How to avoid the lure of other people’s ideas in your stories

A few years ago I fielded an approach from someone who’d penned a short story and wanted to know what I thought of it. I had a look. ‘Well,’ I explained, ‘good story, but you need to make up characters of your own. Don’t use the ones J K Rowling invented.’

Wright_Typewriter2It’s not just the fact that Rowling’s characters – or, for that matter, Gene Roddenberry’s – are the intellectual property of their authors and that using them is – technically – stealing. It’s the fact that using somebody else’s characters is naff. It smacks of lack of imagination. Writers need to make up characters of their own.

The same’s true of that awesome scene from The Latest Hit Movie that you just HAVE to end up working into your own story. A derivative scene is usually the fastest way to kill the suspension of disbelief – the emotional entanglement the reader has with the story. I still remember reading a story by a quite well known sci-fi author – it had been published, and everything – and thinking ‘hey, this whole plot is Casablanca!’. Killed the story stone dead.

So why does it happen? One of the main reasons, I think, is that some people are captured and inspired by the emotional response they get – particularly – from movies or TV. But instead of analysing how the scene or characters provoked that response, they look instead to the surface narrative or features that inspired them – and trigger their own writing from that.

Again, apart from the derivative aspects, the risk here is that a film provokes emotion in particular ways. You can’t directly translate those into the written word.

So the onus is on writers to look deeper – to explore why it is they feel so inspired, or fulfilled, or validated, by something they’ve just experienced in another medium. The answer, always, will be in the interaction they have had with the scene or setting. And it is those reasons that will inspire readers – but they have to be clothed in a very different form. Otherwise the writer’s just plagiarising.

It’s that principle of having a good foundation – that emotional response – but building a unique superstructure on top.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015


4 thoughts on “How to avoid the lure of other people’s ideas in your stories

  1. The issue that worries me is something buried in the subconscious that you draw from years after you’ve long forgotten the original. I’ve found this with character names; you think you’ve thought of something original and then watch a film you haven’t seen for twenty years and there’s someone with a very similar name.

    And then there’s coincidence.After self publishing a novel called We Are Toten Herzen, which includes three female vampires (one called Susan Bekker), I came across a film called We Are the Night about three female vampires, (directed by Christian Becker)!


    1. Yes. And there’s the problem non-fic writers have where they’ll paraphrase or part-copy someone’s material in notes, come back to the notes forgetting it’s a copy, and end up with someone else’s wording in their book. It’s a known risk.

  2. Good points. I know a lot of fanfiction writers (people who write about characters created by other authors) who have recently tried to transition into writing original works. When writing stories based on a world another author has already built, there is already an expectation that the reader understands the setting, the characters, etc.

    Writing work based on another author’s writing can be a valuable exercise–for example, it can help a budding writer figure out their own authorial voice. However, it can also hurt writers who need to learn how to introduce their own characters and settings.

    1. I agree – using somebody else’s work can be a good learning exercise – if you deconstruct it properly, you can figure out how they did it. I’m not sure that all writers who fan-fic actually do use it as a learning device; I suspect for a number, it’s entertainment – a way of extending the emotion they feel from watching or reading the fictional world and characters they’re copying. And as you say, once the lesson HAS been learned, it’s time to move on. There is no substitute for creating one’s own characters and original stories – it’s a hard row to hoe, and there are no short-cuts. But once mastered, the writer is definitely on their way.

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