact that you can name a whole bunch of things that have a similar basic idea shows that idea is commercially viable. Now once you read MHI and compare it to any of those you see that it is a different take on an idea that has been around for a very long time. I’m pretty sure I’ve got the only one about libertarian gun nut contractors in Alabama who deal with trailer park elves and gangster gnomes.
Stories are more than one particular idea. They are a whole bunch of ideas and characters and situations crammed together into one book. Sometimes you will have ideas that are very similar to one particular other creation, but which are totally different in other ways. Once again, that’s fine, because it is all about the personal spin you put on it.
For example, in the Grimnoir Chronicles, I’ve got this 1930s pulp setting where people have magic. However, I set it up so that magical people only have one type of magic that dinks around with one area of the laws of physics (and if you read this fantasy, you realize that it is actually sci-fi in a very weird way). Because people have only one area then the magic system has a very super hero vibe. So when I introduce the government wanting to register these magical people and throw the unruly ones into camps, I get accused of superficially ripping of X-Men by a couple of reviewers.
Except that wasn’t even what I was going for, since the government loves to register everything so they can control it (and Grimnoir is actually a very political series), and the idea of the government throwing 140,000 Americans into camps without due process because they are different and scary isn’t that far fetched, especially when you consider the president I was writing about was FDR… You know… The guy that actually threw 140,000 Americans into camps without due process because they were different and scary… Heck. I even used the same camps like Topaz and Minidoka and some folks still missed that.
I get some reviewers who said I stole the idea from the X-Men, when actually I stole it from history, and I’ve got a sneaky feeling that whoever created that story idea for the X-Men probably was familiar with FDR rounding up all the of the Japanese (because for the record, FDR was a jackass).
Not that me and the Marvel Universe aren’t square anyway, since the weekend Avengers came out I had 200 some odd emails asking me what I thought of the ending. I said that I really enjoyed SPOILER ALERT tossing a nuke through an interdimensional portal to cut off an invasion so much that I wrote it as the finale for a book and I liked the hero floating through space after going through an alien portal so much that I ended another novel too!
Do I think Joss Whedon copied MHI and MHV for that scene in the Avengers? Of course not. It was just too awesome not to do. I’m pretty sure that if you looked through the history of sci-fi, something similar had been done before as well, because if it is awesome, then somebody thought of it.
Another example… In Hard Magic, Jake Sullivan, who can control gravity, gets into a fight in a hotel hallway, and keeps shifting the pull of gravity’s direction against his opponent. Also in the same book, there’s another scene where he lightens gravity so that he can scale up an elevator cable quickly… So obviously when this book came out right after Inception I started getting slammed with LARRY CORREIA RIPPED OFF INCEPTION!!! WAAAAAAAH reviews. Except that the advanced reader copies of Hard Magic came out months before the movie did.
No relation. Similar ideas, but that’s it. When you actually compare the two, they really aren’t that similar at all, except that some doofus on the internet will always be counted on to whine. But these are the same people that thought Lord of the Rings like totally ripped off Harry Potter.
Agents and publishers get query letters all of the time saying “this idea of mine is so original and has never been done before!” and then they yawn as they read about a boy with a destiny who goes on a quest to defeat the dark overload by reclaiming the magic macguffin. But the good versions of that story will still sell and get published because people like to read that story.
If you think your idea is so super original, it probably isn’t, and you probably just haven’t read enough books to realize it.
There are very few works that are truly awesomely amazeballs original. And often these works suck and are incomprehensible. Have you seen The Fountain by Darren Aronofsky? That is a truly original, visionary hour and a half of WTF? (and now Hugh Jackman is Buddha, wait… now he’s a conquistador… Only the conquistador is growing flowers out of his chest!)
Go to TV Tropes and read. These things are tropes because they work. They reappear often because human beings have been eating up stories for a very long time, and storytellers have learned tricks that work.
So don’t get too hung up on this. Write your story. No matter what you do, or how original you think you are, somebody, somewhere, is going to find some element of your story that is similar to something else that has been created before. All that matters is that you tell the best story possible.
Okay, what if you are “inspired” by somebody else’s ideas? And you write something with ideas that are very similar? Well, that depends. I once got ripped off by a little game company, where the scenario was the freighter scene from MHI, they’d changed French to Russian, changed the characters names, and then pretty much everything else was the same… That was bad.
A good example? Yojimbo, Fistful of Dollars, and Last Man Standing aren’t just inspired by, they are the same exact story. Only the original was samurai, the next was cowboys, and the last was gangsters, and all three are drastically different movies. And the crazy part? Yojimbo was based on the novel Red Harvest by Hammett which was a gangster story. So the whole thing went full circle.
I’m excited by the previews for Pacific Rim, but I always get people saying “Well that’s just a rip off of Gundam/Robotech/various giant Robots fighting monsters stories!” Yes… But it has Giant Robots punching Godzillas while Luther gives a motivational speech! Sign me the hell up.
So tell the best story that you can, and make it your own. That’s the important thing.