“Borrowing” from other books: how much is too much?
November 11, 2011 § 15 Comments
I’ve been wanting to talk about this for a while, and with the publishing of the last Eragon book and the recall of Assassins of Secrets this week after accusations of plagiarism, I didn’t see any reason to wait any longer.
If you haven’t heard the news, Assassins of Secrets, a spy thriller “by” (I use that term loosely here) Q.R. Markham, was due to be released Thursday and had received very positive reviews, but after it came to light that dozens of passages in the book were pulled word for word from a wide variety of spy novels, old and new, it was pulled from the shelves. Now the bestselling Inheritance Cycle, of which the first is Eragon, doesn’t do anything remotely as egregious as dear Mr. Markham, but still, the most common complaint I hear leveled against the series is its unoriginality.
The Inheritance Cycle tells the story of Eragon, an orphan farm boy living with his uncle, who discovers a dragon egg in the mountains. An old man, Brom, one of the only remaining dragon riders after a purge by a fellow dragon rider, King Galbatorix, sets about to train Eragon in the ways of dragon riding. If you substitute Luke Skywalker for Eragon, the Force for dragons, Obi wan Kenobi for Brom, and Emperor Palpatine for King Galbatorix, you will find yourself with Star Wars. The list goes on, and is pretty entertaining if you’re interested, but that’s enough to prove my point. On top of the plot similarities, anyone with a decent knowledge of fantasy will see the dragons are copied almost exactly out of Anne McCaffrey’s Pern, the magic system borrowed from Ursula K LeGuin’s Earthsea, and the elves (and a half dozen other things) from Tolkien.
The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan, first book of the Percy Jackson and Olympians series, is also guilty of this kind of thing. Throughout Percy’s life, strange occurrences have plagued him and gotten him in trouble. As it turns out, he’s a demi-god: half Greek god, half human. He’s sent off to Camp Halfblood, a place for demi-gods to learn and train, where he makes friends with a brilliant girl and a self-conscious boy. Anyone who’s read Harry Potter should recognize this formula. There are Cabins instead of Houses, children of Ares instead of Slytherin, and an invisibility hat instead of an invisibility cloak (yes, I’m serious), but it’s pretty much the same thing.
That’s not to say I didn’t like these books and wouldn’t encourage people to read them. On the contrary, I enjoyed them both and know lots of people who did as well, but it’s worth noting that, despite their success, neither of these books are terribly original.
To play devil’s advocate, is there such a thing as an original story? As several prominent fantasy authors recently pointed out in a panel discussion, the idea of schools for magic were around long before Rowling and Harry Potter, not to mention a dozen other examples that io9 pointed out (my favorite line is “the Dementors are clearly the Oprah generation of Nazgul”). As for Star Wars, George Lucas is on the record saying that he drew inspiration for Star Wars straight from the heroic cycle and various mythologies (not to mention R2D2 and C-3PO who are lifted directly from the Japanese film The Hidden Fortress). By that reasoning, who’s to say that Christopher Paolini, author of Eragon, didn’t just draw from the same source material Lucas did? And I challenge you to think of any modern fantasy book that doesn’t draw at least some inspiration from The Lord of the Rings.
So what’s the balance to strike? What makes a story “original” when everything has seemingly been done? Do repetitive plots bother you? Do you even notice them? If people love these derivative books is there even a problem? If you’re a writer, do you worry about this?
In an exciting aside, my first short story, How to Run a Five-Star Restaurant in the Capital of the Elf Kingdom is being published today, by Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine. As you can likely surmise from the story’s title, it’s a very serious discourse on the restaurant business… in fantasy kingdoms… Head on over to Andromeda Spaceways to check it out. It should be available sometime today, but I don’t know exactly when. I’d love to hear what you think.