Borrowing & Sharing Ideas In Fiction - When It's Okay, & When It Isn't
Back when Eragon came out, many critics of the book complained that it was essentially a ripoff of Star Wars and Lord of the Rings with a dash of Dragonriders of Pern. Many fans countered that everything is derivative of something, so it shouldn’t matter.
Meanwhile, you have people who fuss and fret over whether their stories, worlds, or characters are original enough. They worry that someone else out there has already done something similar, believing that their work must be completely original to be good or to stand out.
Both views are equally wrong and potentially harmful. On the one hand, it’s really not acceptable, nor is it even a good idea to completely copy from others. On the other hand, while originality is definitely good, it’s absolutely false that a work has to be 100% original to be considered good, and originality is no guarantee of success. Also, the odds that you’ll be able to produce something completely unlike anything else are extremely low, so if you spend all of your time worrying over whether your work is original or not, you’ll very likely never end up with a finished product - or when you actually do, it’ll turn out that someone else independently came up with the same ideas and actually got around to publishing them first.
So the question is: when is it okay to borrow and share elements with another story, and when is it not?
Borrowing - when is it acceptable, and when is it not?
The problem with Eragon wasn’t just that it was similar to other works. The problem was that the similarities were so blatant and the story so poorly-written that many readers felt like they were getting a very poor imitation of these works. Had the characters been better, had the worldbuilding been a little more solid, and had certain plot elements been more believable, they might have felt very differently about it.
On the other hand, the sci-fi show Stargate SG-1 had many similarities to the Star Trek franchise - the plot followed a cast of characters who went around exploring new planets and getting into interstellar trouble, and many of the show’s plot premises were very similar to those found in Star Trek. But the show was more than that - it had a cast of likeable characters who were fun enough to watch that the similarities in plots could often be forgiven. And because the characters’ personalities were different from the characters in Star Trek, they would react to these very similar plots in different ways from the Star Trek characters. Stargate SG-1 also featured more humor than Star Trek did, which in some cases made the show appeal to those who found Star Trek too dry and dull. Also, while Stargate SG-1 bore many similarities to Star Trek, it didn’t copy from Star Trek note for note - which is what many people felt Eragon had done with Star Wars.
Simply borrowing or sharing elements isn’t a problem. It’s a problem when your audience feels like they’re getting an inferior version or a replay of something they’ve already experienced. It's also a problem when it’s clear that a writer simply borrowed something from another story because xe thought it was cool and didn’t stop and think out whether it actually made sense or really added anything of value to xir own story, or when xe just assumed it had to be part of that kind of story and didn't question its presence too much even though it ended up being unnecessary or even nonsensical in the grand scheme of things.
So if you're borrowing something from another story, you need to ask yourself: why does that thing exist in your story, and why do things work that way in your story's universe? For example, Sailor Moon made it fairly clear why the sailor senshi had to fight while being teenagers (the bad guys were here now and even though the sailor senshi were teens, they were the only ones who could fight them), but the characters in Tokyo Mew Mew were magical girls for no other real reason than it was a magical girl story. (Why not augment willing adults with animal DNA to enable them to fight the bad guys, rather than unconsenting children?)
How old ideas can be dusted off and freshened up
Just because something’s been done before doesn’t mean it can’t be good - quite the contrary! If an old idea is handled with love and care, something exceptionally good can be made from it.
Long before Harry Potter came there were stories about wizards and stories about children attending boarding school. However, up until that point there had been very few stories about boarding schools for wizards.
When Stan Lee created the Fantastic Four, the Hulk, Iron Man, and Thor in the early 60’s, superheroes had been around for decades. But Stan Lee brought a new element into the superhero genre - he made his characters three-dimensional human beings with flaws and real-world problems. Before that point, superheroes had been fairly flat characters, with the heroic actions of the superhero persona being more important than the human behind it.
The magical girl anime Puella Magi Madoka Magica shared many things in common with Sailor Moon and other magical girl stories, but it wasn't a story about magical girls simply for the sake of having a story about magical girls. Its universe was very well thought-out and it told a story about magical girls that hadn't been told before. Indeed, the question of why it had to be teenage girls was answered in a brilliant, if dark way.
Compare The Tenth Kingdom with Once Upon A Time. Both are based on the premise that fairytale characters live in another realm apart from our own. Both feature heroines with abandonment issues. Both feature an evil queen as a villain. But you’d be hard-pressed to find many people who call Once Upon A Time a ripoff of The Tenth Kingdom, because isn’t. The Tenth Kingdom has a much simpler, and even more comedic story (though it’s not without drama). It features characters from our world going to the fairytale world and having adventures there, whereas Once Upon A Time features fairytale characters trapped in our world and in general dealing with a different set of challenges.
Long story short, it’s not the ideas and elements you use for your story so much as how you use them - as long as they properly fit the world you're writing and people don't feel like they're getting a cheap knockoff or a note-by-note replay of something else, you're probably fine.
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