“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.

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§ 15 Responses to “Borrowing” from other books: how much is too much?

  • beckyday6 says:

    I often get annoyed when people say a book isn’t very original, because I too agree there is no such thing as an original story.
    However, I do think there is a large difference between outright copying it, and taking inspiration from it. Take the Inheritance books for example, there are an unbelievable amount of similarities to Lord of the Rings when you think about it, but as I am reading the book, I don’t feel as though I am reading a replica, because Christopher Paolini has put his own stamp on it, which makes the whole feel of the book feel utterly different from J.R.R Tolkien’s.
    And then of course you have books like Hood which take inspiration from the famous Robin Hood. But because it has the author’s own stamp on it, we enjoy reading it, as if it is a completely new book.
    So to me, it is ok to borrow from other books, as long as the author puts his own stamp on it or his own style. As well as adding other elements, in order to make the book slightly different from its predecessor.

  • Chris G. says:

    It’s true. The truly original is hard to come by anymore – at least in concept. Styles can be changed, however. New takes can be made on old creatures, old plots – creativity often comes, after all, in what me can make of an idea.

    It’s when one doesn’t apply that work, though, doesn’t try to put their own unique twist on things, that borrowing starts to induce scowls. You hand me Tolkien, but with different names, I’m not going to be a happy sort. Sure, many of the “tropes”, as it were, are key to the fantasy genre, but that doesn’t mean one should just take entirely. There is so much one can do within the boundaries of the same themes it’s almost mind-boggling.

    Yes, repetitive plots can grate…I’m actually not a big Eragon-type fan simply because it did strike me as so generic a read (that and I wasn’t a fan of Paolini’s writing style). But that’s not going to bother everyone. Some people like their tales to fit a very certain mold, so c’est la vie in that regard. But even then, one should work to make their own work distinct in some way.

    • R. H. Culp says:

      When I was younger and had read less fantasy I didn’t mind the formula, but at this point I steer clear of anything with orphan farmboys and prophecies. It has to come very highly recommended for me to get into it.

  • Kimberly says:

    I remember reading Eragon and thinking it wasn’t terribly original … also that the book jacket praised Paolini for being so young. I remember thinking “ok great he’s so young and he wrote his first novel, but it wasn’t even that ground-breaking… whoop dee do!”

    Mostly, I just get annoyed when things are so similar cause it’s so hard to keep them straight in my head!

    • R. H. Culp says:

      Yeah. Paolini’s biggest accomplishment was that he’d written a story like that at his age. I’ll be very curious to see what he writes next with such a successful series and so many years of practice under his belt.

  • Natasha says:

    Hi!!! I found the article/video addressing this issue in a different way.. It is speaking about computers but I think it can be applied to the arts (music, writing, painting etc). Essentially I believe at this point in our existence, one is never really creating something new or original… and just when we think we are… someone else on the other side of the world is creating the same thing or something very similar. A pessimist would may we are not unique creatures, creating new ideas alone so to expect otherwise would be naive. I’m on the fence about this issue myself.. I like to think that yes, I’ve been influenced by the things I seen, felt, read, witnessed in my life thus the product of this is my story creation but I do know it is not a new story..not a new idea. I am just bringing myself to it…in the end that is what makes it different. But then when we talk about formula … Joseph Campbell is the master of this. And honestly, I believe what he identified is simply our process of life… as we each go through it. If we are writing about humans or creatures this formula almost always applies. However it takes a skilled writer/ artist to make it unique as possible and unpredictable. LOVE THE POST.. HAD ME THINKING ALL DAY!

    • R. H. Culp says:

      I couldn’t agree more. I think as people we crave a certain kind of story and so inevitably, that’s the story we, as writers, choose to tell. It’s not that we’re borrowing from other authors and storytellers, we’re telling the kind of story that resonates in our soul. Thanks for the video.

  • Jay Swanson says:

    Ultimately I get really irritated with “unoriginal” plots and characters not because the concept of borrowing ideas bothers me but because it becomes so predictable. If I can see every twist and turn a mile away, and the characters feel like they’re bland clones of the generic brands, then why bother reading?

    I think the problem is that people actually focus on being “original” instead of simply telling an honest story. It’s like C.S. Lewis once said:

    “Even in literature and art, no man who bothers about originality will ever be original: whereas if you simply try to tell the truth (without caring twopence how often it has been told before) you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it.”

    Focus on telling a story truly and well and no one will care what inspired you to do so.

    • R. H. Culp says:

      That’s a great quote and not one I’d heard before. I have to agree. I don’t care if the story has been done before as long as the author makes me care about the characters. The movie Avatar is a great example for me. It took a lot of flak because it wasn’t ‘original’ but it didn’t matter to me because I cared about the characters and loved spending time in the world that they created. At least that’s how I feel about plots. As far as mechanics and world-building, I have a little less patience for straightforward borrowing because it feels like the author is cheating and playing in someone else’s sandbox.

  • I might be kicking myself for writing this, but I am a sucker for corny, romantic, thriller novels. One author in particular, Jude Deveraux, is who got me into these books. Every single book is the same. They have the strong, but desperate girl that is saved from the coincidence that is causing them harm, either emotionally or literally, by the strong and sexy guy. The two end up together in the end, some way or another, always. No matter how many of these books I read, I can’t get enough of them. Sure, some parts get a little too corny for me and they deserve a good laugh, but either way, I love the books. Every love story written and scripted has essentially the same plot line with all of the same characters and, by my definition of a love story, they always end up together. After reading so many of Jude Deveraux’s books, I wonder, how many other ways can she possibly write this story? Then I read the next one and I say to myself, “Oh, that’s how.” What about all of the other romantic novels written by other authors? You wouldn’t think there are that many situations you can create that can be romantic especially if they are typically “realistic” but, apparently there are. In other words, I don’t really mind if they are similar, as long as it is a different story and a good one. But, like you said, I’m not one for taking some one elses work word for word. Now, with so many books, movies, short stories, poetry etc. written, it’s almost impossible to come up with something completely new. Even if you think your idea is original, you’ll probably find out that you’re wrong. I know that I would have liked to be one of the authors that got to figure out a new plot line and amaze the world with it’s originality.

    • R. H. Culp says:

      I think it’s especially hard to do with genres like romance and mystery. When you read a romance, you always know what the end result will be. Romance. The same goes for mystery novels. When I read them I’m always on the lookout for who the bad guy will be, long before we have any indication that they’re the bad guy. I did just see an interesting panel discussion with Connie Willis where she talks about the beauty of Agatha Christie novels being that the author plays upon your suspicions as a reader and turns them on their head (it’s a really long video, but interesting. The talk of Agatha Christie and repetitive stories is about halfway through). It’s an interesting way to freshen up a tired genre.

      • I loved when Connie Willis talked about Agatha Christie making a check list of the rules you’re not supposed to break and then breaking them and how she figures out how to make people think one thing without it being too obvious. It happens everytime I read a mystery novel, I can never guess right, which is the point. If I did guess right, I suppose that would make for a boring ending. It is incredible to think of all the things authors do to keep their readers guessing.
        I also found interesting what she said about there being a different set of rules and skills you have to learn for every type of genre you write. It seems obvious now that she said it, but it is interesting to hear from an experienced writer the different processes and milestones you have to go through as a writer.

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