The Writer and the Non-Exclusivity of Ideas

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A writer friend and I have been talking about ideas in fiction. It’s true that there are no new ideas in fiction. Everything has been seen before. Authors are simply reassembling ideas formed out of the soup of our culture’s zeitgeist, trying to achieve some novelty via interesting combinations, and hoping that good execution will please readers.

But we often hear mistaken assumptions about our ideas: You based this character/plot/style on…

Now, I had a critiquer read “The Nature of Demons” and tell me, “You based him on Dr. Watson, didn’t you?” And the answer was YES. I actually read up on Dr. Watson while writing the story, and tried to give my main character the same “I am superior because I am British” air that Watson had. It was intentional.

As writers, we sometimes do this. We mimic a character, a writing style (I tried to do Richard Henry Dana in “A Hand for Each”), or a plot element.

But more often, we’re NOT doing that. We’re writing something that’s original to us.

I’ve even tried my best to assure I didn’t copy something that I knew was current. For example, when I wrote “A Hand for Each”, I had to sit down and watch all the Pirates of the Caribbean movies to make sure I wasn’t coincidentally repeating something that had been in one of those. (That’s called suffering for your art.) This is one reason it pays to be well read in the genre. It helps us to know what’s already been put out there.

And yet…

It’s entirely possible that whatever a writer wrote sounds like something else that’s been seen before–without any relationship existing.

When I used to read reviews*, I was often flabbergasted by the things people told me about my writing. Or sometimes I laughed. I’ll put some examples down here.

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1) More than one reader told me that “A Hand for Each” was an origin story for Davy Jones. It wasn’t. The story is set almost 100 years after the first historical mentions of Davy Jones. But people looked at the main character’s name and assumed that I’d meant to imply that.

In truth, I wrote the story with filler names and only chose names after it was done. The POV character’s name, Jonas Davies, came about because I love Erskine Childers’ The Riddle of the Sands in which Arthur Davies solves a mystery. Jonas came from the fact that I was watching Season 6 of Stargate. I needed a Welsh-sounding name to go with Davies, so I just stole Jonas. And thus my protag became Jonas Davies.

It had nothing to do with Davy Jones.**

2) I’ve been told that my main character in “The Stains of the Past” is a Mary Magdalene character.

Well, I can see that, although I certainly never put that there intentionally. It could have come through my subconscious but it’s such a well-established character archetype that it’s hard not to have a few of those pop up in your fiction.

3) One of my favorites: Having “Whatever Else” described as “sexually subversive.”

I’m still baffled, years later. I don’t even know what that means. I certainly never set out to write a sexually subversive story. I kinda see how the critiquer got there, but it’s really not the point of the story. Go figure.

(This is my story that no one wants to publish. I love it, but it will probably never see the light of day.😦 )

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The truth is that readers will see what they want to see.

They’ll see reflections of what’s currently in the mainstream (like the recent post comparing Outlander to Battlestar Galactica–yes, there are similarities, but they’re two separate entities.)

They’ll see archetypes that are well established or plot lines that are common. Seriously, in these post-Campbell days, every plot seems to be the Hero’s Journey, doesn’t it? (Even if the author has never read that book.)

They’ll see things that the author never meant to put there, a result of either the reader’s bias or the author’s.

And sometimes the reader’s just thinking too hard.

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So if you really ‘got’ that subtext in some author’s work…if you caught that one character that’s modeled on another…or if you noted how the plot is just like the plot of book X…

…please keep in mind that you could be right.

Or wrong.

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*I don’t read my reviews anymore, but that’s a story for another day.
**I didn’t even see the connection until it had been through a first reader who said ‘the name is brilliant’. It took me 3 days to figure out what she meant.

#SFWAPro

8 thoughts on “The Writer and the Non-Exclusivity of Ideas

  1. Nothing new under the sun? The arm of coincidence stretches a long way. I discovered a book on Amazon that had the same title as one of mine. I read the blurb and was startled to discover the MC had the same name as mine… and it’s not a common name. (Kestrel).

  2. Nothing new under the sun, indeed.

    A few years ago, I sat down to write one day and penned a first line that I LOVED. So I kept going. Soon, I had a short story. Then it became obvious it was the first three chapters of a novel. I added more characters, including a female cop to play foil to my male wizard FBI agent.

    Then, around chapter 6, someone who was critiquing it told me that my style sounded like Jim Butcher. I’d never heard of Jim Butcher, but since we were meeting in a book store, I picked up the entirety of The Dresden Files that had been published at that time and started reading when I got home.

    To my horror, I realized that his character Murphy — a female cop to act as foil to his male wizard detective — was identical in every conceivable way to mine. Or vice versa, I suppose, since he “got there first. Her physical description, her background, her personality — all of it but the name were the same character.

    No wonder my critiquer said my story reminded her of Butcher!

    (I’ve since changed my character a lot as a conscious attempt to distance myself from any accusation, later, that I lifted her from Butcher.)

    • That’s the kind of thing I’m always afraid will happen with my so-clever new idea!

      I wrote one story based on an article in Smithsonian, terrified the whole time because I feared that everyone else had seen the same article and was writing the same story…

  3. Sometimes it’s Zeitgeist. One year there were at least three children’s books published that were in some way based on the wreck of the Batavia in 16-something. Um? If three were published, how many were written? And why?
    Then one year I was discussing w.i.p.s with an Australian on-line group. The MC of my book “Candle Iron” was called Farren, based on my maiden name (Farrell). It devolved that two other writers, in different states, had w.i.p.s with MCs named… Faron and Farran. How bizarre was that? I know why *I* chose the name, but why did they? I changed my girl to “Allyso”.

  4. Yet another… years ago I wrote a version of Noah’s Ark called “Dreamtime Ark” in pigeon English. (OK… I was young then.) It was rejected by everyone I sent it to. A few months later a book called “Bluegum Ark” was published. Same theme. I didn;t know the writer and there was no chance she could have seen my text or I, hers.

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